Anyone who has taken both music lessons and fencing lessons knows that music teachers and fencing coaches are drawn from the same odd corner of the gene pool.

What is not so easy to see is the similarity between the jobs of composing a piece of music and composing a fencing lesson. It makes sense, of course. Both the composer and the coach are using rhythms and cadences to structure a block of time 10-20 minutes in length, for the purpose of communicating very abstract content. What surprised me is how precisely a good lesson plan tracks with the major classical forms of composition.

What use is this observation? These forms have been in Western culture for hundreds of years. Even those who have never studied classical music have heard them. They do not exist in music alone. Literature, plays, and movies share analogous structures. These narrative patterns are things all western students expect and understand. By consciously following these patterns, you can give the student a subconscious familiarity with the lesson that will permit them to focus their attention on the subject matter without distraction.

(A note before I get into the details: I’m using the word “classical” here in its strict sense: Mozart, Haydn, and that crowd. A lot of music played by orchestras is not classical music, and may not follow one of these forms.)

The three major classical forms, in order of increasing complexity, are Theme with Variations, Rondo, and Sonata Allegro [1].

Theme with Variations

The Theme with Variations form means exactly what it sounds like. The piece begins with a theme that is played through. Then a series of variations follow, in each of which the theme is changed in some way: tempo, key, time signature, instrumentation or whatever. Finally, a short coda finishes the piece.

This is exactly how you give a beginner a lesson. The coach states the theme, “Attack in 4”, for example. Then the student executes the action (plays the theme) from a stationary start, then moving, at different speeds, embedded in a sequence of complex footwork, etc. These lessons are not just for beginners, of course. Twelve years on, I still get lessons of this type.

This kind of lesson is globally applicable in fencing for another reason. A competition has the same structure. At a larger, more abstract scale, each bout is a variation of the same theme. Different opponents provide the variation; the unifying theme is the set of techniques our fencer prefers, and tries to impose upon the bout.

Example (Foil)

Coach Student
Attacks, recovers with parry 4 Parry 4, disengage and riposte with a lunge.
Attacks, recovers with parry 6. Parry 4, disengage and riposte.
Attacks, recovers with parry 4, retreats with parry 6. Parry 4, disengage and riposte with advance-lunge and 1-2 attack.
Attacks, recovers without a parry.
Parry 4 riposte straight.

Each variation is repeated several times, but the repetitions are omitted from the table for brevity.


The next level of complexity is the rondo. The rondo has a memorable, tuneful theme which is stated first. Then there is a contrasting section, in a different key, followed by a return to the theme. Then, another contrasting section in another key, and another return to the theme. There can be any number of excursions and returns. Then the whole thing winds up with a coda derived from the theme.

The rondo theme has to have a real hook. The listeners are going to hear it a lot, so the composer puts his best melody there. That’s probably why my favorite Mozart pieces are all rondos.

Rondo lessons put a simple action in context. The equivalent of a rondo theme in a fencing lesson is a series of repetitions of a quick action that the student can do well. For many students, this is an attack with a beat 4, or a circle-6 riposte. For students who like complexity, it could be a parry-4 disengage riposte, for example.

The contrasting sections are situations that begin similarly, but are different tactically. This builds the student’s repertoire into classes of actions that can be used to deceive an opponent about the fencer’s true intentions.

Example (Épée)

Coach Student
Theme Invites twice to wrist with slow parries; extends in third tempo. Hit 6, hit 8, prise de fer 6, hit body.
Contrast 1 Invites twice to wrist, counterattacks in third tempo. Hit 6, hit 8, parry and riposte.
Contrast 2 Invites to wrist in four tempos. No extension. Hit 6, hit 8, hit 8, hit 7.
Contrast 3 Invite to wrist in two tempos, prise de fer in the third. Hit 6, hit 8, derobe and attack arm.
Coda Invites to wrist in two tempos. Pull distance. Hit 6, hit 8, remise to body.

