Interview with Kenpo Karate Instructor and Author Irvin Gill Part I

Irvin Gill Sensei began training in the Tracy System of American Kenpo in 1990 and has been teaching since 1994. After almost thirty years of training in American Kenpo, he recently published his book, American Kenpo Karate: The Key Principles and Rules of American Kenpo Karate. With Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, Gill Sensei touches upon his recent release, his time as a dojo owner, and the current state of martial arts. This is the first part of a two-part interview with Irvin Gill. Read the second part here. All images provided by Gill Sensei.

Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow: Welcome Gill Sensei! Thank you for taking the time to talk with us.

Irvin Gill: Thank you for having me. It’s my pleasure to participate.

MAYTT: You recently released a book, Sensei, American Kenpo Karate: Its Key Principles and Rules through Tambuli Media. Could you tell us what inspired you to take on such an endeavor?

Book unboxing
Irvin Gill Sensei’s new book!

IG: Thank you for mentioning my book. To be brutally frank – stupidity! Writing this book was the hardest thing that I have volunteered to do in a very, VERY long time. I think I was tricked and talked into it to some degree by. And if you are reading this – you know who you are! Seriously, it started in a dark place. I was without a job for the first time in over forty years. We sold our house. Times were not looking good. Try to find a job when you’re over sixty. To keep my sanity and also to keep from falling into the morass of depression that stalked my family and I, I did as I have done in the past. I let myself become immersed in the martial arts. The question arose in my mind about the principles of American Kenpo. It is a phrase the is often thrown around in classes and seminars. Except that now, after examining those principles, they more and more seemed to be definitions and terminology. Principles are immense, expansive statements that limn a complete system in just a few, all-encompassing words or phrases. Let’s examine one.

We have all heard Einstein’s famous equation, E=MC2. To those with a much higher IQ than mine, the workings of our universe flow from this. This equation ended the Second World War by ushering in the atomic age. It fuels the largest source of renewable energy today, powering cities, ships & submarines. Just don’t ask me how.

So, I searched. Nothing was found that addressed this issue. So, I thought I might as well give it a try, if only for the intellectual activity it provided. These principles should be few in number, easily stated and identified. I studied my notes; I examined my movements as I practiced the sets, forms and techniques. Here’s the results:

The first observation was that one needs Proper Awareness. Not just awareness, but Proper Awareness. That contains an element of focus on certain goals.

Next is Proper Structure. Then Proper Energy; then Proper Movement and finally Proper Strategy (Tactics). The Canon can be expressed by this equation: Kenpo = Proper + (A + S + E + M + S).

From that point, each of these Key Principles contains 3 principles. For example, Proper Awareness is composed of the following:

  • Awareness of Environment
  • Awareness of Human Indicators
  • Awareness of Zones of Sanctuary

It is these principles and rules that demark and denote whether the participant is in his art or outside of it.

MAYTT: I see, Sensei. What were some of the goals you hope to achieve with your book? Was it a way to relay a personal story? How do you see it helping the current kenpo/karate practitioner?

IG: To be honest, I was very reluctant to expand on the key principles. I felt that, even as I was writing this book, that it would be a source of argument among Kenpo practitioners. We all cling to our “isms.” Three incidents culminated in a change of mind. Also, I was dealing with this concept so eloquently stated by David Gerrold (who, while in college, wrote the Star Trek script – “The Trouble with Tribbles”). He writes: “Writing comes from the assumption trees should die in the service of your words and ideas. There is no humility in that.”

At lunch one day with Grandmaster Joe Palanzo, I offered him the outline of this Kenpo Canon (Key Principles), Principles and Rules that included and were derived from those stated here earlier. He read through it for a few minutes, then looked up at me and said, “You know, Mr. Parker once said to me that the first principle of Kenpo is Awareness of your Environment.” I knew that I was on the right track.

irv with michael corsello
Gill Sensei with Michael Corello.

I was teaching at a Michael Corsello’s Kenpo Karate school in Lansdale, PA. During the class, we were learning a new technique. After a while, one of the students asked me this question. He said, “Why can’t we do without this one move and that? It would make the technique a little faster and probably would work about the same.” He wasn’t wrong. These were very good observations. But then the answer was plainly obvious. “Because the you would not be learning American Kenpo Karate. If you would delete the movements that you chose, you would be breaking the rules and principles that govern this system. And those principles are there to have you reach and keep you in the most advantageous position and conversely your opponent in the least advantageous position.” To me, this demonstrated the need of stating these Key Principles for practitioners. But I was still somewhat reluctant.

The final push happened at a breakfast meeting with a longtime friend, Michael Aloia Sensei. We both trained together under Sifu Burrier so many years ago and have stayed in touch through the decades even though we have both taken different martial paths. Viva la Difference!

At that breakfast, I presented him a copy of these Key Principles, principles and rules to peruse; not the book, but the notes which would become the outline for the book. I was hoping for his opinion. He looked at me and said that I must write a book for three reasons:

The first was to honor our Sifu. Keeping his memory alive keeps him alive to an extent. He gave us his love of the art and in some small way, this repays that debt.

