What Form Are You On? (How to Reach Perfection)

24 07 2016

I always smile whenever I meet another Jow Ga student and I am immediately asked this. “What form are you on?” seems to be part of the Jow Ga language–as it is, I’m sure, a common question when two people from your style meet. This is just as important to respect as saying “Hello, how are you?” because once the question is answered–the hierarchy has been established between them and the junior among the group will know not to try and sound too knowledgeable. If you are from a strong martial arts school, it can be assumed that one can gauge the skill level of the other student by knowing what form he/she is learning. I learned early on that anyone who had moved beyond our system’s beginner level was pretty darned good, and anyone who had finished the intermediate level was as good as any other school’s Black belt students.

This is an interesting fact, because Jow Ga was my first real school and the skill level was very high. I assumed that the skill level of all martial arts school matched ours. As a child I began attending tournaments in fighting and forms, and was used to seeing 100% of my classmates returning with trophies–just as I was accustomed to being the only of two Chinese martial arts schools competing in the sparring division (the other being Dennis Brown’s Shaolin Wu Shu) in every tournament. Imagine my surprise the first time I heard someone mention a guy who was advanced in the martial arts and couldn’t defend himself on the street–or a junior ranking student beating a senior. In Sifu Chin’s school, such a notion was preposterous. The skill level between one level and the next was nearly always like night and day. A common suggestion to traditional martial arts schools was that if you stripped everyone in a classroom of their belts and watched them practice, in many martial arts schools one would not be able to distinguish between the advanced and the beginner. Not true in our school, however. The skill level increased greatly from one level to the next, and we did not have a belt system.

So what is the difference between how we did things versus how other schools trained? Let’s discuss this…

First, let us state an old maxim:

One cannot become a Master Teacher/Master Fighter until he has first become a Master Student…

This article may have to be split up into several parts. The above saying is vital to the difference between our school’s culture and that of most other martial arts schools. I recall visiting martial arts schools as a child and looking at their curriculum to Black Belt. We sat in a sales presentation at Jhoon Rhee karate where an instructor explained to us that the Black Belt would be achieved in approximately 2 1/2 to 3 years. There were a very small number of forms to get from White Belt to Black Belt, possibly 8 to 10. I watched a beginner class full of squealing 10 year olds, and by the end of the class, I had memorized their first form, and recreated it at home. Not so with Jow Ga. First, the concept of “Black Belt” achievement was never discussed. The class had no children. I don’t recall looking at a curriculum, but I do remember the weapons rack containing more than 10 weapons. The discussion was slow and patient, and we were not bombarded with graphics and numbers–only a short talk about the school and the system, ending with my mother being told my brother and I were too young. By contrast, at Jhoon Rhee there were children as young as 3, Black Belts as young as 7, and plenty of pressure to sign up. At Jow Ga, we were turned away. In fact, we visited a few times before being accepted and our training was as patient and deliberate as the registration process. The school I joined was nothing like the “Family Friendly McDojo” we see today; Jow Ga was a musty, hard floored, focused and disciplined training hall for serious adult students. The commercial schools were an alternative to school sports and dance training children; Jow Ga was training warriors.

Symbolically, slow and patient marked the way we learned our martial arts. We were not rushed through a curriculum, our instructors emphasized high repetitions, attention to detail, and having a strong enough spirit not to give up when the body was ready to quit. These items are the key to the above maxim–how to become a Master Student.

What made our school stand out from the others was that there was no rush to get students promoted to the next level. Each weapon we learned came with a set of fundamentals that were practiced for weeks before the actual instruction in using that weapon actually began. Simply learning a new punch or kick or combination was not enough; students honed and fine-tuned those skills over and over and over. Even when you thought you had perfected a skill, you could always come to class and learn something new about that technique. When a Jow Ga student advanced from one form to the next, he or she knew that form like the back of their hand, could perform it blindfolded (as we often did in class), and knew all about the form… every nook and cranny, every nuance, perhaps its history, stories about another older classmate’s experience with the form, etc. When a Jow Ga student asked a classmate what form he or she was on, they were asking them more than simply what form you were learning to perform. The student asked the form because for the period you were learning that form, you studied little else besides that form. Rather than just study Jow Ga–you were really studying the form the Sifus were teaching you, as if there was nothing else to learn.