Each section is repeated several times, but the repetitions are omitted from the table.

Sonata Allegro

The sonata allegro form in classical music is an instrumental analogue of an opera or a play[2]. It has two contrasting themes (or more, but two is complex enough for most purposes) that may be thought of as characters.
The characters are introduced in an exposition section, interact with each other in a development section, and, altered by the experience, reach a conclusion in the recapitulation and coda. As the two themes, initially in two different keys, interact, the themes are heard differently. They may come to a conclusion in which one theme dominates, or the two can reach a state of coexistence.

A fencing lesson that teaches two actions in combination has the same structure. These lessons teach tactics more than technique. The coach drills the student in one theme through several repetitions, then drills the other theme the same way. Once the student has both themes clear in the mind and the muscles, the development section begins. (The musical piece would have a cadence or codetta here, but that role, setting the scene if you will, is played by footwork or verbal instructions; there is no new thematic material.)

The development section is an alternation of the two themes, changing to more complex patterns. The speed and distance are varied. The difference between the cues for each theme is reduced, so the student must make finer and finer judgments as this section progresses. Ultimately, the resolution is reached when the student understands the domain of application of each theme, and what action to take near the borders of each domain. At this point, it is possible that the student will prefer using one of the themes, and the other will seem weaker. In other, more satisfactory cases, the two themes will be coexistent in the student’s preference.

Last, there is a recapitulation of the two themes, which now bear a new, clear relationship in the student’s mind.

Keys in the piece of music are analogous to tactics in fencing. In a piece of stark contrast (Mozart’s Symphony #40, 4th movement) the two keys are dramatically different. This is like a lesson in two tactics from opposite sides of the wheel. For example, straight attacks mixed with second-intention counter-ripostes. In others (e.g. Haydn’s Symphony #88, 1st Movement) the two themes are close together in key, perhaps analogous to a beat attack mixed with a prise-de-fer attack. The sharper contrasts lead to an easier piece of music to listen to, and an easier fencing lesson. Subtler contrasts are for the more experienced listener or student.

Example (Foil)

Coach Student
Theme 1 Invites beat with half-extension in 4. beat attack.
Theme 2 Same invitation from out of distance;
responds with parry 6.
engage in 4;
disengage and attack.
Exposition Begin with a few repetitions of Theme 1. All initiated when the student is ready. (i.e., has just completed an advance.)
Next, a few repetitions of Theme 2, all initiated when the student has just completed a retreat.
Development Section Alternate themes 1 and 2 in a predictable pattern, with changes in distance and timing. Begin this section with distinct cues that are slightly exaggerated. Gradually shrink the difference between the cues until they are only an inch or two different.
Introduce cue for theme 1 after a retreat, still invited from lunge distance.
Introduce cue for theme 2 while fencer is on the march, but from a distance clearly outside a lunge.
Alternate 1 & 2 in an unpredictable pattern. Increase speed as far as the student can take it.
Recapitulation Resume clear distinction between cues, but in an unpredictable pattern.
Coda Cue Theme 2, but with a second retreat. Redouble and hit.


Lessons have structure in time, whether the coach intends it or not. An intentional, familiar structure can organize the material more clearly for the student and keep the lesson on track. The classical forms provide a useful set of tools to use for organizing lessons which are subconsciously familiar to most students. Properly used (that is, not too strictly followed), they can increase your efficiency and clarity in instruction.

(A note in closing. Never talk about the classical homophonic forms to students. Not only will the student be baffled and write you off as a crazed idiosopher, but if you ever say the word “homophonic” around a group of junior epee fencers, your lessons are over for the day.)

1. A fourth form, the Minuet and Trio, also existed, but it was a baroque atavism, not an original classical form. It was not of great interest to classical composers, and it is not of great interest here either.

2. I first learned this nice parallel from Prof. Robert Greenberg of the San Francisco Conservatory.