Tuesday, September 11, 2012

FMA for 21st century - interview with Jon Escudero

I first met Jon Escudero, a master of Lightning Scientific Arnis, during a martial art training camp in Slovenia, back in 2010. He immediately struck me as a very nice, down to earth person, very easy and agreeable to talk to. However, what made him really gain major respect in my eyes was the way he moves and teaches his style, and especially seeing his students perform. In this case, Jon's students are a true testimony to his teaching skill. Therefore, I though a little bit of interrogation was in order...

OK, let’s start with some brief introduction, i.e. cliché stuff – how did you get involved with martial arts; and then how/why did you end up doing FMA?

The 70s and the 80s were a great era for martial arts in cinema.  Every cliché was pretty much explored.  Everything from Shaolin monks, to ninja and samurai found its way to the big screen.  So I think I just about watched every movie there was with my father.  As a kid growing up, these movies as well as comics and books on fantastic and mythical battles sparked my interest in the martial arts.  There that many schools accessible or reputable around that time so I just took what lessons I could in school as well as fooling around with friends and classmates.  I'll skip to college where training took a turn for the serious.  I was involved in establishing the university Wushu club where I was active for several years until the day I saw the university arnis club perform a demonstration.  It changed my life.  This was this university club founded by Maestro Elmer Ybanez practicing the LESKAS system, a Lightning Scientific Arnis group. It was the speed and power that impressed me.  I've seen many styles in the parks and competitions in malls by then but, this style spoke to me.  

Who were your FMA instructors, and what was the training like?

 The martial arts community in the University was very small so it was just a matter of time until I joined them.  In the university club I trained with different people, but one of those who introduced me to the training floor was Felipe Jocano, Jr.  He was actually my professor in one of my classes in the university.  We struck up a friendship and started training with him and the other guys in the university club.  It was Master Elmers club, but at that time he'd already moved to the US, so I mostly trained with his seniors.  People in the FMA will know them as the younger generation of LSAI  masters.

The group training was very eclectic.  Arnis was at its core, but we'd mix it up with a lot of stuff.  You see, apparently we all came from previous martial arts backgrounds.  I had my Kung fu, while others came from Karate, judo, boxing, wrestling, jujitsu and Muay Thai and other athletic backgrounds.  What brought us together was the stick fighting.

A lot of time was spent at the tire dummy working out various different speed combinations, power combinations with different weapon combinations and other stuff.  Of course the partner training was interesting because the atmosphere was different.  Training was like a jamming session.  You brought what you knew to the table.  We worked our core skills but whenever we thought we were on to a good idea, we tried it out.  We broke a lot of sticks and gear this way.  The group also cross-trained in other activities.  We ran together, got involved in wrestling, boxing , power-lifting.  We didn't concern ourselves with collecting techniques, what occupied our time was training what we knew and making it work. This meant a lot of sparring time and being on the receiving end of many hard knocks.

Eventually, the whole group migrated to the Grandmaster. It was our transition into the GM's methodology.  He exposed us to a lot more material.  He basically threw everything he had at us. We were also some of the lucky ones he took on demonstrations abroad. It was the experience of a lifetime.  The learning experience under him was more than just what you could learn in class.  Many times eureka moments would come from the conversations with him.  Of course watching him teach was one of the best ways to learn, and provided us insights into the development of Lightning.

During one of our conversations in Slovenia, as a response to my comment on some interesting and modern training methods you were employing, you mentioned “giving something in return to the art”. What does it mean, how do you pay your dues, and why would you want to do it?

There are some events in life that can be called life-changing.  Arnis is one of those things for me.  Martial arts is my passion. It is something I cannot see myself doing without.  Arnis has heightened that passion.  It has brought me many experiences and things that I'm very thankful for.  I've met the most interesting people, travelled to amazing places and done some pretty cool stuff, so what's there to not be thankful for.  Arnis changed my life.  So I think that's why I teach.  To be able to share the knowledge, understanding and joy of the art.  I wouldn't be where I am if not for my teachers.  LSAI Grandmaster, Benjamin Luna Lema, and his legacy serve as my motivation.  So I give back to the art by teaching his system, keeping his story and history alive in my students.  Wherever I teach I tell them about my roots.  Whenever I teach someone, I tell them that they're connected to a lineage and legacy and not to just a bunch of techniques.

If I understood correctly, you have a two-prong approach to teaching LSA – traditional and modern/tactical. Could you elaborate on the reasons for this division, common traits and differences? Also, where does the sportive practice of FMA fit in?

