My long-suffering guitar teacher Sid Glick: “Get that tempo down! You always want to rush!” Of course, he was correct. I was poorly self-taught, and he was trying to correct the errors of that self-tuition. Slow…down. “You can’t gain mastery unless you can do slowly what you now do at full speed.”

Fast forward forty years, and I found myself giving the same advice to woodcarving students. In some cases, I’m trying as Sid did to hide the frustration in my voice.
Once I started teaching carving, I had to master the art of slow. You can’t explain what you don’t understand, and every day, most of us do complex tasks at full speed. Such full speed that we don’t know what we are doing, and when called upon to show others we fumble.
If you teach manual skills, you know what I mean. The teacher has to be a master of slow to show the way to the student. The student, of course, is frustrated by slow and wants to go fast.
I thought I understood this. Then at age sixty, I returned to martial arts. I practice a Japanese sword art called Iaido. Iaido is the art of drawing the sword. There was the usual master to student instruction to “slow down.” which I found amusing and frustrating; because I thought I understood that part. I gradually started mastering the basics. Then both my senseis threw in a curve. My draw and cuts need Jo-Ha-Kyu. Jo-Ha-Kyu implies a sort of acceleration in the process of drawing and cutting. Like many concepts, there is more to the telling, but a simple English explanation is slow at the beginning, faster in the middle, and fast like an express train at the end. For something so deadly, it’s quite beautiful to watch when done correctly ( not by me). Let me add that, like many simple things, this is not easy to master.
I didn’t think there was anything comparable in carving. Then one day, I was smoothing the background of boat portrait, working hard to flatten the background with a large flat fishtail gouge. I woke up to the slow initial set of the tool. Then the gradual acceleration into the cut. And, the ending sweep as I added a bit of fast rotation to the gouge at the end; Huh. Jo-Ha-kyu.
I am very much in the early days as far as Iaido is concerned so, I won’t comment further on the functions it has in sword work. In carving, however, there is a feedback mechanism involved in the technique I described. To fast and too hard at the start, and I can dig my tool into the wood resulting in a wedge that can split and raise a shaving. After the initial set, I sense the progress of the gouge and the way the wood responds. I can detect if it drags, pulls to one side, or starts descending. If I react early enough, I can correct it. In the end, I control the rotation I use to finish the cut. As one sensei like to say, “and that’s all there is to it.”

Slow is essential, but the next level is knowing control and acceleration. But, to see that you have start slow.

One Reply to “Speed”

  1. This was a great response to the prompt. I did wood working briefly for my Waldorf teacher training, but enough to sort of see and understand what you’re saying. Quick gouges result in mistakes. We’re eager to see whatever shape we are trying to create.

    And the sword drawing, very interesting! Sounds impossible 😛 Kind of like ‘ol Western gunslingers.

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