Learning to Juggle 5 Balls

by Rick Moll
(last updated 02 November 1991)
Rick has written quite a comprehensive document on 5 ball juggling which is supplemented by the advice of others on rec.juggling (see Going in Circles and also Advice on juggling 5 balls). If you want to jump straight to a part that interests you then use the index below.
Chapter 1) What is this document about?
Chapter 2) What am I really trying to learn?
Chapter 3) What does a "proper" 5 ball cascade look like?
Chapter 4) Where do I start?
Chapter 5) OK, now I want to *really* start!
Chapter 6) I'm having problem X, what should I do?
Chapter 7) OK, I've got the pattern, but it still isn't quite solid.

Chapter 1) What is this document about?

This document describes techniques for learning to juggle five balls in a standard "cascade" pattern. It is not meant to be a general discussion about five ball juggling, but specifically about learning and improving the basic pattern.

This material is primarily a reflection of the opinions of the author, but many ideas have come from discussions with other jugglers. Comments on any of the material are greatly appreciated. If there is enough response, the new information will be included in a revised version. Please send any comments about this document to rick@nullset.uucp.

It is assumed that the reader already has a very stable three ball cascade and can do a good number of tricks from that pattern.

Hopefully, the advice given will make learning the five ball cascade easier, but it will still require many hours of work. Don't be discouraged if, for a time, you don't seem to be making progress. With regular practice, you can master 5 balls.

Chapter 2) What am I really trying to learn?

As you probably know, the basic 5 ball pattern is the cascade; i.e. the same as the basic 3 ball pattern. So what makes it so much harder than 3 balls? The obvious answer is that it is faster, but that's really only half the story. The other half is that your throws have to be much more accurate. Because there can be two balls in the same path in the air at the same time, a low throw followed by a high throw will cause two balls to come down at the same time-- disaster.

The two effects, the speed and accuracy requirements, feed off one another to make the pattern quite difficult, at first, anyway. The speed of the pattern makes it difficult to make accurate throws, and conversely, an inaccurate throw will put even greater demands on your speed. A throw to the wrong height will have one ball coming down too soon after another, while a throw which is off to the right, left, front, or back will require additional hand movement which eats up time.

A number of common problems are mentioned in chapter 6. All of these problems, however, are based on the interplay of the same two elements-- the speed and accuracy requirements of the 5 ball cascade.

Chapter 3) What does a "proper" 5 ball cascade look like?

The usual 5 ball pattern is an inside cascade. This is the same as the usual 3 ball cascade, except that instead of 1 or 2 balls in the air at any time, there are now 3 or 4. Balls are thrown alternately from the left hand to the right, and from the right hand to the left.

There should be little movement of the upper arms; the elbows remain close to the sides of the body. The forearms move in elongated ellipses, slightly angled inward from vertical. At the moment of the throw, the wrist breaks exactly in line with the forearm; there is no sideways movement of the wrist. The palm is up.

The height of the throws varies greatly as a matter of personal preference; it is easier to make accurate throws in a lower pattern, but more accuracy is required since there is less time for corrections.

The width of the pattern should be just slightly wider than the shoulders at the base, such that the ball can be reached comfortably without moving the elbow very much away from the body.

The feet are planted a little more than shoulder width apart and the knees are slightly bent. The eyes are focused on the tops of the to ball arcs. The hands are not necessarily within the field of view.

Chapter 4) Where do I start?

When you first start out to practice the 5 ball cascade itself, most of your practice will be in picking up the balls. In order to develop the skills needed for 5 with exercises that are in more immediate reach, you need to isolate the individual skills and practice them separately. This is sometimes referred to as working "under the trick", since your practice is easier than the skill you are trying to develop.

Here is a list of tricks that will be helpful in developing specific skills needed for the 5 ball cascade. In the beginning, you should practice these heavily. As these skills become more solid, practice on them can be diminished as you begin doing more actual 5 ball juggling.

Chapter 5) OK, now I want to really start!

Whatever other exercises you use to prepare for 5 balls, the only way to learn the 5 ball cascade is to do it, and to do a lot of it. There are two common ways to start learning the 5 ball cascade itself.

The first way is to do a few five ball standing flashes, then try to make a few more throws, and finally just try to keep it going as long as possible.

The other common approach is to hold 5 balls, but begin juggling only three. Then, do a three up flash (exercise C from chapter 4) but instead of the hand clap, you throw the other two balls to start a 5 ball cascade. This method seems to be harder for most people, but try it a few times and see if it works for you.

As you begin to discover the "feel" of the 5 ball cascade, you will also discover what pattern height works best for you. Start by throwing about as high as you can reach standing on tip-toes, but adjust to what works for you. The higher you throw, the more time you will have to make adjustments, but the more a small throwing error will be magnified. This is a very individual thing; try different heights.