Michael aloia aikido
Michael Aloia.

The second addressed my concern for fomenting strife among fellow martial artists. He said that even if people are arguing over the content of the book, that’s a good thing. Because then, they are at least thinking and talking about it. Discussion is good!

The last thing was regarding the future. We humans have the ability to pass information along through time. We are the only species that we know in the face of the earth that possess that skill. After the information has been recorded, it is available to any seeker. One never knows who might need this information in the future. Even if it is only one.

Which leads me to this quote by Edward Everett Hale: “I am only one, but I am one.  I can’t do everything, but I can do something. The something I ought to do, I can do. And by the grace of God, I will.” 

MAYTT: Those are good goals to strive for. Was writing the book an extension of your own training?

IG: Yes, it was related to my training, but perhaps “expansion” is a better word. It required me to closely examine how I performed movements, what was the goal of these movements and how were they being created at various levels inside my body. How was my mind and breath interfacing? Let me add this quote from Dr. Maung Gyi [who introduced Bando into the United States]: “Breath is the bridge between the body and the mind.”

MAYTT: Going back a little bit before you released your book, back to when you opened your karate dojo, Sensei, how did you acquire new students? As with any new business, building a loyal customer base, or in the case of a martial arts dojo, membership base, can pose its own challenges. What types of methods or promotional/marketing efforts did you use?

IG: That is the hardest part of any start-up business: acquisition of new customers and the cost of that acquisition. It is as much instruction of your product to prospective clientele and differentiating your curriculum to that of your competitors. Obviously, word of mouth is the cheapest and most productive. But you have to acquire students and then they have to be there long enough to be happy with you and then tell others about you.

I tried everything I could as I had some disposable funds at that time. Ads were placed on the back page of the Clipper Coupon Book, because the last page is the page that is up when people retrieve them from the mailbox. We ran ads on TV. That was a bomb; lots of money but not many students. The front sign brought in a few people. We went to various events in the area. We taught self-defense in the local high schools for part of the Physical Education curriculum. If I am not mistaken, I believe that you joined us at one or more of those later self-defense sessions.

Gill ads
A handful of advertisement pictures Gill Sensei used in the fall of 2002.

All in all, I was not as successful in bringing in new clientele as I could have been. Advertising dollars would have been better spent on hiring a sales manager.

MAYTT: Considering your dojo’s past membership enrollment statistics during its operation, what age demographic did you find to be the most dominant and what was the least? In an effort to reach a larger audience, did your program also include teaching children?

IG: You are really stretching my memory here! We had approximately two-thirds youth and one-third adults. The youth ranged from seven to twelve, spread fairly evenly. The adults ranged from sixteen to forty.

During the final year of the school’s existence, we started a junior tigers’ class for five and six year old kids. There were about a half-dozen students or so enrolled. The two teachers did a fine job. Parents were happy with the curriculum. But it wasn’t enough to save the school as a functioning business.

dismissing last class
Gill Sensei dismissing the last class of his school on April 26, 2007, which was the  final testing day.

MAYTT: As your dojo began to build its foundation and numbers, was there a particular point when your dojo saw its greatest membership growth? Why do you think that was a significant point for growth? Was there a noteworthy social or economic explosion that contributed to the growth?

IG: We got up to around forty or so fairly quickly, then dropped down to approximately thirty and then leveled out there.

We closed our doors in the end of April 2007. If you recall, that was when the economy became depressed. Gas prices were erratic. People were concerned, rightly so, for their economic survival. It was the beginning of tough times that we are just now getting our heads out of the water.

One flaw was my lack of understanding about the public’s perceived nature of martial arts’ clientele. I believed that it was a “smelly, old guy’s club” as that was who I usually trained with. But when I decided to open a school, I believed the student body should be a representation of the surrounding demographic; i.e., youth, both girls and boys, and adults, both men and women. It was not to be gender or age specific. Indeed, the mature, muscle toned male probably needs martial arts involvement – for self-defense – much less than the other demographics mentioned. While I was correct to a small degree, it wasn’t enough to sustain a business.

Gill Before.jpg
The initial space Gill Sensei purchased, saying “Then this became…”
Gill After.jpg
What Gill Sensei transformed the space into, saying “What I thought I needed for a commercial school. 2,000 square foot mat + 1,000 square foot work out area with multiple stations.”

To be monetarily successful in any business venture, you must be able to correctly identify and ascertain who will wish to purchase your goods and/ or services and then who will have the resources (time, money, persistence) to do so. I failed in that aspect. So, my school’s lack of success as a business was a combination of my closed mindedness to business realities and the economic climate of that time and location.

However, I take some solace in this quote from K’ung Fu Tzu, Confucius to us Westerners: “The superior man understands what is right; the inferior man understands what will sell.”

