Creation, choreography, refining, performing. Those are four steps I go through when working on a juggling routine for my show. But there’s one more step, and the amount of work I put into this step dwarfs the rest combined.

Practicing.

It’s very easy to get a routine kinda-solid. As in, you don’t drop much. The easiest way is to change the choreography, so that whenever you drop on a trick, you take it out the routine completely. Cheating? The audience doesn’t know you are only doing your easy tricks!

When I’m working on a new routine, I make sure I can do all the individual tricks ten times in a row, without dropping. Great.

Unfortunately, that’s not that hard. The point you drop in the routine is transitioning from one trick to the next. Sometimes a trick will be easy in isolation, but going into or out of it from another makes it way too hard. Trying to work out which combinations of tricks looks good together, and yet the transition isn’t an entire new trick you have to practice is part of the process.

To work it out, I run through my entire routine 10 times in a row, and mark down where I went wrong. I soon see what needs changing with the choreography!

This is part of the refining step, but you can’t know what is hard unless you practice, and keep a record of your practice too.

So that’s what I do.

I’d been performing my ring routine for a year already by September. I was very happy with it, but I knew it was not yet the final version, and it wasn’t as solid as the other routines in my show, to the point where I normally don’t drop at all (I have, on average, two unchoreographed drops in my hour show, though I’ve yet to do it entirely flawlessly).

In September I had a four week vacation in New York. I didn’t juggle very much at all, and certainly didn’t practice my juggling routines.

I went to my next gig, and I SUCKED! All the other routines in my show were fine, but I really noticed that my ring juggling suffered from a month off of serious practice. Thankfully I’m a good enough performer, and my show is written and structured just right, that it didn’t impact the entertainment value of my show too much.

But I felt really bad. Four or five drops in five minutes of juggling, or whatever it was, is just not good enough. I’m a professional, I should do better than that. I had nine days at home between gigs, so I set myself the task of getting my ring juggling back in shape.

Here is my practice technique, which I do every time I’m working on a new routine or, like this time, a routine which is suddenly not working (near-) flawlessly.

– Juggle the routine ten times through.

– Make a note of each time I drop, or how many times I drop in each section of the routine.

– Repeat the next day.

– Keep repeating at least once per day for the next week.

Only be making notes like this can I really have confidence that I am getting better, and I also know if I’m reaching my goal.

My goal this time was to be able to run my ring routine 10 times in a row, and only have five drops. This takes about an hour and fifteen minutes. Five drops in an hour and fifteen minutes of almost continual juggling really isn’t too bad. And its realistic. Aiming for no drops at all in that time will just leave depressed.

By looking at the photo above, you probably can’t work out what all the numbers mean. These are the collated numbers from the week, columns are sections of the routine, and rows are days.

By the way, if I drop, I do the trick as many times as it takes to get it. I’d never do this on stage, but in practice there is no point practicing drops over and over.

Monday looked like this:

3 ring section 1:

1 drop

9 times dropless

7 times in a row dropless

3 ring section 2:

7 drops

5 times dropless

3 times in a row dropless

3 ring section 3:

7 drops

3 times dropless

2 times in a row dropless

4 ring section:

10 drops

5 times dropless

4 times in a row dropless

5 ring section:

8 drops

6 times dropless

4 times in a row dropless

7 ring section:

5 drops

7 times dropless

6 times in a row dropless

Looks pretty dismal! Then I see if any of those dropless sections happened to be in the same run. I tally up the totals, and get the very depressing result.

All sections:

38 drops in total

once completely dropless

Oh boy!

I’ve talked to many non-professional performers who have a bad time on stage, and I always ask “How many times have you ever done that routine dropless, even in practice?”

The answer is, invariably, “I’ve done it a few times dropless.” And in general, they’ll say something like “Normally I drop once or twice” or “I drop a few times.”

This just isn’t good enough! As you see here, on this really shitty day, I did it dropless once. Great. That doesn’t mean shit!

Because, when I get up on stage, what are the chances that this run of the routine will be the one-in-ten time I can do it drops?

No chance. None. On stage things are way harder!

The overwhelmingly more likely result is an average run, which in this case was 3.8 drops per attempt. As this is the collated data for that day, rather than the individual runs, I don’t know how many times I dropped on the droopiest attempt, but it was probably six times.

THAT is probably the run you’ll have on stage.

And so, if you look at the photo, you’ll see how I improved over the week. Just so you know, an “X” means I did that segment of the routine without any drops in any of the 10 attempts. Overall drops went:

38 Monday

19 Tuesday

24 Wednesday 1st session – Bad! Not a single time dropless.

16 Wednesday 2nd session – Had another go because I did worse on my first compared to the day before, and got two dropless runs in a row.

11 Thursday

10 Friday

14 Saturday – it looks like I got worse, but I managed it 4 times dropless, the best of the week.

9 Sunday.

My goal was 5 drops in 10 attempts, and I didn’t meet my goal. However, after a week of practice, about 12 hours work in total, I guess, I got it way more solid than before.

Since then I’ve performed the ring routine seven times. I think I dropped, in total, three times. I know I did it dropless on stage four of those shows, though I’m unsure how many drops I made when I did drop.

Which is why, in the space of two cruise ship gigs, and four shows, I could put up two unedited videos of two different routines, purely for the purpose of this workshop series for my blog.

Will I ever put the work in to get to the point where I only make five drops in 10 attempts? Maybe. But for time invested, you get diminishing returns.

From 40 drops to 20 drops took a few days of practice.

From 20 to 10 drops took a week.

From 10 to five drops could take a month.

From five to zero drops could take a year.

If this was my ONLY juggling act, the one that my livelihood depended on, I would put in that work. But over an hour a day for six months isn’t practical for an act which makes up four to seven minutes of a 55 minute show, and I have eight other juggling routines in constant circulation.

Some non-juggler or non-performer people who see me on stage sometimes wonder why I get paid more than they do (or at least get well paid) for only few hours work. It turns out I don’t get paid for the time I’m on stage, I get paid for the ten years of practice to get me there in the first place. And for the daily juggling sessions at home where I just juggle the same shit over and over again.

Up next: Refining your juggling act.