The Multi-Dimensional World of Routining

As soon as you learn more than one piece of magic, the question arises as to what order to do the tricks in. Of course with two tricks it isn’t hard; you just do whichever trick feels right, first. However, as you develop a repertoire over the months and years this approach to routining – doing tricks in whichever order feels right – remains the core approach. Other factors such as choreography and logistics become more significant the more one develops magically, and the professional must be acutely aware of peaks and troughs of impact; but the artistic and intuitive side of the equation remains strongly significant.

Routining is the joining of several effects into one sequence, routine or show. There are differing reasons, theories and contexts when it comes to linking tricks into routines. In magic we use ‘routine’ as a verb and the act of forming a routine is ‘routining’. Routining is a double-edged sword: it can make or break your magic depending on how you use it.

Some of the main forms of and reasons for routining are as follows:

Multi-phase effects

‘Coins Across’ is not so much a routine as a sequence of repeated tricks which follow in close succession. Other examples are the ‘Slow-Motion Ace Assembly’ and the classic triple-penetration phase of the Cups and Balls. Many packet tricks such as ‘Colour Monte’, ‘Twisting the Aces’ and Walton’s ‘A Switch in Time’ are structured like this. Almost any Ace production follows this formula.

Effects such as these have a perceivable progression: several objects move or transform one by one, or a story or logical theme carries the routine. To stop the trick halfway through would result in the effect being perceived as incomplete. So the effect itself involves repetition or progression. A sophisticated example of a multi-phase effect is Simon’s ‘Call to the Colours’. ‘Sam the Bellhop’ is another. ‘Further Than That’ is an obvious example of an effect that progresses to a climax.

Carlyle’s ‘Homing Card’ and Leech’s ‘Red Hot Momma’ are examples of effects which contain repetition but where such repetition is not an inherent part of the effect but based on methodological or misdirective reasons. These reasons may include:

  • Setting up – we may use phase A to set up for phase B, such as in the ‘Gardner–Marlo Poker Deal’. We also do this with unrelated effects somewhat like a snooker or chess player planning ahead.
  • Misdirection – we use multiple methods and effects to cancel each other out.
  • Repetition – by routining tricks together, especially similar tricks, we satisfy our spectators’ desire to see ‘the same trick again’ but without necessarily doing this.

Not all multi-phase effects have an obvious progression; some sponge ball routines are quite abstract, but the way they are performed (one phase seguing into the next) still communicates a routine.

Multi-phase routines

An example of a multi-phase routine is ‘Oil and Water’. There is no clear dividing line between multi-phase effects and multi-phase routines; ‘Card Under Box’  and ‘Multiple Selection Revelation’ are near the borderline. Both types are referred to colloquially by magicians as routines. But generally, the way to tell is: would people notice anything amiss if you stopped halfway through? Many ‘Oil and Water’ routines, or Marlo’s ‘Matching Routine’ for instance, although usually done as a whole, could theoretically be curtailed after any phase without it being obvious that more was to come. Each effect in the sequence is different and any progression is implied rather than manifest (this is not a rule of multi-phase routines, merely an observation about many of them). If you stopped Marlo’s ‘Elevator’ effect halfway through, however, it would seem odd; it is clearly a multi-phase effect.

Multi-phase routines may be set or they may be improvised. ‘Ambitious Card’ and ‘The Ace of Spades Trick’ may be improvised and tailored to the moment. Slydini’s ‘One Coin Routine’ may be lengthened, curtailed and so on, and could be considered a modular routine. Multi-phase routines often build to a climax but not necessarily in a linear crescendo; the climax may be sudden and unexpected. Others, such as the Linking Rings, simply express multiple dimensions or variations on a theme.

Theory of three

Some magicians believe in the ‘theory of three’: that tricks or phases should come in threes, whether in terms of opening, middle, close, or just a feeling that three times often seems about the right number of repetitions or variations. (My friend, Chris Wood, has done a lot of work on this.) A good example of the theory of three is the classic ‘Jumping Rubber Bands’:

  1. Band jumps from one side of hand to other.
  2. Band jumps back in spite of being trapped by a second band wrapped around tops of fingers.
  3. The two bands placed next to one another switch places.