MAYTT: Sensei, there are some who believe that the quality of instruction has diminished over the generations and that because of improper training and instruction, both instructor and practitioner, as a whole, do not compare to those of old. Would you agree with such a belief? Rather than continued to level, have modern day martial arts devolved to some degree?

IG: Let me first address the phrase “do not compare to those of old.” Too often we view the past as if we were looking upon Camelot. Things were very much different then. And it wasn’t always better… or always worse.

First, not everyone could enroll in the martial arts; not everyone had available leisure time. Every day was a struggle. Every waking hour was spent collecting resources for you and your family’s survival.

Next, a teacher would have to agree to take you on as a student. He would not automatically agree to teach you just because of your sparkling personality. You needed letters of introduction, references to your character. Yes, even then as now, money and prestige could and did pave the way to admission. But not always.

Then there was what was presented to that student. Most, if not almost all, of the students were “outside” students. They received the surface of the arts. The real meat, the deep understanding of the art was passed on to several students or even just one “inside” student. It was not equal and open to all, as we experience in our modern, demographic society.

ed parker
Edmund Parker, founder of American Kenpo Karate.

In the 1950s, the man who would become American Kenpo Karate’s founder and Grandmaster, Ed Parker, said, Due to the tremendous interest in Chinese Karate… and the unwillingness of the full-fledged instructors to teach commercially… I predict that some enterprising person with a little Kung Fu background will probably try and pass the ‘surface arts’ of Kung Fu as the authentic article… probably debasing the art more by creating an artificial belt rank in this system.”

Technology entrepreneur Elon Musk said, “If anyone thinks they’d rather be in a different part of history, they’re probably not a very good student of history. Life sucked in the old days. People knew very little, and you were likely to die at a young age of some horrible disease. You’d probably have no teeth by now. It would be particularly awful if you were a woman.”

Tom Clancy said it best with: “The good old days are now.” So perhaps we should take off the rose-colored glasses through which we view the past.

Again, Grandmaster Ed Parker said, “Things are not better because they are old; things are not better because they are new; things are better because they are better.”

We have discussed “when.” Let’s now look at where this training took place. Japan, Korea, Okinawa, China – Asia, right? In those previous times, their cultures were much different than today. I would opine that few people today would relish the chance to go back and experience those glorious days firsthand. Life was brutal and unkind. Unlike the opening of the classic TV show Kung Fu where the little boy, half American & half Chinese sits in front of the Shaolin monastery seeking admission and eventually receives it, outsiders and foreigners were not accepted. Training was extremely rigid and rigorous. It might have taken fifteen to twenty years of training, each and every day, all day long to reach the desired level of proficiency.

In some ways, getting martial arts training has never been so good as now. In any urban or suburban setting in America, there are usually multiple venues, styles and systems available to the potential student. There is a spectrum of costs in time, dollars, and sweat equity out there. Even the tones and overall feeling at the schools vary with the ownership and teaching staff.

As far as what information has reached us in these modern times, there always can be a diminishing of that information over time. Just try to play the old game of “Whispering Down the Lane.” They also say that the old katanas were no match for those made today. I disagree. Our present-day blade makers are just as capable, if not more so, than those original masters. So, we do have the talent now. It may just be being in the right place at the right time to find it.

The same can be said of any instruction. After all, if we are just doing what things that way they have always be done, then there is no advancement. Grandmaster Edmund K. Parker said, “The humble man makes room for progress; the proud man believes he is already there” and “The true Martial Artist is not the one who fears change, but the one who causes it to happen.” So, I disagree that modern martial arts have de-evolved. They have changed with the times and reflect the personality of our society. It’s just different. It is up to each generation to delineate what their goals are and then to strive for improvement.

There are those out there who have made fantastic inroads into martial arts’ development as well as those who operate “McDojos.” Indeed, those often-criticized strip mall karate schools are the inroads to deeper learning. Because sooner or later, there will be those students who will seek more, dig deeper, try harder to find the next level of learning.

Gill Sensei parallels the modern term “McDojo” to Miyamoto Mushashi’s concern many centuries ago.

But this isn’t a current issue. Look at what famed swordsman Miyamoto Musashi wrote over 350 years ago:

“People make the martial arts into commercial products; they think of themselves as commodities. Distinguishing the superficial and substantial, I find this attitude has less reality than decoration. The result of this must be that amateuristic [sic] martial arts are the source of many wounds. What I see in schools is that some are pretentious talkers, and some perform fancy maneuvers with their hands, others become theatrical dressing up and showing off to make a living. Therefore, it would seem they are not the true Way; even though they may look good to people, there is no heart there at all…”

The problem may be that many go into teaching before they learn the complete depth of their art. Then they level out since further instruction will not generate more revenue. But there are those who still train hard for their own betterment, still try to expand their knowledge through experiment and insight. I have breakfast with one of those true martial artists every month or so.

This is the first part of a two-part interview with Irvin Gill. Read the second part here.

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