How I Learned How to Learn: An Anecdotal Case Study of Right-Handed Juggling and Left-Handed Drumming

learn about learning juggling drumming

I was sitting in a drum workshop yesterday, when it hit me how much I’ve learned about learning since taking up drumming. I’m more comfortable with the learning process now than at any time in the past. When considered from the point of view of having attended public schools in the 1960s in suburban New Jersey, this is something of a miracle.

For all the things my excellent public school education did teach me, the one thing it didn’t was how to learn – Unless the best way to learn is to sit at a desk quietly listening to what a teacher is saying up at the front of the classroom. It never was for me, but I’m an adaptable sort, and it took me until entering an occupational therapy program in college at age 30 to learn that I’m a kinesthetic learner. I learn by touching, by doing and by experiencing.

Let me back up even farther, though. I have to tell you first that I was born left-handed. The kind of leftie who doesn’t hook their wrist when writing, whose writing doesn’t slant backwards, who doesn’t have to hold the page almost horizontally in order to write on the lines. In other words, a natural leftie.

In this right-handed world, I’ve always been confused about left and right. The reason is I learned at an early age to translate in my mind the word “right” – as relates to hands – as “left.” I then translate every other “right” as a “left” and before I know it, I’m giving bad directions.

Another thing: I was smitten by the juggling bug back in the 80s, when I hooked up with a cute guy who juggled on the streets of Cambridge (Massachusetts) for a living. He hung out with the nicest geeks, all obsessed with how to toss something and catch it, multiply by 3 or 5 or 7, and repeat – without dropping them.

My road to learning how to juggle was long and uphill. I got really good at retrieving rolling objects. Soon, though, I learned to practice standing at the side of my bed, so dropped balls fell closer. Retrieval became much easier.

Since retrieval was easier, I didn’t worry so much about dropping. I started focusing on my tossing instead, aiming for a nice, easy, high arc from hand to hand. Wild differences between my right hand to left hand and my left hand to right hand tosses were ironed out. Soon, I could juggle three beanbags without dropping.

Then I moved on to juggling pins, then to juggling with a partner. When juggling with a partner, there are conventions to follow. One is to always start with a right hand toss. Thus, without realizing it, I became a right-handed juggler by first becoming a balanced juggler.

Fast forward 15 years, and drumming entered my life. I can’t explain what happened in words. Just picture someone pointing, mouth agape, kind of hopping around with a bemused expression on their face. That was me the first time I woke up to the magic of drumming. “I want to do that!” was all I could manage to say.

And then I discovered the frame drum. The frame drum community also has its share of geeks, also wonderful people who share an obsession. This one is about rhythms that make your spirit soar. As I sat in my workshop yesterday, I couldn’t think of any other group of people I felt more at home with. In fact, I wanted to hold them all close and never go home. It was that kind of week.

In the frame drum tradition we follow, each stroke has a name, and the beat is kept by stepping in place. Right. Left. Right. Left. The rhythms are often syncopated and often in odd-numbered time signatures. Playing in 7 / 8 or 2 / 3 is not unusual.

Since we have two feet (if not, everyone has two sides to their body), we are always stepping (or rocking) in 2. To learn a rhythm, then, a frame drummer steps in two, plays in 5 or 7 or 3, and speaks the rhythm, all at the same time.

This does a number on your brain, ultimately a good thing. But at first, it’s an uncomfortable, frustrating, absolutely unparalleled experience of disorientation. Every automatic circuit for doing things is temporarily unhooked and plugged in somewhere else. Thankfully, I made the decision in my first frame drum workshop to hold and play left-handed. Otherwise, I might be there still.

How I responded to the challenge of learning the frame drum was the same way I responded to the challenge of learning to juggle. I obsessed. I walked the long, uphill path until I could play that first rhythm. And, effortlessly, I switched “left” for “right” when I encountered it in the notation.

But, somehow, after that, when I would be in a drum workshop learning something new and found myself again on the uphill path, I would have two struggles: the one in which my body was learning a new skill, and the one in which my mind was telling me I should already be able to do this.

Where did this crazy idea come from?

I’m reminded of the error messages I sometimes get on my computer. Often they tell me what’s going wrong in a matter-of-fact way. “Your disk storage is almost full.”

At other times, an error message doesn’t make sense. “Error ACQ-956.” Eventually, I realize it’s more of a red flag: not meant to point the way to a fix, just saying, “Something’s wrong here, beware!”

“Restart!” someone will call from across a room or across time. And I do, and it’s fixed.

Those crazy thoughts and feelings that go through my mind when I’m learning something new are just the system saying, “Holy crap, we don’t know what just hit us, but disequilibrium has occurred! Go back to eating popcorn and watching Netflix!!”

When, really, another part of me is perfectly content, knowing I’m engaged in something that will ultimately be a rewarding and expansive experience.

To sum up, here’s what I’ve learned about learning from juggling and drumming:

  1. Learning is a continual process of letting go of the conscious mind’s wish to figure things out and resultant freak-out at not being able to, trusting the body, learning to hold a relaxed but firm, yet fluid and rhythmic stance, all while breathing and smiling.
  2. Learning something new doesn’t have to be serious, even when you’re obsessed and determined and want badly to master it. Obsession can look like grim determination. Check in with your heart. If it’s happy, smile. Smiling makes the learning process go better.
  3. Mastery takes practice. Practice only helps if you learn from your mistakes as well as from what you did well. It’s like constantly stirring something into a wonderful batter. Regularly taste the batter and correct as needed.
  4. It’s more fruitful to focus on doing the best you can than on avoiding making mistakes. Do what you can to mitigate the consequences of your mistakes, and then feel free to make as many of them as necessary.
  5. It’s possible to strengthen your weak spots, illuminate your unconscious places, and balance your skills so that something like synchrony can take place.
  6. It’s also possible for perplexed agitation to be replaced by enlightened curiosity when confronted with something you don’t know how to do and are convinced will never be able to do (perhaps because of a genetic flaw that only you have.)
  7. You can do and enjoy things that don’t come naturally to you, if you want to, not because fame and fortune and social media posts, but because doing them liberates things in your brain that badly need liberating.
  8. When you’re in the learning process, it seems as you will always be a beginner. You will always be a beginner, but it will become less uncomfortable the more time you spend there.
  9. There are other people just as crazy as you learning this weird thing, too. Find them, play with them, befriend them and let them see you drop, slip, and fall out of rhythm. Then laugh with them. They are your kind of crazy. I promise.

How about you? Let us know in the comments: What are you learning about learning in the new ventures you’re embarking on? What’s your obsession? Who are your geeky friends on the path?

Until next time,



by Phyllis Capanna © 2016 joyreport

All content is the sole property of Phyllis Capanna. If you are reading this content on another site, it has been reposted without the author’s permission and is in violation of the DMCA.  © 2016 Phyllis Capanna

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