As with ballet, there are thousands of muscular movements that come into play to make the dance routine look so beautiful. But when viewed and listened to as a whole, these parts are invisible. All the audience sees is one beautiful expression. I think this is how great magic should look. Some of you Alexandrites have asked me how to judge what a good magic effect is. I’ll never forget one of my mentors, Peter Pit, who once told me, “The best way to judge a good effect is to ask someone, ‘What did he do?’ If he can describe it with one sentence, it’s a good effect.” In listening to non-magicians describe what impresses them, they’ll talk in terms of one: “He climbed a rope and disappeared at the top.” “He sawed a woman in half.” “He made someone disappear.” People talk about these things because they can describe them in one sentence. You’ll never hear them say, “He had a Chinese box right. And then these paper flowers appeared inside. Then he closed it up and spun it around and coins appeared inside. Then he had it examined, then a giant egg appeared inside, then…” People describe meaningless flourishes as “Tricks.”
Considering magic as mere “tricks” is slanderous to our art form. It insinuates that our displays of wonder are simple and require little or no skill. Terms such as “trick” dress some of our performances as nothing more than a challenge to the spectator. I don’t recall ever meeting someone who wants to be the one tricked.
It’s simple, really. No one wants to appear less knowledgeable than someone else. Referring to magic as a “trick” immediately sets up the terms and conditions of the upcoming interaction as you against them. That’s why many performers will have spectators (especially males all vying to be the alpha) try to pull one over on the performer. Now it’s time for a simple equation: If you try to trick me, but I in turn trick you, that means I’m way too clever for you to fool. And nobody wants to be a fool. Can we blame the spectator for engaging in this natural response?
Telling a story with your magic has much more emotional appeal. Otherwise it’s just a demonstration of how skillful you are – and I hate to break it to you, but people aren’t interested in how skillful you are. In fact, they tend to get a little jealous. They don’t want to see a good looking man be skillful. There’s no appeal in that. Juggling has the same problem sometimes. That’s why so many people say, “Oh he does card tricks,” with disgust. Sommerset Mahm used to explain, “I once met a magician who asked if I’d like to see a card trick. I said no, and he then proceeded to show me every trick he knew.” New Year’s eve of 2002 in Helsinki, Finland, I met a fellow who just couldn’t switch out of “trick mode.” He was annoying everyone, including his girlfriend who I looked at with pity. I’m speaking here purely in terms of entertaining the public. I mean, if it’s magicians you want to entertain, that’s a different story. You show a fellow magician how skillful you are and you’ve probably got a friend for life. I met many of my friends this way.
The great magician Hoffzinzer used to appeal to men and women because of his stories. He’d say, “Do you want to know a secret?” and begin his routine. Everyone was interested. Nate Lipzeig, the great card magician of the 20’s, used to open with thimble magic even though his card work was beautiful and far superior. Nate used to tell other magicians that the reason he did this was that it was poison to walk in front of an audience and take out a pack of cards. The audience would say, “Oh for God’s sake, he does card tricks. He’s one of those guys that annoy you with cards.”
How do we combat this attitude without destroying what little rapport we have with our audience? I submit that if we want our performances respected, we too must respect our art. It is up to us to set the stage, tone, and pacing. A fairly simple way to do this is to use conditioning to help set triggers to pull out the desired response.
For example, when selecting volunteers to help me on stage I look for someone who is willing, but not too willing. I certainly don’t want a person who is going to try to sabotage my effect. Most amateurs feel like they have something to prove and therefore run head on like two rams locking horns to prove dominance. This type of behavior can only lead to a disaster. But what to do with the difficult spectator (this will typically be men, due to our innate nature to be the alpha)? There are several ways in which to set the alpha male at ease. For instance, I sometimes gently nudge a spectator to give the impression as if the two of us are “in on it” together. One could also use witty one-liners that turn the spectators against the troublemaker. For example, we all have had the individual who will lie about the identity of the card that he chose. A simple solution is to look around to the other spectators and state “who are you going to believe? I’m only THE magician.”
Dai Vernon would go as far as telling the spectator to not worry about figuring out the effect, because he was going to let him in on the workings later (even though he didn’t). But he was 50 years ahead of his time. Vernon was unsurpassed in insight and creativity. The 20th century character of physics comes from Einstein, biological thought from Darwin, modern fiddle playing from Paganini. In conjuring, particularly the close-up area, we have Dai Vernon. Stars Of Magic is a book that lists many of his effects, which are still performed with great success. In fact, these effects became the template of modern close-up magic (e.g., Spellbound, Triumph, Travelers, Ambitious Cards, Cups and Balls & Symphony of the Rings). Vernon once said in The Dai Vernon Book Of Magic, “If practice is irksome, take up something else like stamp collecting or the harmonica. The joy is in the acquisition. Getting better is pleasurable.”
With any art you can tell if the person knows anything by the way he approaches the tool. With cards, the way he picks up the deck or holds a single card will give him away. When you’re learning magic from books (still the best way to learn), the text will state things like, “The first joint of the forefinger goes here and the pinky goes there, etc.” But, no two pairs of hands are the same size. Skin textures, finger length, etc. differ. You can’t give exact rules on how to hold cards. You have to think. You get the idea of what the author is trying to accomplish. Then you adapt it to fit your own body. Anyway, here are five rules for highly effective magic. These are just my opinions. But without opinions, we’d never have horse races.
Practice – set aside and schedule time when you can practice your discipline, be it magic, circus, dance, storytelling, or whatever your discipline is.
Rehearse – Go through each part of your show step by step; break each part down until you’re happy with it.
Dress Rehearse – Go through your whole show without interruption or break, regardless of whether you slip up. You are now at the stage of how you intend to perform in front of your audience. If possible, either have a mentor or friend watch your performance, or record yourself performing. Recording is a tool that even Houdini didn’t have. Use a flip camera. The camera will never lie.
Perform – Now go out and perform it for real. Perform your show and make it a reality.
Find A Mentor – There are a number of finer points, such as what, where, and when. But a good mentor is a hard person to find; more so in the magic world as opposed to the circus world. The magic world is full of dealers who give dealer demonstrations. Despite the fact we can learn a lot from them, it doesn’t mean that they will be good mentors. In my experience, working directly with a mentor you cannot help but to adopt some of his or her characteristics.
Be the best magician you can be. Make your own ballet with magic. Focus on all the details and then put them together and forget them, so that your audience will talk about you saying, “Did you see that”? This will fill you with joy and make you want to practice more!