Play Your Scales

The summer I turned 13 I decided I was going to learn how to juggle.

I’d grown up my whole life watching my dad and his three brothers juggle during family gatherings, picnics, and it was finally time for me to learn.

Dad patiently taught me the basics: 95% of juggling consists of either throwing or catching an object. It’s that simple. Practice these two basic skills, and you’ll have it down in no time.

In a couple afternoons I could do something that was close enough to be called “juggling.”

A couple weeks later I attended a summer camp where I met my first true mentor; a retired street performer from South Florida.

He taught me how to juggle pins.

He saw I could juggle tennis balls so he loaned me an old set of his juggling pins (which are still in my closet today, even though I’ve gone through several sets of my own pins) to practice with.

He told me:

Juggling is just like playing music. You’ll want to do the fancy stuff from the beginning, but you have to learn how to play your scales; that’s how you make music.

In music “playing your scales” is exactly that; practicing your scales without worrying about melody, or musicality. You’re just playing the same set of notes over and over. Then you do the next scale. Then the next. Start over and repeat them all again. It’s torture.

In juggling, “playing your scales” means working with a single juggling pin. Tossing it from hand to hand with no rotation. Then tossing and catching it in one hand with rotation. Then tossing it from one hand to the other with rotation.

Mind numbing.

But in a couple months I was juggling fire.

At 13 years old.

To most people it seems impossible; a [barely] teenager juggling FIRE! To my dad, my mentor, and then me it was simple: the amazing fun things are all built on top of the basics. Spend your time practicing the boring stuff, and you’ll get to do the exciting stuff.

Tourists In Martial Arts

I see this exact same issue crop up with Kung Fu students. They think they’re interested in learning Wing Chun, but they’re actually looking for a form of distraction and entertainment.

The Wing Chun system is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen in my life. It’s elegant, compact, and infinitely applicable.

But it’s simple.

It’s basic.


They want to do the fun flips, kicks, and tricks. They want to do the “exciting stuff.” So I play a little game that’s much like the game of “Indian Leg Wrestling” I grew up playing with my friends:

We each plant our feet, grab their right hand with my right hand, and then we try to push or pull each other off balance.

Wing Chun’s version isn’t exactly the same, but the idea is right: push or pull the other person off balance without moving your feet to do it & don’t let them do that to you.

Rarely have I found someone who I can’t knock off balance. Easily.


Because I study the basics. I practice them. Every day.

The tourists think it’s some kind of secret knowledge I’m not sharing with them, but it’s nothing like that.

I can do what they can’t because I do what they won’t.

The next time you find yourself thinking, “I wish I could. . .” take a moment to consider whether you actually want to do whatever it is, or you’re interested in being seen as someone who can do whatever it is.

Big difference.

No matter what, if you really truly want to get good at doing anything, you’re going to spend a lot of time doing the things everybody else discounts in favor of the ‘exciting stuff.’

Little do they know they’re building their house of skills on a foundation of sand.

Scroll to top