Tuesday, August 28, 2007

What Moves Do I Need To Learn To Be A Magician?

In the previous post I observed that what someone needs to learn to be a magician is the ability to interact with others. Now, because I have strong feelings about the subject, I may have inadvertently given the impression that moves are of no importance at all. Nothing could be further from the truth. It’s just that it sticks in my proverbial craw that whenever the question of what’s most important to learn comes up, interpersonal communication is usually not even mentioned, let alone seriously considered.

Look, I love sleight of hand – nothing gets me going like a really clever and deceptive move. It’s just that in the overall scheme of being a magician, I would argue that the moves are subordinate to other less tangible attributes. Think about it for a second: Who do you think would fare better before an audience, the person who’s naturally charismatic and gets along well with others, armed with a couple of self working tricks, or the guy who’s withdrawn and socially inept, yet imbued with astonishing manipulative skill? I know who I’d put my money on. It’s a hard fact, and one that drives certain enthusiasts crazy, but manipulative ability takes a back seat to communication ability.

When you see magicians bashing someone like Blaine, this is what they fail to comprehend. His double lift sucks, he mumbles, he has no presentation. What they’re missing is that Blaine has the ability to connect with an audience, and he does it exceedingly well. The audience isn’t scoring his double lift or ability to speak clearly or denuded presentation. They’re responding to him, they’re connected to him. And that ability is worth all the moves in the world.

On to the moves, which is what I wanted to focus on this time around. Because if you want to be a magician, especially of the close-up variety, you’re going to need an arsenal of moves to make your wonders possible. Some might say you don’t need any moves, with the wide range of self working effects available, but I would disagree. I’m no sleight of hand purist, but merely a pragmatist who believes in the best tool for the job, and many times the best tool is a sleight. More, if you rely solely on gimmicks, there will come a time when something goes wrong and a sleight can bail you out. When taking piano you learn and practice scales; in close-up magic you learn and practice sleights. But probably the greatest argument for mastering some sleights is the ability it affords you to do magic anywhere, anytime, with just about anything. That, my friends, is about as close to real magic as you can get.

Where to begin? When you venture into the land of close-up sleight of hand you discover right away that there’s an overwhelming assortment of choices – moves which can accomplish nearly any secret action you can imagine with cards or coins or other small objects. The other thing you better discover quickly, or risk a lifetime of mediocre magic, is that there’s no way you could ever come close to mastering everything, or even learning everything. There’s way way too much information available. Discernment is key.

There are certain criteria you can apply to prospective moves to gauge their potential value. The first thing you should ask yourself — and it might seem obvious, but judging by the bad magic out there ostensibly it’s not – is, can I use this? Do you have a specific purpose for the move, or are you simply taken with its cleverness? How exactly can the move be used?
Assuming it is something you can use, you should next determine the extent of its usefulness. If it’s a move which can only be used for a single effect, is that effect worth the investment of time required? A move with sundry applications is usually far more valuable than a move with minimal uses.

How practical is the move? Can it only be employed with the audience directly in front of you looking down at your hands? To go into it do you need to have the deck balanced on your left heel? To get out of it do you have to flip the deck so it lands on your head? Okay, I’m employing a bit of hyperbole…but not much!

How difficult is it? You have to balance that response against the previous responses to decide if it’s worth the time. Are you willing to spend ten years practicing something with only a couple of uses, or something with angles so restrictive you’ll only be able to use it one time out of ten?

As you can see, there’s no secret formula at work here, only common sense. And yet magicians devote years to monstrosities with limited use that are so difficult as to be nearly impossible. Hey, if you’re the type who enjoys practicing in front of the bedroom mirror, maybe that’s for you. God knows there’s a legion of move junkies out there, so enamored with developing their digital dexterity they’ll never see the forest for the trees. If you want to do magic, however, you have to keep things in perspective and remember that the moves are but a means to an end.
What moves, specifically, would I recommend to the beginning magician as being worth his or her while?

I remember in Paul Gertener’s book Steel And Silver he talks about meeting his mentor in magic. He showed the guy some goofly and unimpressive little tricks using the glide, after which the mentor patiently asked, Can you palm a coin?

I’ve always liked that story as it pretty much sums up everything I’ve been talking about here. How many magicians are out there, do you suppose, who could show you any number of obscure sleights but would be unable to do something as seemingly basic as palm a coin? In David Ben’s Vernon biography he talks about how Vernon was reluctant to release some of his moves because magicians on average didn’t go to the trouble of mastering even basic moves. The more things change the more they stay the same.

If there’s a fundamental starting sleight in close-up magic, I would say it’s the palm. It has more uses than just about any other move I can imagine. Think about it – it’s the ability to secretly conceal an object in the palm of your hand. If you’re a magician without a use for that ability… Well, maybe you should take up the guitar or juggling or something.

Here’s the amazing thing. It’s the most basic sleight in close up magic and yet there are people out there who say they can’t palm a coin! Even worse, the so called experts come along and say, Well so and so couldn’t palm a coin either so you’re not alone, and it took me twenty years to palm a coin correctly.

Listen to me: If it takes you twenty freaking years to learn to palm a coin or do just about anything else you are in the wrong game.

My take on this is that the people claiming they can’t palm a coin are under the mistaken impression that the hand must be held perfectly flat when an object is palmed. Wrong. Take a look at your own hands. Unless they’re flat on your desk, or you’re just a very strange person, you’re not holding them flat. Holding your hand perfectly flat would be weird. A hand relaxed is slightly curled with the thumb about parallel with the index finger, not sticking out. If you can’t palm a coin you’re just not doing it right. It’s not that you’re genetically unable, etc. You just need to go back and learn how – or even better get someone to show you how.

So that’s where I would advise any would be magician to start. Learn to palm, and by no means limit yourself to coins. Try to palm any small object you can, and once palmed try to keep it palmed while doing other things. Any time I’m in a store I’ll be walking around with coins palmed in one or both hands. After a time you don’t even think about it. That means that in performance it’s a natural thing, second nature. You don’t think about it and neither will anyone else.

Beyond the classic palm, I would learn the Thumb Palm and Downs Palm, both moves with many potential uses. Learn a couple of vanishes, at least one of the Retention of Vision variety, if for no other reason than to understand this very important concept. Moving to cards, the palm is again something that can’t be over rated. Vernon’s Topping The Deck is a very good, invisible way to palm a card. Learn a control, and it doesn’t have to be the pass. There are lots of good alternatives, which is why people like Daryl and Ammar don’t use the pass themselves. A double lift that looks like a single card being turned over – and not being thrown all about in the process. Hell, learn to do a neat in the hands shuffle. There are kids who have multiple packets of cards flying around who can’t do a neat shuffle.

Learn the basics, get them down. They’re basics because they have so many uses and have proven themselves time and time again. From there the choice is yours, but by having a firm grasp of the basics you’ll be building on a solid foundation and that’ll make you a much better magician.

1 comment:

Joe Marshall said...

I have developed a similar approach to the ones you mention. I learned the basics sleights and worked on presentations to basic magic effects.

From there I spent the next 20 plus years learning how to catalog moves in my mental memory bank.

Sleights that are good for one on one performance
Sleights that are good for television audiences
Sleights that are good for surrounded audiences
Sleights that are good for any condition
Sleights that are good for stage

After a while I realized that I was using different sleights for different situations, whenever I needed to call upon them.

Today I am twenty-seven, and it is rare that I will decide to pick up the newest variation of an older sleight for the exact reason you state in your post - “Do you have a specific purpose for the move, or are you simply taken with its cleverness? How exactly can the move be used?” After a while it is one of the most important questions to concern yourself with.

Good post!