The Pursuit of Imperfection


It hasn’t come up before, but some years ago I was a fairly serious amateur cellist.

When you’re a cellist, and you hear that Pieter Wispelway is playing the complete Bach Cello Suites in your home town, you go.

The six suites are the cornerstone repertoire for the instrument, and playing the whole thing in one hit in live performance is a marathon feat few musicians attempt: almost three hours of solo music, played from memory with nothing to hide behind. Pieter Wispelway has been doing it for decades.

You go even if you’ve heard him do it before. I had, back when I was an impressionable teenager who had only ever heard Bach played with the kind of nerdy precision that was deemed to be the Correct Way Of Doing Things, all mathematical formulation, intricate patterns implemented with sublime, inhuman perfection . Suddenly some wild-haired Dutch dude threw this hard-assed diligence out the window and played the dances as dances with what (at the time) was outlandish, daring unorthodoxy. I was hooked.

The guy who appeared in the Angel Place recital hall on Sunday afternoon was not a wild-haired young radical. At 55, he’s  in the position where he can settle down into the comfortable role of an undisputed master of his art.

But that’s not what he did.

Characterised by an austere, understated tonal style and extreme shifts in tempo, it was a vastly more risky interpretation than his earlier work. The instrument spent the majority of its time speaking in modest, human tones well below its capabilities for projection.

The performance was littered with minor errors, literally hundreds of them, stuff that perhaps only a cellist would notice, but the kind of thing a student would dread in an examination: a tenth of a note flat in a chord here, a string accidentally brushed on a crossing there, basic, elementary technical mistakes. Then there were a handful of major glitches, stuff that anyone who was paying attention would have raised an eyebrow at, happening in passages that I could play flawlessly in high school.

And then, he would hit the hard stuff. The bits that young cellists have nightmares about. He ran headlong into material that is brutally, legendarily difficult, and he ripped through it with an obliviousness that had one guy at the end of my row (an alpha middle-aged corporate type who had taken up amateur cello as stress relief) guffawing in disbelief. It wasn’t bravura flair, it wasn’t showing off, it was just making the thing sound how it needed to sound. What are you going to do, hold back because you’re scared?

It was dynamic, unpredictable and utterly compelling. In places, like the haunting, desolate Sarabande from Suite 5, which in many ways felt like the only thing he’d really come across the world to play, it left the hall in stunned silence.  This was an interpretation by an artist who had immersed himself in a work so fully and for so long that he had absorbed its soul and made it his own.

Given that level of mastery, the errors are fascinating. They’re fascinating because someone who could so obviously have eliminated them didn’t bother. They’re fascinating because they were so irrelevant. These ephemeral, trivial little intrusions of chaos and discord into such a monumental performance served only as a reminder of the humanity that produced it, and the inherent trade-offs involved.

You can be fearless and let the soul of thing flow, or you can make it flawless. You can’t do both.  Fear of imperfection in art will kill the spirit that animates it. And a machine that plays music with scrupulous precision cannot do what a human just did.

One Kick: The Sydney Sabre Training Philosophy

Gu Bon Gil Special
“I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.”                – Bruce Lee

Our Training Philosophy:

We are not a clone army. We are all individuals.

Every student training at Sydney Sabre starts by working their way through our 50-Week Course.

  • The 50-Week Course is a primer to the full core repertoire of modern sabre. It covers over 150 technical skills. This is far more than any fencer will ever use effectively.
  • Every fencer needs to identify a personal repertoire of 10-15 skills which they are good at and use successfully. They then need to master these skills.
  • The purpose of the 50-Week Course is to allow a new fencer to identify their personal repertoire.  This repertoire will be different for every fencer.
  • At the end of the 50-Week Course, every fencer should know what skills they need to master. They should know what kind of fencer they are. They should have a clear path.

The purpose of the 50-Week Course is to let us discover who we are.

A bit more detail:

There are two fundamental approaches to sabre training.

  1. The Generalist Method:  Learn a vast repertoire of actions, all of which are potentially valuable. Deploy them as needed on the fly.
  2. The Specialist Method: Figure out a minimal repertoire of actions that work for you. Drill them until you’re really good. Do pretty much nothing else.

The Generalist Method:

This is the conventional approach followed by a large majority of coaches out there. Learning sabre means constructing a complex swiss-army knife of dozens or even hundreds of skills which you can deploy to tackle just about any conceivable situation. On the plus side, this gives you (in theory) enormous tactical depth and adaptability. You’re a robust generalist who can cope with anything. On the minus side, it means you’re spreading your training efforts very thin. For someone with limited time (like someone starting sabre as an adult) it makes mastery of technique effectively impossible.

It also, in reality, means making tactical decisions in a fight is a confusing mess. With so many options to draw upon, picking the right one can be an overwhelming problem. Decision fatigue sets in rapidly. In practice, this limitation means pretty much all fencers end up trimming their own effective repertoires in matches to a modest number of favourite moves, but this is (in our observation) rarely reflected fully in their training.

