Before you read this, watch the video.
I am serious. This won’t make much sense unless you watch the video.
Ready? Let’s boogie!
If there is anything I love as much as bad movies, it is watching fake martial artists getting smashed. It’s right up there with crunchy peanut butter in my book.
I was twelve years old when I started out in the martial arts. 1982 wound up being a brutal year. The first schools and dojos I attended were about as genuine as a rubber tomahawk.
The first place dad sent me was a kung fu academy where two senior students jumped me in the locker room.
What the kids who attacked me did not know was that I was already an experienced fighter. My grandfather grew up fighting on the streets, and he loved me so much that he became scared I was too gentle. He toughened me up, so he wouldn’t have to worry. Under his tutelage I was dishing out bloody noses in nursery school. By the time I was twelve I was putting bullies in the hospital.
My dad did not put me into the martial arts to learn how to fight. He signed me up in the hopes I would learn self-discipline. Not to fight, but to stop fighting.
I beat up the kids who attacked me in the locker room. Then I beat them up some more. In the end, the owner of the academy said I disgraced the school. He actually told me I should have let them hurt me.
My response to that was colorful to say the least.
Then I went to a Taekwondo school. They had me punch an improperly installed makiwara board until my knuckles bled. That screwed up my left hand in ways that still cause me pain to this day. Dad pulled me out of the place when he realized that I was being used as a body bag. Adult students used me to practice kicking people in the head.
Then a Kenpo school located in a three-car garage… Behind a Victorian house that served as a podiatrist’s office. I passed my first belt test there, but the head instructor was a true sadomasochist. He loved to hurt people – especially kids. I took some serious beatings in that garage. Dean shaved his head to hide pattern baldness. He wore a red, white and blue uniform, light cotton gloves and heavy shoes in sparring matches against me.
Keep in mind, I was twelve – and small to boot.
Getting punched in the head and body by a grown man hurts in any situation, but I was still a kid. Getting kicked in the chest can break ribs. He once kicked me so hard that I walked around hugging my chest for three months.
I still feel those injuries when the weather changes.
We started looking for a new school, and I wound up at an Ed Parker licensed American Kenpo school. I trained four nights a week. I also mopped the place on Thursdays, so I could watch the black belt and Bando classes.
Here is where the story gets a little crazy.
In the early 80s, Ed Parker laid out a system of requirements for each belt test. I would practice the katas, techniques and forms for each belt test – but none of that made me a better fighter. It requires the participation of your opponent.
My real education in the art of fighting came from bugging the old black belts. I came early every day and stayed late. Always looking for openings to pester these men and women for advice.
I learned the belt requirements in class. I learned how to fight in the weight room. I learned how to hurt people in a little area behind the heavy bag out of sight. We worked with knives, police batons and improvised weapons.
By the time The Karate Kid hit theaters, I was teaching adult Modern Arnis classes.
Even Modern Arnis had a public and private side. To the casual student there was a lot of stick banging and joint locks. Behind the scenes, it was the stuff of nightmares. Don’t lock an arm and wait for the cops; break the arm – or worse – and run the hell away before you get hurt. Disarm an attacker and then use the weapon. I was constantly reminded that there were no rules in a street fight. To run away if I could. To hurt my attackers as badly as I could as fast as possible – even if it meant doing real harm. Bite, kick, gouge and break. To accept that I will probably get hurt, so there was no point in being afraid. That sparring needs to be full contact in order know if, how and why a technique worked. That kicks look cool, but do no real harm unless used to take out a knee or ankle. To strike through a target. Most of all, to train until my response to an attack was instinctive.
By 1986, karate had sort of devolved into daycare. Belts were – and still are – handed out as participation trophies. After seeing a seven-year-old black belt who couldn’t throw a punch, I realized it was all over.
It hurt, but I was okay. I was already on my way to winning the banjo bet with dad. When the car accident happened, along with the resulting epilepsy diagnosis, It was time to walk away anyway.
I do not regret my time learning to fight. My training gave me the discipline to practice music. To work. To take things to a high level despite my handicaps. Ed Parker and Remy Presas were kind to me. In fact, Remy was my friend as well as my teacher.
What scares me about the martial arts in this current age is that the kind of intense training I experienced would be impossible today. Imagine a pre-teen in 2020 coming home with broken bones and blood all over their gi. Police and child protective services would be called in a heartbeat.
In the years since, I have watched just plain goofy schools of fighting come and go. None of them seem as efficient or cold-blooded as what I experienced as a kid. I know black belts who can’t throw an effective punch.
The same sort of fake skills thing is also very present in the banjo scene and every other conceivable art.
If your banjo guru can’t sing, improvise or work effectively in other genres of music; well, that person is faking it.
There are a lot of people faking it. Nowadays you can’t even trust the stats. Views. subscriptions and comments are easily bought.
There are always going to be phonies, I can’t change that, but I can advise you to think critically. Learning folk music is not about building a repertoire. The purpose of everything I teach is aimed at getting you communicating and expressing yourself with your instrument. Simply copying a song, singing in a fake Southern accent and dressing in a costume is something children do. Once you put away childish things, there is no need to fit in with a peer group or avoid other styles, genes and instruments. Jam sessions should not be planned out, but instead a flowing conversation where everyone is welcome.
Most of all, real improvisation is exactly like a fight. You can’t go in with planned moves in your head. You can’t anticipate. Let go of expectations and react to everything that happens with an open mind.
Before you scoop your fretboard and plunkify your banjo, make sure you are not one of those hapless souls pretending to fly when fake gurus wave their arms. Approach your craft logically and honesty – and always look for the real-world application of your training. Participation trophies feel good for a moment, but leave you empty.
Dean showed up when I did a book signing in Havertown, PA. We were both twenty years older, but I never forget a face. We stood face-to-face for a moment before I shook his hand and thanked him for coming. He mumbled something and rushed out of the store.
Knowing how to fight is not a license to do so. Sometimes the strongest thing you can do is to walk away. To forgive, but also remember so that you do better as a person. As a teacher. As an artist. As a human being.