Monday, July 6, 2015

Going To Seminars

Photo Copyright Peter Boylan 2014



I hosted a budo seminar last weekend. It was attended by a small, focused group of experienced budoka from a range of disciplines. Seminars can range from very good to OK to a complete waste of time and money.  This  was close to my ideal of what a good seminar should be.

Budo is a physical activity that is exceptionally personal. At lower levels a lot can be learned from just seeing techniques demonstrated. Students can pick up movements and concepts from teachers even if they don’t experience what is being done. At higher levels though techniques become progressively more subtle and difficult to perceive the important aspects of what is happening.

There are lots of reasons for attending seminars. Most of them don’t have a lot to do with improving your skills. That doesn’t make them bad reasons, they just don’t have much with to do with getting better.

One reason that has motivated me to go to seminars even when I was unlikely to get anything else out of the seminar is just to see someone great. In Hindi, the act of going to see a great teacher or expression of divine is called darshan, This seems like an appropriate way to describe going to a seminar with the primary goal of seeing a great exponent of an art I study. The great practitioners and teachers have transcendent skill and technique. It’s a privilege just to be able to see them express their skill in person.  I’ve been to a few seminars for this reason, and a couple of times I’ve had the great good fortune to feel these teachers’ skills personally. The lasting memories from these experiences are ongoing inspiration for me. I’ve had the opportunity to see and feel people who are the best in the world at a few seminars.

Sometimes I go to seminars just for the social fun. I know the seminar is unlikely to offer me anything special in the way of new insights or ideas, but the opportunity to hang out with a crowd of other brain-addled budoka can be irresistable. On these occasions the training is an afterthought, and can even get in the way of the real point of the trip, talking with old friends and new ones. Being able to freely talk with people who share my passion is rare and wonderful.

Some of the other reasons for attending seminars besides developing your own skills are less exciting. For those of us who belong to one of the big budo organizations that use dan tests administered by panels of judges, there are a couple of useful reasons to go to the seminar. Organizational standards are set by committees, and I’ve yet to see a committee that could sit down, look at the existing standards and say “Yup, those guys last year did a great job. We can’t improve on what they’ve done, so let’s leave it alone and go get a drink.” Never happens. Which means that if you are testing, you need to go to the organization seminar and find out how they are doing things this year. Not a particularly inspiring reason to go to a seminar, but if you need to grade, you’d better do it. Go, find out what the judges are supposed to be looking for, and then do it.

On the flip side of seeing what the organization is asking for this year, those big, organization sponsored seminars are usually lead by the same folks who sit on the grading panel. That makes them a chance to be seen by the judges and let them get familiar with you and your skills. Judges are human after all, and if they have seen you practice and are familiar with your skill level, you increase you chances of passing when the test comes around. And there is always the chance that you might catch a personal comment or two during the seminar.

I know people go to seminars for the wrong reasons as well. I don’t enjoy dealing with people like this, but they are always a risk at an open seminar. These are the people who show up to show off. The want everyone to see how good they are. Every moment on the mat is a chance for them to  display the wonder of their technique so the rest of us can appreciate their greatness and tell them how awesome they are. They drive me nuts because you can count on them to not pay attention to what the instructor is trying to teach. Instead they will do every technique the way they like so their partner can feel the clear superiority of their technique and everyone else can see how good they are.  

Worse, the show-offs are there to prove how good they are to every one of their training partners. Anything the teacher asks that might present them with difficulty or challenge is ignored in favor of the way they already do things. I hope that Sensei sees them and intervenes if they do have trouble with a technique, because their response will almost always be to crank up the raw force to make their partner react, even if they can’t do the technique. Forget about trying to figure out the lesson being taught and figuring out how to apply it. They aren’t at the seminar for that. Show-offs are there so everyone can see how great they are, and if their partner won’t cooperate by falling down easily, they will drive their uke down with raw force.  

That makes these people even more dangerous than absolute beginners. Beginners are liable to substitute strength for the technique they don’t yet have, but that’s a stage everyone goes through. After you’ve been through it, you usually have enough skill to protect yourself from the mistakes of beginners. Show-offs though have some technique, but when that isn’t quite enough, they amp up the strength as well, which is a lot more dangerous than the innocent pushing and pulling of beginners. Watch out for show-offs.

Over the years, I’ve been to lots more seminars than I can clearly remember. What I’ve learned is that I don’t enjoy the really big seminars for anything other than socializing. Once the floor gets crowded, real learning and exploration is often lost in crush of fellow budoka and the effort to not get hurt. Anytime people are getting thrown around in a crowded room, or sticks are being swung without lots of space, I spend most of my time making sure I and those around me aren’t getting hurt, and relatively little time focused on improving my skills. I’m not big on organizational seminars either, though I recognized their necessity and function, they aren’t the seminars are really enjoy and get the most out of.

