Technical Styles and Schools of Magic

Imagine going into your local McDonald’s. A bow-tied maître d’ with a paper hat leads you to a white-clothed table where you sit down and are given menus written in Italian on parchment paper. You order (as best you can) burgers, which come served in Chinese rice bowls. You order some wine; you are told to go to a service counter to order it where it is served in a polystyrene cup with a straw. You finish your meal with strawberry ice cream served in a cheap plastic tub. During the meal they are playing loud Mexican music, and the staff are wearing 50s style American outfits while sporting curly fake moustaches and tattoos, and talking with upperclass British accents. To say the least one would find this experience disconcerting!

Branding is important. We don’t normally think of branding in magic, especially if we are amateur magicians (‘branding is for professionals’). But branding with a small ‘b’ (as in a type or kind, not as a unique identifier necessarily) is simply another word for style and the ideas it conjures up. Like a brand on an animal, it is something durable and consistent.

Technical styles

We all have our own, unique style of moving, acting and being without even realising it, but as we zoom out the lens of self-examination, the more general our style becomes; at some point we can fit our style into one or more generic or archetypal/stereotypical styles or brands of acting and performing.

Styles affect not only presentation but the way we move and handle props. Some of these technical styles are epitomised by various well-known performers:

  • Messy/casual – Lennart Green, Dani DaOrtiz
  • Smooth/flowing – Ben Earl, Bebel
  • Fast/casino – Steve Forte
  • Snappy/furious – Harry Lorayne
  • Manic/zany – Tamariz
  • Neat/precise – Lance Pierce
  • Natural/generic – Bill Malone, David Blaine
  • Slow/deliberate – Slydini, Rene Levand
  • Flamboyant/flowery – Jean-Pierre Vallarino
  • Graceful/balletic – Shin Lim, David Copperfield
  • Flourishy/flashy – Dan and Dave Buck

You may disagree with some of the adjectives used; it is hard to describe something ultimately intangible. Invent your own ways of picturing and describing various styles; in many ways it is easier to use actual names of performers to define certain styles. Nonetheless there are differences in the way these and all performers move, handle props and present themselves, and it pays to study these. In particular, study how styles of handling tie in with style of appearance, presentation and personality.

Due to the underlying bases in movement, there are equivalences between styles of movement in magic and styles of dance. Flourishing can be likened to break-dancing; slow/deliberate is like the waltz; smooth/flowing is somewhat balletic. Jean-Pierre Vallarino created a move/sequence with cards called the Rumba Count whose style captures his whole brand. Dynamo actually break-dances while flourishing!

Schools of movement

So varied and different are technical styles that they even represent different schools of magic, with hotly contested beliefs about how one should or shouldn’t move. This idea of movement is not as unusual or alien to us as we may think. A cocktail barman will usually handle his or her tools in quite a different style from a barman in your local Wetherspoons, even though they are ultimately doing the same job. The way they move has an effect on how you, yourself behave and think.

Pool players strike the ball differently from snooker players, and the latter are often easily identifiable from one another (Hurricane Higgins vs.  Steve Davis). Tennis is another sport where style of movement is easily discernible. Car-driving is an area of everyday life where style of movement is easily identified.

The more simple and natural the movements of the performer, the less likely is the spectator to detect the trick.’ – Robert-Houdin (trans. Prof. Hoffmann)

Inherent styles

Certain moves and sleights, certain tricks, certain sequences, inherently feature certain styles of handling. While this applies across the board, it is most easily identified in card magic. For example, a Multiple S**** usually involves neatly inserting cards into the deck and pushing them flush, followed by shuffling. On the other hand, there are various Ace-losing sequences that involve casually chucking the Aces into the deck while messily gathering up piles of cards.

Some shuffles require very neat, precise handling while others are deliberately messy and casual-looking. A croupier may riffle shuffle a deck completely differently from an amateur bridge player. We need to learn how to identify (a) the style or brand ‘built into’ a sleight or sequence and (b) our own style/brand of magic and handling, and then ensure the two always match up. If they don’t, anomalous handling will draw unwanted attention and suspicion.

Coming back to our dream-like restaurant scene, this is an exaggerated depiction equivalent or analogous to a magician who uses mixed styles or branding.

Finding equilibrium

If we are naturally fast, impulsive or jerky when moving in everyday life, then for purposes of staging magic it may be desirable to slow down and smooth out our actions to a certain extent. If we are plodding and pedantic, we may have to speed up or streamline our actions and presentations. It is not necessarily desirable to use our everyday style for our magic if that style is clumsy or in some way unattractive or tedious. But there must be a natural cross-over point where our everyday style of movement blends into our magical movements. We must be aware of this and make a deliberate decision to try and always move and act like this within certain, flexible boundaries.

Fundamentally, we must not be seduced into adopting moves and sleights designed by or for magicians of a completely different style. This is to lose our way and to end up trying to become a clone of another magician who epitomises that style. Stick to your guns and don’t give in to the ‘grass is always greener’ illusion. Just because Steve Forte does everything super-fast doesn’t mean that we should; just because Slydini was super-slow doesn’t mean that we should be so; especially if we idolise a certain performer and wish to emulate them.

To be or not to be?

