I had been fencing for several years when I realized that if I was to improve dramatically then I was going to have to do something dramatically different. I decided to take foil lessons from Dr. Paul Geraci. I knew little about Dr. Geraci except that I had fenced foils with him to my frustration. He seemed to score against me effortlessly and magically. He had been recommended by several trusted fencers, and so I put in the call.
Dr. Geraci was happy to hear from me, and we began foil fencing lessons the next week. After a quick discussion, the lesson began. It didn’t take long–about 5 minutes–before I realized that these lessons would change how I fenced and even how I thought about learning.
Thirty minutes or more had passed, and I was mentally exhausted. For the first time I realized why fencing is often described as physical chess. The simple, elegant movements he demanded of me were deceptive in difficulty. Performing against his instructor’s cues was exhilarating and frustrating simultaneously.
What struck me headlong was the silence. My newfound instructor said nothing throughout the lesson. How could this be? Fencing is a complex series of moves and problems and issues and considerations. How could silence be so telling and instructing? Afterwards, little was said. I scheduled another lesson and looked forward to the opportunity. Now, I was as curious about the process of fencing instruction as I was the act of fencing itself. The simple attack in four was reviewed over and over with no verbal explanation and, get this, none was needed. The disengage was more puzzling than ever, but, before long, I was disengaging with a muscle memory that did not require thought.
These lessons in silence went on for weeks–about six weeks as I recall. I hadn’t said anything to Dr. Geraci about my fascination with the silent lesson, but I couldn’t stand it anymore. Finally, I erupted, “This is one of the most valuable things I’ve done in my life, but I couldn’t help but notice that you don’t say anything. You never speak during the lesson.”
Paul replied simply, “Oh, that. Many of my students have been international, and they don’t even speak English very well. But the lesson has always been done in silence. Talking is a waste of time. Let your blade do the talking for you.”
Following that explanation there was more silence.
Over the years, Paul and I have had a good laugh about my early lessons. We’ve discussed nearly every aspect of fencing that can be discussed, I expect. Still, nothing has hit me as more profound than the silent, formal lesson that has gone, largely unchanged, for centuries. If you want Zen this is Zen.
When I teach I try and follow Dr. Geraci’s example, but it is brutally difficult for me not to talk. I’m a vociferous kind of guy. I chatter away at nearly any provocation. During the lesson, however, I’m working as hard at not talking as the student is working his end of the bargain. The great fencing lesson is a marriage of skills, cues, body language, bladework, footwork and mental focus. It is not about talking.
The lesson is not about talking.
Mark A. Brandyberry
Foilist at River City Fencing