The Specialist Method:

Gu Bon Gil is a textbook example of what we’re talking about: focused and relentless drilling of a highly limited skill set. Early on in training, the coach identifies what your strengths and natural inclinations are. What you do under pressure? How do you win your points? A core repertoire of at most 15 actions is picked, and drilled to the exclusion of everything else.

You become a specialist with a very narrow range of options which you’re extremely good at. On the minus side, this means you will probably end up in situations where you’re completely screwed and don’t have any backup plan. On the plus side, you can become properly dominant at a set of things that work, and be able to pick between options extremely fast. Hopefully this means you won’t wind up in situations where you don’t have a successful countermeasure very often.

At Sydney Sabre, we follow the Specialist Method. We believe it works better. We also believe that given our function of training amateur fencers with limited time, it’s the only viable way.

Here’s how it works:

Every fencer goes through the 50-Week Course as an introduction to the full sabre repertoire.

  • For each action you need to learn:
    • How to do it,
    • When it’s used,
    • What its limitations are, and
    • If you like it.
  • The goal of each stage in the course is to identify which technical elements work for you for each phase of the game (Basic actions, Attack, Defense, 4m)
  • At the end of 50-Week Course, you should be able to write a list of 10-15 actions which form your core repertoire.

Once you’ve done this you can then proceed to further training  with a clear understanding of what your style is and what you need to work on.

If you’re training with us, this is how you need to think about the content of each class.

Did you find today’s content intuitive and cool? Have you found yourself doing it already in fights? If so, awesome! Write down that your repertoire includes stop cut/circle 5/bind attacks/low line/bounce prep/whatever it is. Did you hate it and find it really hard? No problem, it just isn’t your thing. Let’s move on next week and find some alternatives!

In short: The purpose of the 50-Week Course is to let each fencer find their own repertoire. The purpose of post-course training is to master it.

Everyone has their own path to follow.

 Note: If you’re interested in what’s in the 50-Week Course, we’re in the process of outlining it in the “Sabre Codex” series of articles on this blog. We’re not going into technical coaching detail, but we are covering the big points: what an action is, when it’s used, and what its limitations are.

Whether you like it is up to you.

Why We Love Korean Sabre

Oh v Szilagyi 2017 Worlds. Photo: Bizzi
Oh Sanguk lunges against Aron Szilagyi in the final at 2017 World Championships. Photo: Bizzi/FIE

Regular followers of our work will know that we have a strong affinity for K-sabre. There are plenty of reasons: it is spectacular to watch, we’ve worked with them in the past with great success, and they’re nice guys.

But the real reason is this: They set sabre free.

Back in the distant bygone era of 2008 when we were just getting started in this sport, there was an iron-clad set of rules to follow if you wanted to win.

  1. Be European; or
  2. Go to Europe to train; or
  3. Hire a European coach.

Sabre was an art with a body of secret knowledge which was controlled by an Old Guard of Masters. To ever understand it, you had to go to the source and supplicate yourself.

This was clearly impractical for the enormous majority of humans on this planet, but it was an unavoidable price.

And then K-sabre happened, and everything changed.

Here was a squad who had never followed any of the rules. They never went to the source. They reverse-engineered sabre from first principles and hours of vidcam footage from 1990s World Cups. What they built wasn’t strict and regimented, but wild and diverse and individualistic. It bubbled with joy and ferocity.

The Old Guard shook their fists. They objected loudly to all of this. It was ugly. Simplistic. Unsophisticated. “This isn’t fencing, they’re just fighting like animals”, to quote one particularly memorable rant we heard.

But it worked. It didn’t just work better than it should. It worked better than anything that had been tried before. In an era of increasing professionalism and competition, it worked well enough to claim four consecutive World Cup titles and the current World and Olympic team championships.

Obviously there are peculiar conditions behind all this which are not easy to replicate, foremost lavish financial support for Olympic sports in Korea allowing the construction of a fearsome professional program, but the seeds were sown long before the system was in place.

What Korean sabre showed is that the old rules didn’t have to apply. That’s why we love it. It showed us there was another way.

Now, for all you kids who weren’t around when London 2012 happened, or those of you who may have forgotten, here is what a full-power Korean sabre team looks like.

Take the 30 minutes to watch it. It’s pretty great.

The Sabre Codex 1.6: Defensive Check

Welcome to Beginner Week 6!  Last week, we introduced you to counterattacks: defensive bladework where you both hit and lock out your opponent’s attempt to finish in one supremely filthy maneuver. This week we’re going to take a step back and show you how to use the threat of these actions to force the Attacker into a panicked early finish where, hopefully, you can make them miss completely.

This threatening, fake-counterattack is called check. The basic idea is to make what looks and feels to the Attacker like a legit attempt to hit them, to goad them into a rushed finish.

check parry

You have to be a bit theatrical, but also precise: this is not an exercise in noisy foot-stomping or wild jabbing at the air. We’ll show you how to suggest you’ve got a specific target in mind and make your action clearly visible. But, and this is absolutely critical: You also have to be ready to get out of the way. In tonight’s class, we’ll be covering how to make a good check, and then evade at a common range of attack distances. There’s no glory in successfully goading an attack if it catches you.