When you first start practicing the 5 ball pattern, it will fall apart almost immediately. Later, you will be able to keep it going long enough to have the option of stopping under control, or keeping the juggle going until it falls apart by itself. You should practice some of each, sometimes stopping before the pattern falls apart, to better remember the correct pattern, and sometimes keep the pattern going as long as possible, regardless of how sloppy it gets, to practice corrections.

As you progress, don't be afraid to try tricks and variations; the worst that can happen is that you won't be able to do them immediately.

On a regular basis, pick out one aspect of your juggling and spend ten minutes or so just focusing on that one aspect. Later, when these things go wrong, you'll be better able to recognize the error. Some possible things to focus on are:

  1. Seeing the top of the pattern.
  2. Making regular throws, exactly in line with the arm. i.e. no sideways motion.
  3. Timing. All the balls spaced evenly, and neither too fast or slow. The timing of the start is especially important.
  4. Catches. Concentrating on the catches will make them much more reliable, but may ruin the pattern. Take some time to pay attention to the catches until proper catches become automatic.
  5. Breathing. Force yourself to breathe normally while juggling.
  6. Control of pattern width.
  7. Body position.
  8. Anything else which you think may be causing a problem.

Above all, when you have a good run, or a successful trick, take a little time to concentrate on remembering what it felt like, what the rhythm was, how you made the throws, how your body was arranged, how much effort you had to use, and anything else that your successes have in common.

Chapter 6) I'm having problem X, what should I do?

This chapter describes some common problems you may experience as you try to solidify your 5 ball cascade, along with strategies for overcoming them.

A) The pattern gets too wide.
This tends to happen when there isn't enough time to bring the hands back toward the center of the body to make the throws. It may be a sign of a too low pattern, or of fatigue or laziness. Try throwing a little higher and putting more energy into the pattern.
B) The pattern gets too narrow.
The pattern may be too high. Try to bring it down a little and to spread it out slowly by throwing from a position farther from the centerline of your body. If you try to correct this too fast, you are likely to have a collision.
C) The pattern moves to one side.
When this happens, the pattern will probably also get too narrow. The correction for this situation is a little anti-intuitive. If, for example, the pattern is moving too far to the right, then you should move the right hand even farther to the right to spread out the pattern and at the same time bring the pattern height down just a little. Then, when the pattern has resumed its correct shape, you can move the whole pattern back to the center.
D) After the first 5 throws, the pattern goes once more around and then falls apart.
It may seem strange to the beginning 5 ball juggler, but one of the most common errors in the 5 ball cascade, and even with higher numbers, is starting *too fast*. Try a few 5 ball standing flashes to get your timing back. Try slowing down; going too slow is much easier to notice than going too fast. Be sure to concentrate on remembering the correct rhythm when you find it.
Another problem that can cause the pattern to disintegrate at the same point every time is a single bad throw. Very often the 4th or 5th throw will be weak or misdirected with each start. Try doing a standing 5 ball flash without catching any of the balls; just watch them hit the ground and see if the rhythm and placement are correct.
E) The pattern is OK until I try to breathe, then it disintegrates.
This is a very common problem, without obvious solution. Take some extra time to practice breathing normally while juggling. It is also possible that a slightly higher pattern will help you to relax.

Chapter 7) OK, I've got the pattern, but it still isn't quite solid.

There are many tricks that can be done from a 5 ball cascade, and many alternate patterns for 5 balls. Working on any of these will also help to solidify your 5 ball cascade, as well as keeping your practice more interesting. Among the things you might try are walking forward and backward, a 5 ball half shower, one under the leg and juggling at different heights. Any 5 ball trick will take a lot of work, so don't get discouraged if it doesn't come easily. With continued practice, you will almost certainly exceed your expectations.

Try doing a 7 ball standing flash. Even if you aren't ready to actually learn it, it will make 5 balls seem slower, and you may find that it's not as hard as you thought.

Work on conditioning. 5 balls is the first pattern for which muscle endurance becomes a real issue. Try juggling 5 for as long as you can; when you drop, start again immediately. Try juggling 4 and 5 with heavier objects.

Study the form of excellent numbers jugglers and try to imitate them. As you watch, imagine yourself in their place and imagine how it feels. Keep whatever works for you and discard what doesn't. Study numbers jugglers with varying styles to get an idea of what will work for you. For example, Dan Bennett uses low patterns and super-fast hands, while Anthony Gatto uses much higher and slower patterns with almost perfect accuracy.

The mastery of the 5 ball cascade will provide you with all the tools necessary to proceed to higher numbers, should you be so inclined. 7 balls is much harder than 5, but is not really different in the way that 5 balls was different from 3.

Finally, find your own level and style of practice. The most important element of learning numbers is regular practice, so if your workouts don't keep you motivated, you're unlikely to get very far.

Phil Thomas/ Juggling Information Service / ukrthop@prl.philips.co.uk