Music and Juggling

Both juggling and music can be exhausting to perform and becoming successful at either one relies heavily on one’s ability to develop muscle memory as well as focused, repetitive training. Having spent an immense amount of time practicing juggling and studying music, I have become interested in analyzing their similarities, differences, and how they can function together. There are some practical training concerns, such as the helpfulness of juggling while listening to music, that I would like to discuss, as well as maximizing the effect that music has on an audience during juggling performances.

My interests in juggling and music began at roughly the same time. I learned how to juggle and began taking cello lessons both when I was ten. In the beginning I took to juggling quickly, practicing for hours a day on my own, but if it weren’t for frequent nudges from my parents to pick up the cello and practice each day, I would likely not be playing today. Nearly ten years later, I still avidly practice both juggling and cello. If I had the time, I would ideally juggle between 2-4 hours a day and practice cello for an hour each day, but it is unfortunately too hard to find 3-5 hours free each day year-round. Instead, I typically juggle between 2-5 hours a day when I’m on break from school (around half of the year) and spend up to a couple hours a day playing cello during the semester whether it be practicing by myself, in a string quartet, orchestra, or a private lesson. I have also been studying music theory and composition for the past few years. It’s no stretch to say that both juggling and music are essential parts of my life.

To consider the relationship between juggling and music, one can imagine observing either performance, but using only the relevant senses to take it in. First pretend that you were wearing earplugs. You could still watch an amazing juggler and fully appreciate their skill level but would have far more difficulty appreciating a musician performing a song. Similarly, if your eyes were closed, you could appreciate a beautiful piece of music but would be unable to enjoy a juggling performance. Both music and juggling are almost exclusively experienced by an audience with one sense, hearing or sight respectively, while the person either juggling or playing the music creates the juggling patterns or musical notes purely through physical means. 

Since both juggling and music require a minimal range of senses to perceive, some questions about how that fact translates into effective practice of each discipline may arise. For instance, if juggling patterns can be experienced almost entirely visually, as well as through touch, is it to a juggler’s benefit to try and block out all stimulus that is auditory, so as to better focus on the juggling? Likewise, If music can be experienced almost entirely auditorily, then should musicians try and block out any distracting visual stimulus? Well, since both juggling patterns and music are created through physical means, it may make sense that in both cases the performer’s eyes should focus on what they are attempting to accomplish. For juggling this means looking at the pattern and for music this may mean looking at the keys or strings that your fingers are pressing down. However, in some cases a musician can reach a point of proficiency with their technique where they no longer need to look at their instrument to produce beautiful sounds. For this reason, you have likely seen a musician playing with their eyes closed, possibly swaying from side to side, attempting to convey the nuances of the music that they are performing. By closing their eyes, they allow themselves to focus exclusively on their tone quality and musical inflections, which in turns lets them deliver a more convincing and emotional performance. 

Even though the goals of a musician and a juggler differ, they share an important characteristic. Both attempt to achieve a level of mastery over a skill that is experienced with solely one sense by an audience. It is then through that single sense, as well as the sense of touch, that the performer accomplishes their goal. If a musician can enhance their musicality by closing their eyes to better focus on the music, is there some analog of this for juggling? As you may know, many, if not most, jugglers train while listening to music, myself included. Juggling with music as a way of creating new patterns and sequences is very beneficial, as the music can stimulate different ways of thinking about the juggling. Even still, I am going to focus on training technique for the purposes of this article. Even though I often train technique while listening to music, I am of the belief that I experience more growth as a juggler when I practice without music, similarly to how musicians can achieve improved musical results with their eyes closed. By limiting yourself to only visual stimulation when you juggle, you focus more deeply on the pattern and its errors. Moreover, if you do not listen to music when you practice, you can even hear the rhythm of the pattern, which can clue you into even more of its intricacies and flaws. Usually when I train with headphones in, I am unable to easily tell if my patterns are suffering from slight tilts, or if my shoulders are perfectly level; it is just too distracting to focus on all of that with music playing. For these reasons, I try and spend some time each day training technique in silence and would suggest that other jugglers try to do the same.

You might ask why I ever train with music if I experience the fastest growth while training in silence. The truth is that some of the training that I do is too boring and takes too long to do in pure silence, and the music just makes it more fun. If I were to train in silence all the time, I would not have the patience to train three club fundamentals for large portions of my practice. However, with the addition of music, that has become one of my favorite things to do, and I believe that I have grown significantly as a juggler by doing exercises such as those. Essentially, to maximize efficiency in a juggling practice, I believe that it is better to train without music if you have the attention span, but if you end up training for several hours at a time it is most likely not practical. 

Let’s now take a closer look at how one could effectively combine music and juggling in a performance. Since an audience experiences juggling visually and music auditorily, a juggling routine that is set to music has immense potential to be a stimulating, emotional, and powerful experience, as it combines both senses. Often times, jugglers will simply perform to a song that they like. This allows the audience to listen to good music, while viewing impressive juggling, which is always enjoyable. However, if a juggler either tailors their juggling to fit the music, or their music to fit the juggling, the performance certainly has more impact. In a juggling routine of this type, the music enhances the juggling such that the audience gains much more from watching it and listening to it, rather than only watching it. There are several great examples of acts like this available online and you can email me if you would like my opinions on the ones that I enjoy most. 

In recent years, I have worked on developing routines that display an exciting relationship between juggling and music. In 2016, I competed in the IJA Juniors competition with an act that dramatized my relationship between juggling and playing cello. Beginning and ending by playing excerpts of the Elgar Cello Concerto, I put together an act that depicted a character torn between juggling and music to convey an exaggerated version of my relationship between the two hobbies in real life. Now, I am working on creating a juggling routine that is just as much about the music as it is about the juggling. I am attempting to do this by composing music as I develop the juggling routine. One example of how I may aim to do this—I am still in the preliminary stages—is to establish a relationship between siteswap digits and scale degrees of a musical key to give a certain sound and musical quality to each siteswap. 

I know that many other people in the world are creating work with ideas such as these in mind, and  that this article is just scratching the surface of the relationship between juggling and music. If you have any thoughts or questions, please email me. I look forward to continuing the conversation.

Jonah has been juggling for ten years and is a junior at Amherst College. In 2013 and 2015 he won the WJF's Overall Championship and in 2016 he won the IJA's Juniors Championship. He annually attends the IJA festival.

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