That’s why when I planned my own budo gathering a few weeks ago, I tried to implement all the features I’ve found most enjoyable and which contribute the most to a great learning experience.

One of the most important features of a really great seminar for me is that it be relatively small. This is tricky unless you have a wealthy sponsor, because seminars cost money to run and teachers deserve to be properly compensated for their time and effort in sharing their understanding. Ideally, I like seminars that are around 20-25 people. There are a number of reasons for that size. First, it means that the instructor will be able to work with everyone multiple times throughout the seminar. She won’t be stuck at the front of the room demonstrating something and then having to helplessly watch as the crowd tries to replicate it.

With a small seminar, the teacher can provide hands on corrections to everyone there many times. I can’t overemphasize how important this is. Budo is an inherently personal activity that is learned directly from the teacher, whether it is koryu budo where the teacher is expected to act as uke for the students trying their techniques, or a training paradigm like aikido, where students are expected to learn by feeling their teachers’ techniques. Either way, without that direct, one-to-one experience, it’s nearly impossible to truly understand the higher levels of the art. Small seminars give teachers the chance to share one-on-one throughout the day.

On the flip side at small seminars, students not only get to work with the teacher, but they get to train with everyone in attendance and be part of many different responses and explorations of what the teacher is offering. I like to get to know my training partners. In a small seminar, you can do that. When I go to big seminars, I find that I either end up working with the same 2 or 3 partners the whole time, or I never work with the same person twice. I enjoy working with different people, but I also like getting to know people. Small seminars let me do both easily.

A few things I like at any seminar are a focus on a limited number of key points, having time to make notes between lessons, and having a little review at the end of each session to reemphasize the lessons ideas covered. These are all things I learned when I was teaching school as full time occupation.

It’s important to keep the major points being covered and emphasized to no more than 5, and I think 3 is even better. There’s a good reason for this. Our brains can only hold that many ideas at one time without dropping the others.  As soon as we go over 5 individual points, our brains start dropping stuff, and it becomes difficult to hold onto anything. A good seminar focuses on just a few key points or principles and approaches them from a variety of directions and means. We all learn differently, so approaching a principle from a variety of angles gives all the participants a chance to examine the lesson from a perspective that’s best for them.

The other advantage to staying focused on few keeps points and attacking them from different angles is that students can gain a better, more complete grasp of the points. I’ve been to classes and seminars where the teacher introduced a dozen or more important points. I got nothing out of these experiences because the were so many points that I never had a chance to get a firm handle on any of them, and there were so many different ideas presented that I had trouble even remembering what had been presented, much less any details.

I’ve also learned to appreciate breaks spaced so I can make useful notes. An hour of focused learning is about all I can handle and hold before my mind needs a break to absorb what’s happening.  Everyone is different, but I find that for me, a five or ten minute break every hour to make some notes and mentally organize what I’ve been learning is helpful. The note making process helps me organize and anchor what I’ve learned, and gives me some references for use later when I’m practicing.

A good seminar doesn’t happen just by having a nice venue and a skillful person leading it. It takes planning, preparation and an instructor who is not only a skilled practitioner but also a skilled teacher. Seminars that are too crowded make it difficult to learn. Teachers who throw too many points and principles at participants do them a disservice, since we can only hold so much information before it all starts to spill out of our heads. A modest sized seminar, with a teacher who focuses on just a few key points, and gives me time to make some useful notes is a wonderful thing.



2 comments:

Joseph Tomei said...

As always, interesting post. I comment on this one to note that seminars are, it seems to me, a budo development of the west. Here in Japan, you work with your teacher, you don't generally go looking for advice from another teacher unless you are obsessive or the so-called henna gaijin (which can be translated as the foreigner who is more interested in something about Japan than a Japanese person would normally be, with values of normal adjusted to the foreigner within the bounds of henna gaijin-dom). I often see budo as the weekly pick-up basketball game or the poker nite. People playing pick up basketball are not going to obsess over improving their game, and while the poker playing guy might grab a book or two on poker tips, the goal is the social group working on the same things you are.

As the social nature of the budo group is changing in Japan (it's always a close run thing if we get the 2 or 3 college students to join the aikido club), there is more of this seminar type activity, and I imagine in a place like Osaka or Tokyo, it is possible to find them (as it is possible to find anything cities that big), but it still is a bit anomalous here.

Ronin scholar said...

Darshan? Really? That's a hell of a lot of pressure to put on a (merely human) teacher. My understanding (as a non-Hindu) of darshan is to literally see the divine where it did not exist before. Like in the folk performances of Ramlila (the story of Rama) where children are costumed as Rama, Sita, Hanuman, etc., the audience gets an opportunity to see them suddenly revealed and it invokes a religious experience.

I have seen some excellent teachers demonstrate, but I can't say it ever evoked a religious sense of the divine in me.