...I kept my antennae out for ideas that might be valuable for either sight-reading or memorizing music on a page. I picked up an unusual one from a visiting daughter who was learning how to juggle. "Funny thing, Mother," Rhonda said, "I practiced juggling the other day for half an hour or so, and then went to the piano to practice. I don't know whether there is any connection, but I swear my sight-reading was twice as good as usual."
You can imagine my reaction. Before the day was over I had a good start on learning how to juggle. Though I felt a noticeable difference in my sight-reading, I wasn't ready to credit the juggling yet. "Power of suggestion, probably," I thought dubiously, but went back to juggling because it was fun. The next time my threesome appeared I greeted them with my new act. Barry shook his head. "Bonkers. Really bonkers. She's supposed to be teaching us to sight-read," he said to the others.
"Oh, but I am!" I insisted," Can't you tell?" The studio got a little wild that day with balls flying every which way. I was interested to find that after only 15 minutes or so of working with the balls, Ruth and Barry already noticed a change. Pam, who had settled for being a poor sight-reader for the rest of her life, could see no immediate improvement in her sight-reading, but reported later that juggling improved her tennis serve dramatically!
The people who have found the juggling helpful find it hard to describe what happens. Ruth said she felt less frantic, more gathered together and present. One man, a university teacher and performing artist, marveled at how his eyes could sort out patterns more easily, especially in the complex interweaving lines of something like a Bach fugue. Another man mentioned that his peripheral vision loosened up enough to allow him to give his attention more fully to the written music.
When I myself have difficulty sight-reading, I get the feeling that my brain jams. My teacher used to give gold stars for memorizing. I got lots of gold stars, but never suspected my deficiency in sight-reading until a junior high music teacher whom I had a crush on handed me a glee club piece to read. I can still feel the shade of my face when I tried. When I am juggling, I get into a state that is nonverbal and almost meditative. There is no way that I can use words to help me figure out which ball to catch or when to throw it. If I start thinking too hard about it, I get that familiar feeling of my brain jamming and lose a ball. When I juggle first, and then carry my juggling state of mind to the piano, I find that my brain feels somehow more synchronized, as if all the cogs are oiled and working smoothly.
I wonder if juggling would help Cindy in her dance class where she has to listen to verbal descriptions of complex patterns before she translates them into body movements. "Hold on," she could tell her dance teacher. "Give me four or five minutes to juggle first before you describe the next sequence." Or when the lady starts waving her umbrella at me to tell me how to find Trafalgar Square in London, perhaps I could pull out my juggling balls and straighten my brains out ahead of time!
It never occurred to me to wonder if juggling would help Roger with his memorizing, but he came in one day asking if we could work with the balls before we started working on memorizing. An earlier attempt at juggling had been a disaster, and it was clear that Roger was not cut out for a juggling act on our downtown mall.
"I don't mean juggling," he said, when I did a double-take. "I just want to work with throwing the balls." His difficulty with even this elementary skill indicated one more puzzling piece in the puzzle that was Roger.
We began simply by throwing and catching one ball, then added a second. I threw my right-hand ball to his right, then my left to his left, setting up a cross pattern visually. We tried an "inner game" trick when he got tense about catching. "Stop worrying about whether you catch it or not, and just pay attention to the lettering on the ball as it comes towards you." When he saw the lettering, he really saw the ball, and was more apt to catch it. It also helped when he watched the shape of the arc the ball made in the air, or listened to the sound as it plopped into his hand. His catching got smoother and more sure.
At one point Roger took off his glasses and said, "I want to try something." His vision without glasses was about half his normal vision, yet he still caught the balls. "Let me try something else. I'm going to close my eyes when the ball gets to the top of the arc and see what happens." Interesting experiment, but I didn't think it could work. But Roger caught the ball on his second try, and on his third and fourth.
"Hey, let me try that," I said. He threw; I cheated. It was surprisingly hard to make my eyes turn loose of that ball. We tried several more times before I could get my eyes to close. Plop! Like magic, I felt a ball materialize in my hand. "I don't know what all this has to do with memorizing Mozart," I said, "but it's pretty astounding." I always enjoy the look of disbelief on someone's face when I try this experiment on them. No one ever expects it to work, because they always half suspect that someone else is cheating and not really closing his eyes.
"What prompted you to work with juggling balls today?" I asked Roger.
"I was just curious. You keep talking about how it helps people with sight-reading. I wondered if it might have any effect on memorizing." Since actual juggling had proved impossible, he had wanted to practice first only with throwing. Since the throwing and catching had gone to an interesting level, I wondered if there might be any noticeable effect.
Back to the piano. Back to Mozart.
"Hey, I don't know whether I'm imagining it or not, but this is the easiest time I've ever had trying to memorize anything," he said after 15 minutes or so of intensive work.
He wasn't imagining anything. We found that each time he clutched up about memorizing after that, he could loosen things up by working with the balls. It always seemed to clear his head and get his brain fine tuned for the job, just as it does with many sight-readers.
We discovered an important, unexpected bonus: a work-out with the balls not only gives the brain a boost, it also gives hands and fingers an unbelievably good warm-up. It's great for pianists, string players, clarinetists - anyone who needs strong agile fingers on his instrument. Lacrosse balls, standard for jugglers, are best to use, though tennis balls will do for a start.
My theory on all this? I believe the juggling or even the throwing and catching with alternate hands stimulates some complex interaction between the two brain hemispheres. Certainly juggling involves eye-hand coordination and timing similar to that in playing music. Whatever it is that happens, it seems worth remembering and experimenting with further. A woman who had worked conscientiously on memorizing a Brahms rhapsody found that whenever she got to a certain measure she would blow it. We worked from every possible angle on awareness, yet she still blew it. What finally worked? A 15 minute session with juggling. Somehow her brain connected with her body and there it was - the whole passage - finally comfortable and playable. The jangles left her body and she was free to make use of her previous work. It's a pretty neat trick to keep up your sleeve...