The Sabre Codex 0.6: Parry Drills

parry drill


Welcome to week 6 of footwork and bladework! We’ve spent the last 5 weeks working on the attack, and now it’s time to switch modes. We’ll be putting more of a focus on checks and retreats in the footwork session, and then turning the spotlight on to defensive bladework, starting with the most fundamental of them all: the four core parries.
The ability to correctly pick the line of an attack and block it with a clean, simple parry requires a huge amount of practice, and this week’s class focuses on the most fundamental drill you can use to build this skill. The “Parry Exchange” drill with four basic options (parries 2, 3, 4 and 5) done slowly, static and at close range is not anything resembling a simulation of a match, but it is extremely useful in developing the muscle memory you’ll need when things get real. It’s also, we have to admit, kind of soothing.
Don’t go crazy trying to “win”, but concentrate on controlling your actions and avoiding rushed guesswork. Efficiency is everything.

The Sabre Codex 4.5: Compound Parries

Previously on Advanced, we’ve worked on ways to stop the Attacker before they get the chance to launch. Checks, sweeps, stop cuts and point-in-line all have their roles to play in the increasingly arduous game that is defence at 180ms lockout timing.

Now we’re moving on to the last line of defence: parries. Over the next few classes, we’ll be building your repertoire of the most powerful, dramatic and (okay) flashy defensive bladework out there, which should hopefully be able to bring even an experienced Attacker to a grinding halt.

We’ve covered the basic parries in the earlier courses. They’re quick and simple to pull off, but their utility can be limited against a sophisticated opponent who likes to use feint attacks. The good news is that you can turn this kind of duplicity right around and use it to build something to your advantage: compound parries. In short, we’ll show you how to lure the Attacker to a false target, then close the line when they take the bait. In tonight’s class, we’ll be starting off with a simple pairing of chest and flank. Expect things to escalate from there over the coming weeks.

compound 3

The Sabre Codex 3.5: Undercuts

Welcome to week 5 of Intermediate! This course is all about the attack, and so far we’ve focused on feints: making a fake attack to one target to draw a defensive response, before finishing with a real attack to another target.

Today we cover what everyone has been waiting for – the undercuts, aka the Hartung Special, aka the Gu Bon Gil special, aka wear breeches for this class.


Over the past three weeks, we have covered the four main cutovers and disengages constituting the traditional set of feint attacks in sabre. If you recall, feint attacks are consist of a feint to an open target to potentially draw the parry, followed by a real cut to a second open target. Feint attacks are great when the Attacker is on the March because they, in theory, work against any combination of parry, null parry, and counterattack. Feint attacks are long range, have great success stats, and look cool.

So far, we have used targets which are clearly ‘open’ in the sense that they are exposed and not protected by the blade. However, there are two targets which are almost just as open but not so obvious – the inside and outside seams of the Defender’s leg leading to the underflank and underbelly. Because these targets aren’t obvious, and are usually blocked by their front leg, Defenders typically aren’t very confident when trying to defend against these zones. As a bonus (?) hitting to these targets usually occurs at very high impact speeds due to the long arcs required to get there from the feint, and in one case the blade trajectory is designed to use the inside seam of the Defender’s front leg as a blade guide to the target. We’ll let you think that one through.

No cameras please. Wear breeches.

The Sabre Codex 2.5: Circle Parries

Previously in Novice, we introduced the low-line attacks – cuts that originate from below the waist which Attackers use to evade the common parries and counterattacks. Despite being slower and more difficult to execute than ‘regular’ cuts from the high-line, low-line cuts dramatically reduce your vulnerability to defensive blade actions like beats and their angle of approach makes it harder for your opponent to even pick the correct parry position, let alone get there.

This week we introduce the counter to low-line attacks, circle parries. Circle parries are variations of linear parries in that they ‘sweep’ the Defender’s entire target area before ending in the final parry position. The ‘sweep’ makes circle parries slower to execute than linear parries but allows the Defender to catch any slower cuts which enter their defence zone. This makes them effective against low line cuts, which have long slow arcs to a target which is hard to identify. On the flip side, circle parries are not very effective against direct cuts from high line.

parry seconde

In this first of two weeks devoted to circle parries, we go over the techniques for executing the most common examples used in sabre today: circle parry 5 (quinte) and the parry 2 (seconde). Parry 5 is used to stop low-line attacks to the head, upper chest, and shoulders; because of this versatility, it used to be one of the first parries taught to beginners. Parry 2 is used to stop low-line attacks to the belly, flank and underarm with additional applications against point hits. That should cover us for the day, but the instructors are happy to do sneak previews of the flashy variations if folks catch on quickly. Bonus points if you can guess what they are.