That is correct.  It mostly has to do with training mindset.  In a classical curriculum, it is assumed that the student agrees to train in a planned progression of ranks or levels advancing through different technique sets and drills to develop the fighting attributes that the style or system deem appropriate with the fighting philosophy of the style.  It also speaks about the readiness of the student in terms of physical and mental terms to progress to more sophisticated techniques and applications. This is the long term plan.

The tactical class is a concentrated class, something like a high-intensity immersion in techniques with simple mechanics.  In this class we work with the tactical baton, folder and Dulo-Dulo.  We also work hand to hand as well as empty hand against weapons.  The class focuses on short quick techniques that can be learned fast, built on the gross motor sets to bring quick results.  Nothing too fancy, twirly or sophisticated in terms of motor coordination.  Mostly it's the use of repeating strikes at different angles with substitutions such as punches or kicks or other attacks of opportunity.

The funny thing is, in the end, there are no shortcuts.  We somehow meet up in the middle.  Students in the classical class are curious about the dynamic mix on non-standard techniques in the tactical class, and the tactical class sees the value of learning the foundation of the techniques and how it improves their applications and execution.

When it comes to the training methodology, what segments/fields of the contemporary sport training do you find relevant to training/learning FMA, or weapon-based martial arts in general?

I go back to the core attributes - speed, strength and stamina.  Do sports that compliment your training.  It doesn't even have to be a martial art.  Training hard at martial arts can lead to some form of burnout, so sports or games with similar movements can be a welcome break, or even refresh you.  Badminton is one of those sports great for developing agility and smashing power. Table tennis is also great for fine motor development. Sprinting is wonderful for developing linear speed, track plyometrics also develops multidirectional bursts and movement. Doing these drills with variable amounts of resistance and over different durations might well redefine your game.

In mentioning your name with other LSA practitioners (like Bob Park or Shaun Porter for example), they frequently respond with phrases like “excellent methodology”, “good curriculum”, “nice teaching system” and similar. So, what is your take on forming a sound FMA curriculum – what does it consist of; what are the principles and logic behind making it as such?

LSA in general embodies an impressive body of knowledge.  What changed for me though is that I stopped teaching people to memorize stuff.  Instead, I broke things down into redefining why we move the way we do in LSA and show how it does not work against our natural instinctive reactions.  By doing this we are establishing a fighting philosophy or in simpler terms, determining our goal and defining our task (which in this case is ending a fight in the swiftest, most efficient and safest manner available).  Understanding this helps us frame how we learn technique, as well as answer the question of WHY we do stuff.

You have to ask yourself, are you creating fighters or dancers?  What I learned was, you become by doing.  So my classes have more and more involved sparring and this is supplemented by the classical material.  

Logo of Jon's school

You have taught in both the Philippines and abroad. Are there any significant differences between the approach to training among the people back home and in western world?

That is an excellent question.  It is also one of the most interesting experiences I've had. I've learned teaching abroad.  It is easy to take for granted cultural differences and miscommunication can happen a lot of times.  And it's easy to base your expectations on what you are accustomed to as well as on assumptions based on culture. So all in all it's been a very eye opening experience.

The most significant experience, I think, is that you have to represent more than just your style.  In the Philippines it's easy to be very focused and specific to your style because representatives of other systems come in handy readily since you are all in the same country.  Outside, they often do not have this background information, so a lot of effort must be put in to educating them on the differences and similarities, histories, personalities.  Terminologies and language can be challenging to teach and explain.  To me, it's not just about teaching the fighting aspects, but it's also an education in what's Filipino.

What makes a good instructor?

For me it's about balancing the needs of the student with the needs of the style.  Students come for many different reasons.  Health, fitness, love of martial arts, self defense, or national pride.  An instructor should know what experience he's offering and stick to it, put the effort, put his heart into it. A good teacher doesn't teach halfway.

What makes a good student?

Hard work impresses me.  Diligence and perseverance impresses me, sometimes stubbornness as well. Initiative is a good trait to have, definitely.  Being a good athlete is an advantage or having the talent for it, but for me, it's only a plus that they should use wisely.  I’ve seen talented people be overtaken by diligent and hardworking students.
Jon and his wife/partner Neta

Where do you see the place and practice of FMA in ten years? Where would you LIKE to see it?

I definitely want to see more FMA in the mainstream. I don't think there's anything wrong with hoping FMA becomes a household word like karate or kung fu. It deserves it's place in the sun. I'm glad that it has been formally recognized as the Philippine national sport. Maybe now the traditions, efforts and contributions of the Grandmasters will get some recognition.

Any closing words?

In closing, I dunno…  I can keep going on and on and on.  But to wrap things up nicely, to me the martial arts is a path, and this road is only as long as you can walk it.  I'll do what I can to promote the FMA, and for as long as there is a student out there, I'll teach.


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