The Art of Juggling
Two things I love. Drums and juggling. Now, although I meant to discuss how one relates to the other, I felt like I had to mention an old inspiration of mine who happens to do both at the same time.
Years ago, living in Phoenix AZ, I used to go to this jazz/blues hangout spot called Char's, and every so often this blues band from Tucson called the Bad News Blues Band would come in and rock the house. Now, I don't think he plays with them at this point, but at the time (this was maybe fifteen years ago) the drummer was this guy Chip Ritter. Chip is a really cool guy. Very exuberant personality, great performer, great hands, and on top of all that, he had this trick under his belt- he could juggle three sticks and play! It was always a trip to see him bust that out. In fact, a few years down the road from that time he managed to show it off on the Late Show:
Anyway, I felt like I had to throw that in, because seriously, how can you talk about juggling and drumming and not mention Chip Ritter? But I'll leave the advanced stick tricks to Mr. Ritter and discuss my initial thoughts that motivated the blog.
Last week I was teaching a younger student of mine who is working through a very common challenge musicians face, which is keeping attention on peripheral facets of playing while directly focusing on one particular aspect. Specifically this student was focusing on correctly playing what he's reading while keeping time and maintaining proper technique. This student in particular finds it more challenging to keep track of maintaining one without a significant sacrifice to the other two. We tried out a little 'attention exercise' where, through the repetition of a single phrase we bounced our attention from each object to the other at some different intervals. It was a good introspection for him to see how bouncing his object of focus changed the way things were being played. At the end of the lesson, I handed him a set of juggling balls and told him to start learning to juggle. I'm probably just being eccentric, but that was my intuitive decision about how to help him move forward outside of the practice routine.
Musicians must develop a strong 'peripheral view' of the multiple elements we have to keep track of. Time is especially important for drummers since if we lose time, every other musician in a group would be forced to shift tempo along with us. Yet, it's relatively easy to lose track of when you are singularly focused on some other aspect of playing. Technique is similar for a beginner until they develop it to a point of clockwork automation. And naturally, the material we are playing tends to take up the majority of our focus most of the time. So in this way, I imagine those three objects to be like three juggling pins being thrown hand to hand.
If you have any experience with juggling, then you will know that in general it's useful to avoid any singular focus of your attention. There may be a trick that involves an increased attention to one of the objects, but to lose sight of any other object increases the likelihood that we miss a catch or throw something wildly. In other words, the juggling is the object of focus. The greater coordinated act itself becomes a thing. I think this is a perfect analogy for what has to be done by a drummer when we are playing, or for performance in general.
On stage, I feel that I rarely am thinking about technique, but there are other elements that come into focus. Of course, there is the material at hand. There is time. There is the listening and watching of the other musicians- looking for improvisational cues, mistakes I might have to follow, or just general dynamics to make sure I'm not playing too loud in a small room. There can even be attention on how I'm performing. All these things have to happen simultaneously and consistently. If I focus too much on what I'm playing, maybe my time suffers and I drift. If I'm too externally focused on another player or something happening on stage, maybe I miss a change or hit. If I'm digging too deep into the feel of the music, then maybe I close my eyes and get all trancy vibed-out and completely miss the singer signaling me to cut the next musical section because he just broke a string. It could be nearly anything.
The last aspect I think I'd like to touch on here is how important it is to have that wide peripheral attention, but also a relaxed clarity and focus. You could perhaps refer to it as mindfulness. There are so many potential distractions that a performer can face. Some of the worst ones are purely psychologically manufactured (ie. stage anxiety), but most of the time though it's something like an equipment malfunction, audio feedback or a bad monitor mix, a crowd distraction, or even the distraction of getting stuck on the mistake I just made. It's a mark of skill when one can continue on unabated in the face of technical difficulties, or handle a show-stopping problem with grace. In a way, I think perhaps the pinnacle of being able to juggle the various aspects of performing is the ability to remain focused in the face of severe distraction. One of the raddest things I love is when I see a performer smash straight through some chaos on stage without losing their performance mindset.