Do you know how to juggle?
Do you want to?
Well, I have some excellent news for you. If you read this article to the end, you will not only know how to learn the art of juggling; you will know how to learn anything.
Without dropping any balls.
Okay, you will probably drop a few. So practice with tennis balls instead of, say, eggs or hand grenades. Safety first, right?
But what does juggling have to do with learning the guitar or brain surgery? Patience, Grasshopper. All will be made clear.
Or not. But hang in there for a minute.
Learning anything requires mastering a set of skills. Most of those skills will be unique to the thing you are learning. And each skill builds on the one before it.
If you sign up for the brain surgery class at your local technical school, they aren’t going to start off letting you crack open a skull and go prodding about with a butter knife. You have to start at the beginning with the basics. You need to learn the very first thing required and master that one thing before you move on. What is that one thing you ask?
How the hell should I know?
I’ve never actually studied brain surgery. Or rocket science, for that matter.
So, let’s use the guitar as an example.
But back to the juggling. Are you ready? Here comes your first lesson.
Take one tennis ball in your dominant hand. Toss it up into the air, about head height or a bit more, and let it fall into your other hand. For the rest of this article, I will use right as the dominant hand.
Okay, got that; what’s next?
Hold on a minute; you haven’t even begun to master that yet. You need to do it a few hundred more times. Until you can toss it to about the same place and let it fall to the same place, catching it with your left hand, every single time.
Without looking at the ball or your hands.
With enough practice, you should be able to master that step. After all, you know where the ball is because you tossed it there. And you know where your hands are, right?
(At the end of your arms). If you had to refer to that little spoiler, you need to start over.
Do not move onto the next step until you can do that one in your sleep.
Well, maybe not in your sleep; that would be asking a lot. How about doing it while you are watching TV. Do it without thinking about it or watching the ball.
And that’s the beginning of the process in learning anything. And it’s the hardest to master. We are impatient creatures. We want to toss that ball a couple of times and turn the page.
Don’t do that.
That’s the mistake I learned with the guitar. I learned where the introductory notes and chords were and turned the page. Okay, how about Dust in the Wind or Maleguena next?
No, stop. Go back. Learn one note on one string. Learn to play it perfectly without looking at the guitar or your hands. Play it in time over and over.
Do that a few hundred times.
Then, learn the following note.
I know, it seems like that will take forever, but it’s worth it. Because you will never have to learn that first note again. It will be ingrained in your DNA. And each note that follows it.
Okay, chief, got it. What’s next?
Alright, you are ready for your next juggling lesson. A few weeks have passed since you started learning. (But not before you finish reading this article. Finish it now so that I can make a buck.)
You can toss that ball to the exact same spot, letting it fall into your left hand without ever looking at either. Over and over, perfectly.
Alrighty, then. Here’s the next step. You aren’t going to like this but do it anyway.
Put the ball in your other hand. Now do the exact same exercise in the opposite direction a few hundred more times.
This will be harder than you think because you aren’t using your dominant hand. Unless you are ambidextrous. (By the way, do you know what aquadextrous means? It’s the ability to turn the hot and cold water in the tub with your feet. But I digress.)
Keep tossing that ball with your left hand until you are every bit as good as with your right. I would say better, but you can’t be better than perfect. And you were perfect with the right hand, right? (Right, right?)
And that is what makes the guitar or any musical instrument difficult. It takes both hands. Doing something different at the same time and doing both perfectly.
So, after I began learning those first few strings with my right hand, I had to start training my left hand. First separately. And then together. At the same time. In perfect synchonisation. Over and over.
It doesn’t matter how long or complicated a piece of music is, I always start the same way. By learning the first bar, one note at a time. Mastering the left hand’s fingering while perfecting the strumming, picking, or plucking with the right hand. Making sure I can do it perfectly a few hundred times. Then I learn the next bar.
So, what is the next bar in that juggling thing?
Okay, now it gets to be fun. And when I say fun, I mean you will be chasing tennis balls around for a bit. Maybe get yourself a Golden Retriever or a three-year-old, whichever is more convenient.
You will need two balls for this next part. (Don’t even go there.)
Take one ball in each hand. Starting with your dominant hand, toss it into the air. Perfectly. To that same spot you have nailed hundreds of times before. And just as it reaches the zenith of its trajectory (when it stops going up), toss the other ball.
Okay, now stop a minute and think about what you just did. Because like all the practice you put in, you tossed a ball from your right hand up and to the left. Just as it got to the top of its arc, you threw the other ball. The first ball fell into your left hand just as the second ball reached its zenith.
Then it fell into your right hand.
Think about it. Visualize it. Now start doing it over and over. If you did the first two steps correctly, this won’t be too difficult. But there will be challenges. Timing for one thing. The timing has to be exactly as I described. Getting your aim right so the two balls won’t hit each other and go flying away.
You’ve already done that, haven’t you? That’s okay, keep practicing. You will also have to resist the tendency for the balls to start moving away from you. The path of both balls should be in the same plane, exactly in line with your hands.
Over and over. Trust me; if you goofed off in the first two steps, this one will be difficult. If you don’t practice this enough, the next step will be impossible.
So, now, I’m forming chords with my left hand and plucking individual strings with my right. Separately but together. Syncopated but in time. Without looking. Without thinking. Just doing. Over and over until this is perfected.
But unlike juggling, this will never be over. Because there are endless combinations. Six strings and ten fingers. Six strings and twelve frets (or more). Seventy-two-plus notes with my left hand and six strings in any combination with my right. 4/4 time, waltz rhythm, 12/8 time with a reggae beat, hitting the one-three instead of the two-four.
But still one note on one string.
We’re ready to move on to the final stage.
The mythical third ball.
Take the third ball and hold it in your right hand. You now have one ball in your left hand and two balls in your right.
Hey! Wait a minute. Hold on. You’ve been using this whole juggling thing as an analogy for learning the guitar or anything else. I get that.
But, where’s the third ball on the guitar? You have a left hand and a right hand. What else are you going to play with? (I already told you not to go there.)
Go to YouTube and search for Chet Atkins or Tommy Emmanuel. Watch Kerry Livgren, the guitarist in Kansas, play Dust in the Wind, or Lindsey Buckingham, of Fleetwood Mac, play Landslide. Or Merle Travis. They all share a unique style of playing that goes back to Merle called Travis Picking.
A lot is going on in Travis picking, but what sets it apart is the right thumb. It is doing its own thing. Independent of everything else, it is playing the bass riff. That’s why this style of music always sounds like it’s two guitarists playing. Or three in the case of Leo Kottke.
That’s my third ball. I have just begun exploring Travis picking, and I have to tell you, it raises the complexity by an order of magnitude much higher than three. Because the thumb can’t make notes all on its own. There also has to be a corresponding action taking place up the neck with the left hand.
So, now, I’m no longer doing two different things with my hands at the same time. I’m doing two different things with each hand at the same time.
And doing it quite poorly, I might add.
But I’ll get better, one note, one chord, one measure at a time.
One note on one string.
Because that’s how you learn anything. You master each technique and then build on it. If not, you will become frustrated and fail. It doesn’t take a structural engineer (or a rocket surgeon) to know what happens if you build a house on a weak foundation.
Now, toss one of those balls from your right hand into the air just like you have for a thousand times by now. At the proper place in its arc, throw the ball in your left hand while you prepare to catch the ball you tossed with your right hand.
Now, just don’t stop, and you are juggling. Right hand to left hand, left hand to right hand, over and over.
At least some of you are juggling. The rest of you are chasing tennis balls all over the house. Because you didn’t master each step before you attempted the next.
So, drop two of those balls and start over.