There are schools based nearly totally on flourishing and others where even the  slightest flourish such as a pressure fan or ribbon spread is frowned upon. Such schools get right to the heart of your being: your need to express or be conceived as someone or something (or to avoid such expression). Some people do all they can to do certain things that others ‘wouldn’t be seen dead’ doing. This is one of the many mysteries of life.

Some magicians may feel that ‘this is the point in my life where I will perform like so-and-so, as I have decided that this will suit me’. People make equivalent decisions with the way they dress in everyday life; some manage to keep up this charade for life, whether it’s dressing punk style, rocker, you name it; others succumb to new fashion styles within weeks or months following a sort of pendulum principle (now everybody swings this way, now that way, the important thing being that you’re at the front of the swing, not the back). There’s nothing ‘wrong’ with adopting styles, of course, but the interesting thing is the way these styles unconsciously affect our decisions about what we do, where we go, who we meet, even how we talk, and our overall worldview.

Don’t be magicky

One general style problem often seen in the beginner is wanting to do things ‘magicky’. There are two sides to the way we handle props and move in general: the method side and the effect side. Let’s say you want to execute a French D***. Beginners may be tempted to do this in the manner somewhere between The Great Wizard and a 70s disco dancer, with flamboyant gestures and wavy-shoulder movements.

The secret is always the same: execute the method using the normal, everyday actions you would use in the post-office queue, and then if you like the magicky/discoey bit, do this when the ‘moment of magic’ occurs: the wand waving, finger clicking or other magical gesturing. Apply time-misdirection to separate  the method from the magicky stuff. Sometimes the effect and method coincide (eg, Erdnase C*****), but one can still break this up into (a) natural start to the move and (b) magicky ending as the new card comes into view.

Another common problem which causes students to struggle is going too fast. Speed is something that develops unconsciously. This can only occur when one has practised in slow-motion and trained the brain and body to move and act in a certain way. Exaggerated arm and hand movements during f**se transfers is a further issue; one cannot develop a conscious style of movement until movement itself is under deliberate control. This takes time to develop coordination, muscle strength and awareness in how one moves. (The ‘Upside-Down Banknote’ is a wonderful trick for training the student in movement.)

The half-moon spread was the simple, the obvious way to proffer a pack for the taking of a card. The flourish was incidental.’ – J.N. Hilliard

Mechanics vs technique

When magicians learn a new sleight or sequence, in their desire to master it and ‘do it right’ they adopt the posture, movement and body language of the person who inspired them. This is difficult to overcome unless pointed out by someone trained in body language and self-awareness. It must always be remembered that, no only does style come from within but so does technique; there is a fine line between the mechanics of a particular sleight and the body language used when performing it.

While we learn new sleights from external sources most of the time, we need to learn to differentiate between mechanics, and technique in the sense of style. For example, the T** Ch**** has simple mechanics, but techniques for it abound, many of them based on personal idiosyncrasies.

Presentation as expression

As mentioned earlier, our style of being and acting affects the way we talk; not necessarily our accent but what we talk about and how we say it. We should stop thinking of presentation as something artificially added onto an effect, and start thinking of it as the way we present ourselves: our clothes, our magic, actions and words. This is our branding, our style. It is normal for me to talk about psychology, for example, as I am genuinely interested in this. For others, mentioning Jung or Freud will sound fake. It would be similarly fake for me to adopt ‘underground, American card-cheat slang’ (many magicians do so, without realising how anomalous it sounds).

The safest style for most beginners is the natural/generic style used by most magicians. However, this is a double-edged sword. While this is a safe option for general use, the adoption of anomalous or atypical handling and presentation styles must be guarded against as carefully (if not more so) as by any other type of performer. Indeed, adopting a certain identifiable style in many ways makes it easier to identify anomalies; being ‘somewhere in the middle’ can make it all too easy to swing this way and that without realising it.

All roads lead to Milan

The interesting and helpful thing about style is the way it affects everything: the way we move, act, talk, present. If you aren’t sure what style of presentation to use magically, think about how you move and act in everyday life. I’m normally quite considered and careful, so it wouldn’t make sense for me to present myself as someone slapdash.

On the other hand, let’s say you aren’t sure what kind of technical style of execution suits you best; just look at how you normally talk and present yourself. The one affects the other, and finding a style has multiple entry points which then affect the others. To take one obvious example, there is a clear connection between flourishing (cardistry) and skateboarding culture; some of the card and skateboard moves (and technical names) even resemble one another!

But there is much leeway and one shouldn’t draw false conclusions. Wearing a baseball cap backwards and growing a beard doesn’t inherently mean one should become a flourisher! The matter of style is far more an inner expression than an intellectual choice. (Maybe the beard and baseball cap are just a passing phase.)

Branding for all

Just because one is an amateur doesn’t mean that discovering a brand isn’t important. We can be unconsciously and uncaringly brandless, but as seen above, that simply makes us less aware of our style and more prone to cloning and mimicry; the very things we wanted to avoid when we rejected branding as something irrelevant or undesirable. It also makes us susceptible to buying every new trick and gimmick that comes out and being led astray by every new craze; it’s almost as if in our search for the perfect trick, the latest back design, the newest buzz, we are searching for the perfect brand.

2 thoughts on “Technical Styles and Schools of Magic

  1. Joe

    Justin – I read this and thought, as always, that you make very good points. Took me a minute to figure out what T** Ch**** meant, but I got there! Love the way you make this accessible for magicians but don’t make it easy for non-magicians to Google “how did he do that”.

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