Tag Archives: circus

Three tips for people who do too much

When I moved to London, I was bowled over by the bustle of activity on offer. “I know,” my friend said. “The important thing is not to try to do it all at once.”

Something in my brain went: challenge accepted! Six months later, I was doing trapeze on Mondays, juggling on Tuesdays, more trapeze on Wednesdays, flute lessons on Thursdays, going out on Fridays, and attempting to be in a band on Sundays. Saturday was laundry day. I also had a boyfriend an hour across town. Did I mention that I had a full-time journalism job? I have always been the kind of person to do too much.

Needless to say, I was no zen mistress at this point. In fact, I was desperately unhappy much of the time.

I know I’m not the only one. It probably has something to do with the number of outrageous over-achievers in my friendship group, but the world is full of people who are fascinated by absolutely everything. Whose list of hobbies is longer than the KGB’s list of enemies of mother Russia. Whose diaries are more packed than the Central line at 8:40am. You get the picture.

While this is no fun, there’s a sense of real hurt at the idea of giving any one of these things up. The joy of doing these things may have long since faded into a bloody-minded battle against your own need for sleep and clean bedsheets, but quitting any one of them doesn’t bear thinking about.

Interests are infinite, but time is finite. What do you do?

I’ve developed three strategies to deal with my hobby addiction.

  1. Put your priorities in order. A year ago, I decided I was going to move to Bolivia to become a freelance development journalist. Aware that this was not something to approach unprepared, I started to make lists of my priorities. Top of the list was writing. A close second was finding some volunteering, in order to have some experience under my belt when I arrived.

This list was based on what I considered necessary, important, of long-term value. Music and circus were, it pained me to realise, below the first two. At the bottom was knitting. Once I’d agreed this order, I thought about everything in terms of this list. Is this a writing opportunity? Seize it! Is this a pretty pair of winter socks? It can probably wait. But the idea of putting something off forever didn’t bear thinking about. Which brings me onto…

2. Do things a project at a time. Don’t do a tiny bit of all of them simultaneously. Days after I decided to pack up and go the way of Butch Cassidy, a friend asked me if I would like to do an hour-long solo flute recital. I said yes, because things are more interesting when you do. I knew it would take over my evenings solidly for the next three months and then be over, but I was OK with that. It would be a last hurrah for classical music before disappearing to a town where, my research indicated, I would be lucky to have water and internet, let alone a Bohemian classical music scene.

I left my flute at home. This felt like breaking up with someone to save their feelings. I could hear the voices of my muso friends in my ears, telling me how sick and wrong this was. But flying across continents and living in a hostel indefinitely didn’t seem like a good situation for my dear flute. I miss my musical instruments every day here, but I know with absolute certainty that as soon as I can, I will get back to them. Meanwhile, the circus skills are back with a vengeance – but more on that later.

3. Ask your friends in the field. When you’re starting out as a freelance journalist, it’s hard to know in advance which ideas you’ll turn into big features and which, like pink furry yogurt and Christmas jumpers, should really have been left in the dark corners where you found them and only brought to light in situations of utmost desperation. The same is true for other activities: a fellow musician might be able to tell you which gigs will be more effort than they’re worth, a book buddy which thousand-page sci-fi epics are best used for bonfire kindling. That’s why it’s invaluable to have a network of friends and mentors to run your ideas past.

After four years of trying to do everything, I’m in Bolivia. All those pie-eyed evenings of rope climbs and sonatas paid off: I’m now volunteering full-time in a charity which teaches circus arts and, soon, music to children in low-income areas, and as of Friday, I’m being paid for my writing.

The next project, hopefully, will be two weeks in the remote community of Independencia, where a group of Quechua ladies and teens have a stunning traditional weaving and textile centre. Looks like I’ll be getting those knitting needles out after all.

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Three reasons people fail at juggling

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.

  1. Motivation

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.

3. Perseverance

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.