Sunday, August 28, 2011

Acquisition of Skill in Tai Chi

                   Short Video  Master Stephen Hwa Intensive Workshop at Buffalo State College, July 9, 10, 2011

Well, our vacation was "Irened" out as the state DEC called us and said that our reservation in the Adirondacks was cancelled...the campgrounds will be closed.  Rick Matz tells me not to worry because being retired from the U.S. Customs Service, means I am always on vacation.  So, while on "permanent" vacation I write....

This  is only conjecture and opinion on my part because I have no hard statistics to back it up but I am trying to make another point here:  

My own teacher states that Young Wabu was dominated by Wu Chien Chuan when they met  and "compared"  skills.  See this link to Young Wabu autobiography.  You should also take a look at this link because it is part of what I say here. Young Wabu was no doubt very skilled at Tai Chi. However, if we say that Wu Chien Chuan passed on all or even  part of his skill (note I did not say his curriculum) I wonder how much the next generation got?  Mathematics are at play here so I seriously doubt if he passed on "all" of his skill. My guess is a smaller percentage of skill acquisition for the next generation. Young studied personally with Wu at Young's house and this training went on for several years.  Young later worked at honing the skills he gained by continuing to practice and teach his own students.  I would guess however, that in all humility he would tell you that he did not have "all" Wu's skills.  I'm sure Stephen Hwa in all humility would tell you he did not gain all of Young Wabu's skills.  I feel the same...

So then we have several generations later and I would guess the skill level is another fraction of what the generation after WCC attained. To complicate things further and  as do I and other teachers of Classical Tai Chi experience, we will always see those students who are only give us a 1 - 3 year attention span and who do not apply themselves at home.  If they are not staying longer one asks were they even  capable of going longer than a one year maybe 3 year attention span?   How much can we even pass on to them (of our own limited skills acquisition).

I saw much in the way of Tai Chi "dance" performed at World Tai Chi Day for about 5 years. I saw these "dances" done by what are presumably long time practitioners, but it is not Tai Chi. One student I talk to called it "Geriatric Tai Chi", I continued with "Paint by Numbers Geriatric Tai Chi".   It is obvious where the "skills" went there...never there to begin with.   I have also   had my own share of  1-3 week,  1-3 month and 1-3 year attention span students, how much of even the curriculum can I pass on to them, to say nothing of skill? Yet, scores of books, DVD's purport to pass on Tai Chi curriculum...but in 'easy' lessons? If it is "easy", how is it rigorous enough to gain any skill, even if we forfeit the question of limited attention span?

Students leave after weeks, months and years, seemingly one might say in that "1 -3 range".  I never hear from them again.  I have a feeling they believe they can do it on their own. I have never believed that.  I also seriously doubt that their "skill" level is increasing on their own and that they just fool themselves.  In over 30 years of teaching I have only met one person named Tom Kostusiak who "came back" after studying with me for many years and stopping lessons.  Tom is a very humble guy and will be the first to tell you that he even lost skills when he stayed away from lessons.  He was very grateful when I personally introduced him to  Master Stephen Hwa, get the DVD set and resume study. Even with the DVD, Tom will tell you that he wishes he could attend lots more lessons but his work schedule and being out of town prevents it.  

The DVD series is really good, it is very rigorous but it cannot perform a critique of a student.  My teacher knows this and has gone out of his way and at his own expense to make himself available all around the country.    I can only hope to emulate my teacher and so I have offered to do that as well when I travel.  We recently held an intensive workshop  that was taught by Master Stephen Hwa and folks came from as far away as France.  I also made myself available before hours and held additional intensive workshops for those that could make it.   I did this in my own studio and the beautiful Japanese Gardens near Buffalo State College and the workshop. 

 I tell students to make doubly sure they take even a seemingly "simple"   correction to heart, even if it is just one will make a big difference in the long run.  In light of that, I don't like to give additional corrections if I see that a student has not applied themselves to the first one. Here's an example:  Classical Tai Chi requires that a foot be solidly planted before shifting weight to it, all students have problems with this one...and also tend to give short shrift to it.  I see students who study for the "1 -3" who still have the problem after I give a correction...even after a year or two.   In that regard, I gave a brief stepping and weighting correction to Dr. Mark Thomasson, DDS some time ago.  Mark is the fellow in the video who is asking the question.  I was very happy to see that he took it to heart.  To top it off, his ability to learn push hands increased from buckling down to just that one correction.  Note I did not give Mark "more curriculum", I gave him a correction, he took it to heart and his skill level increased. 

Even in light of the DVD's and such workshops, how much skill can students hope to acquire, particularly if they do not apply themselves like Mark did?   Classical Tai Chi does not have a huge curriculum, you will not see such things as weapons, 30 kinds of push hands training, Tai Chi Fan, etc. I studied with other teachers before who had big curriculums but I also saw that students skill levels were not "big".   An overwhelming curriculum is certainly no guarantee that students will gain more than a fraction of their teacher's could it be?    I also saw that each and every student was not being taught by the Master personally, in some cases the teacher was not there to even teach the class.  How can one gain skill from the teacher if the teacher is not there?  Yet, I get statements from students who say they (in so many words) doubt the efficacy of DVD's as a teaching tool. 

 Given the problems associated with getting personal attention from a high caliber teacher, what else is there available?  My teacher feels that DVD's and particularly with new technology offer good opportunity for students to constantly watch and replay what he does. I agree when he says that it is like having a teacher for private lessons, much like Young experienced when Wu came to the house. In addition, he provides an incredible amount of rationale for what he teaches.  I met no one before him who would deign to do that.   I doubt if Young Wabu asked Wu, "Could you show that to me 20 times, Master Wu?"  One could not get any  teacher to repeat a move 20, 30 times, could they?  Even so and in addition to being able to play the DVD dozens of times, my teacher Stephen Hwa still offers practitioners the opportunity to make DVD's of their form and submit it for critique.  Why don't more people do this?     Perhaps it is that  "attention span phenomenon" that is at play? My teacher laughs when I say:  "Even with the DVD, someone still has to get up off the couch and put it in the tray". 

So I say to myself: Chances are we won't be up to our chins in skilled "easy" Tai Chi practitioners.  One has to ask, will we be up to our chins in skilled Classical Tai Chi practitioners, which always asks that study be more rigorous? My point?  The "math" works against you as it is, if you don't apply yourself and ask for critique, (even in email, Facebook, Blog, Yahoo email group, etc. ) particularly if your teacher is "out of town", think how problems associated with skill acquisition will might say it is inevitable.


Mr. Martial Arts said...

Thanks for sharing this historical information about Tai chi. I learned a lot of stuff here and I'm also searching for this kind of my report. Thanks!

Barry said...

The difficulty in maintaining true fidelity to the "Internal Art of Tai Chi" is mind boggling. After having been involved in the external martial arts for an extended period of time, and seeing the difficulty many students have in maintaining fidelity to external movements only, and how long it takes to become proficent in those movements. Now, combine that with incorporating true "Internal" movement ! And one should see how important it is to stay close to a teacher who can correct/critique ones movement up close and personal. With out that help one will be sure to develop poor or inerrant tendencies,which only further "adds up" against you developing your skills to their highest levels.