So unlike many schools, where the “form you were on” was somthing like a chapter or section of a chapter in a book–what form you were on in Jow Ga was akin to asking what course you were taking this semester. I recall a bio of Jow Ga assistant and full instructors in a brochure that was handed to students, familiarizing us with our seniors. Our curriculum contained a multitude of weapons and forms, yet in the bios most Sifu level instructors claimed expertise in only one or two areas. This fact is another factor that separated Jow Ga from our peers. We contained more forms than perhaps most schools in the area. However, specializing was encouraged and practiced. If one wanted to fight, you could attend a weekend class with Talley or Brighthapt or a Monday with Paul Adkins. If you wanted to specialize in Lion Dance, you saw Raymond Wong. If you were interested in polishing up your forms for competition, you saw Deric Mims. If you wanted Tai Chi, you looked up Stanley Dea. When students have this high number of skilled men specializing in various aspects of the same system, students have no choice but to excel, and have all needs and preferences fulfilled.

Finally, I recall that Jow Ga had perhaps 50-60 active members attending classes and well over 100 students at-large, yet there were only 12 instructors certified by Sifu himself. The focus for Dean Chin’s Jow Ga school was clearly on development of the student. Everything we learned in class, whether we learned it from an instructor in the classroom, or a class mate during breaks or in the locker room–was on how to become a better student. There was almost no one vying to “skip” levels or be promoted before one was ready. All students who were in competition were in competition with each other in a competition of skill–not rank. Ours was a culture of discipline, a culture of learning, and a culture of perfection. Under the highly detailed eye of Sifus Mims, Eugene Mackie and Craig Lee, being mediocre was not acceptable. No one was promoted just because of reaching the prescribed time-in-grade. There were no mediocre members among the teaching staff; therefore, students saw their skill as the goal–which in itself was a high level to reach. I never once heard a parent or student fuss at Sifu demanding to know when promotion to the Instructor level would come. Years later, as an instructor for Kim’s Karate in my 20s, I heard this complaint weekly. In the chinatown school, students knew that practice alone did not make perfect–perfect practice made perfect. It was an unspoken motto that all members from Sifu himself to the now nameless beginner all lived by. This is is how one perfected the art, and how you master the art. Not by learning all the forms or impressing someone with your answer about what form you were “on”–but by perfecting what you know, through perfecting the art of being a martial arts student.

At a future date, I would like to revisit this topic:  How to become the ideal martial arts student.

Some parting advice for traditional Chinese martial arts instructors:  Develop your children’s program. I have realized that many of us prefer teaching adults and teens. They are more mature, less fickle, and able to understand more concepts than children. The Chinese martial arts are more complex than our counterparts, and it would seem that turning away students who are too young to truly learn your system makes sense. In the western world, however, students have more distractions than they did 30 years ago. The world is smaller now, more young adults leave the nest and travel far from home. They develop more interests, they now have the option to enroll in correspondence courses and learn arts not even taught in their hometowns. And in addition to that, our systems contain so much material, many adult students do not have enough time to learn and master everything in your systems. If you are enrolling young men and women at age 15 or 16, they really only have two to three years of dedicated, fanatical practice before shipping off to boot camp, college or moving out of their parents homes to join the work force. At 15, you are lucky to keep a student more than five or six years before they are getting married and having children and dropping out. I have had some outstanding students quit at age 17, just when they were reaching my advance level, just to show up a decade later with small children they want me to train–and have forgotten almost all they had learned as children themselves. If you recruit young warriors at, say 10–you will have eight years to teach them your entire curriculum as well as develop their skill to a high degree before the risk of them coming in with a college acceptance letter and quitting. There is so much in our arts, we almost need to train an army of child prodigies in order to see our schools put out the best examples of our systems. Something to think about. Trust me; I am no fan of teaching a room full of squealing 10 year olds. But consider that some of the greatest masters and fighters we have known–Jet Li, Mas Oyama, Wong Fei Hung, Iron Mike Tyson–were all once “squealing 10 year olds”. LOL

Food for thought. Thank you for visiting the DC Jow Ga Federation.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: