Or, “How some people seem to learn crazy skills overnight”.
Juggling is a very frustrating activity. First, you learn to throw a ball. Then, you learn to throw two. Then comes keeping three in the air semi-fluidly. This may take months.
Then, if you like, you move onto clubs. Clubs are like balls, but harder, because when you throw them, they spin. Spin them too little or too much and instead of catching them, you get a stinging smack on the finger.
I know a young man called Roger. Roger can juggle five clubs. He’s 12.
When I started working in a Bolivian youth circus in mid-November, I was stunned to see how many children, some as young as seven, were confidently flipping three clubs while standing on another child’s shoulders.
Recently, I met an Argentinian gentleman who was competently balancing clubs on his chin mid-routine, banging out five-turn flashes and catching clubs thrown behind his back.
I asked him how long he’d been juggling. “Clubs? About two months. Balls, another three and a half months before that,” he answered. I was stunned.
Are these people magic?
My friend has been an instructor in our circus for eight years. When I broached the subject with him, he seemed almost offended.
“When you’re travelling, juggling is your life,” he said, indignantly. “You do it all day, every day. It pays for your food.” What he seemed to mean was: how can anyone who practices so little have the temerity to wonder about this?
Latin America is full of street jugglers. In Cochabamba’s central Plaza Colon, every traffic light has a few young travellers dashing out in front of the stopped cars, flashing some club juggling tricks or fire poi and then darting between the cars with a hat before the lights change.
My Argentinian instructor was one of them. He’s living in a tent in the mountains with two friends, coming down into the city to juggle for money to pay his way.
Head out of town and they aren’t travelling Argentinians, but children of 10 or so, juggling for change to put some bread on the table.
So, how is it that these people can go from zero to pro in just a few months?
To me, there are two major differences.
If you’re anything like me, learning to juggle was somewhere between a fun trick and a frustrating puzzle. If you could juggle three balls, you could occasionally juggle fruit in the office when people were bored. You could learn a couple of tricks for low-level showing-off in the pub. In my boyfriend’s case, you may juggle for juggling’s sake in the fish and chip shop, and unwittingly make enough money to buy yourself dinner.
It was never a question of making ends meet.
When I juggle, my mind wanders. I think about music or imagine crazy routines or daydream. To make progress, it needs your full attention. You need to feel the exact angle you release the club at, see where the club lands, replicate the throws that work. Otherwise, you make the same mistakes repeatedly. You become frustrated and bored. You can’t concentrate, and it’s a terrible downward spiral from there. Passive practice doesn’t work.
When your livelihood depends on your flair with clubs, you have an unwavering incentive to concentrate.
For more about the ideas of active practice in music, check out this post on The Bulletproof Musician and The Musician’s Way by Gerald Klickstein.
2. Hours of practice
Here is a confession: it took me nine months before I could juggle a reliable three-ball cascade. I was making two mistakes. I wasn’t focusing. And I wasn’t practicing every single day.
Whenever anyone learns to juggle, they are told they have to practice every day. Every day means every day.
The list of things I’ve been told I need to do every day to succeed is long. Speak a language. Play an instrument. Exercise. But juggling is the only one I have ever found where every day literally means every day. When I was learning, I took liberties. I would do it four or five days out of seven. “But I did it for half an hour on the last session!” I’d say. Nope. Unlike fluffing bit of music and carrying on, stumbling over your words in a foreign tongue, gravity won’t wait. Every day means seven out of seven.
If you live in a mountainside tent, you don’t have a comfy seat and an internet connection where you can lose yourself in Facebook. You have some clubs or balls, and lots and lots of time. You might spend four hours practicing each afternoon. Think how the hours stack up when compared with training at a club once a week and doing some in the garden at the weekend. Don’t measure it in weeks or months or years. Measure it in hours.
What’s more, the more frequently you train, the fresher your learning is. There’s less catching up to do, less warming up. You can pick up where you left off. You can feel the ability growing in your mind and see it growing in your successes. And when you’re happy to be learning, you learn more.
Most amazing jugglers don’t rely on it for a living. My theory is that these people just enjoy it more, so they practice more and focus more.
This one is not unique to people who juggle for a living. You aren’t guaranteed to become proficient overnight if you keep plugging away at it. But you are guaranteed not to become proficient overnight if you give up.
I am not a natural circus person. Trapeze tricks that seven-year-old children throw themselves into with gleeful abandon scare the living daylights out of me. Accidentally dangling from a rope by one ankle (this has actually happened) is not my idea of a good time. I still love circus and care deeply about being good at it. Some people have been learning for as long as me and are professionals. I’m not there yet. But I know of nobody who fell at the first hurdle and can do what I can.
So if you want to succeed at circus, put yourself in a situation where circus is your life. Surround yourself by it, immerse yourself in it, throw yourself at it. You may not turn into Roger overnight – I still suspect he contains magic. But the talent will come.