Some ascribe almost a ‘golden mean’ type significance to the number three and always try to stick to it. Sometimes however it is better not to use three. For example, in ‘Coins Across’, if you use three coins, you will get to a stage where one coin has passed to the other hand and two remain. When the second coin passes, the condition changes from ‘one in left and two in right to two in left and one in right’. You therefore have a phase where essentially, the condition – one in one hand and two in the other – doesn’t change.

With four coins this does not happen: ‘zero and four, one and three, two and two, three and one, four and zero’. Each phase or change of condition is distinct and non-confusing. An interesting solution (methodologically, very old) if one believes in the theory of three, is to start by placing three coins in one hand and openly keeping a fourth in the other: thus there are three transitions from hand to hand even though four coins are in play.

A routine… which may serve one person admirably may not be nearly so effective in the hands of another, for the personality of a performer has much to do with the entertainment value which is got from the routine. – Hugard & Braue

Mnemonics

Michael Skinner popularised the idea of routining tricks together into threes to help one remember them. Routining in threes can also help prevent our meandering through lots of tricks, as it provides a natural pause. Nonetheless that doesn’t mean we have to do tricks in blocks of three; mnemonics are not more important than the show. If people react strongly after the first or second effect of a block of three, end there.

An interesting feature of this is that such routines may be invisible to all but ourselves. That is, the routining is purely internal. Externally the effects may come across as single and unrelated. This highlights one of the main factors of routining: it is often invisible. It is by no means obvious that the effect sequence has been deliberately arranged. At most, spectators will recognise an ending to a performance. This is as it should be; the smoother the ride the better the overall experience, but people don’t need to know why it is smooth.

Fixed routines

For formal shows we generally use fixed routines; the same tricks in the same sequence every time. Where problems arise for beginners and even for experts who are unaware of how they are perceived by their audiences, is when fixed routines are used informally. Very often, using a fixed routine informally is like banging a square peg into a round hole.

We have all seen or used, for example, multiple ‘sandwich’ card routines. There is a fine line (if any) dividing, say, a three-trick sandwich routine which simply consists of three random tricks that the performer feels work well together, and multi-phase routines such as ‘Oil and Water’. To the outside observer they are the same species. The key is to observe reactions and when the reaction reaches a peak, if possible end there. Avoid continuing the routine just because ‘that’s how you learned the routine’. For sure, it can help the beginner to gain confidence by linking tricks into set routines, but the sooner flexibility is learned, the better.

It may seem odd that experts can make the same mistakes as beginners when it comes to boring their audiences, but really, technical mastery is no indicator of psychological and social awareness and consideration; if anything, people drawn to the technical minutiae of magic are often at the end of the scale of people poorly skilled in social awareness, focusing as they do inwardly rather than outwardly.

Effect progression

This is the classical strategy espoused by Robert-Houdin and others, mainly for formal use. Nonetheless for informal shows there is often no harm in wetting people’s appetites with a simple effect and then progressing to strong tricks and then stronger still, ending on a climactic moment. To help overcome nerves, beginners are often advised to open with a self-worker (non-sleight effect) and then build to more sophisticated effects. This ties in well with the effect-progression concept.

‘M’ pattern

This is a variant on effect progression and is for those with more experience and understanding of tempo. Typically, in this approach we start with a short, visual effect. This grabs people’s attention and, most importantly, switches their mode of thinking from external/critical mode (detached from the action) to internal/involved mode (attached to the action). After this we can slow down and use more involved or less ‘flashy’ effects. For longer routines we can pepper the routine with further surprises. Thus a longer routine might resemble a series of ‘M’s. We then make sure we end on a high point; either what we consider a strong closer or any effect that happens to elicit a strong reaction.

When you read or hear of magicians at functions talking about openers, middles and closers, they may well be applying an ‘M’ type pattern. In this instance the pattern is applied over an extended period (maybe a whole function); not to a routine but to sets, which are a different species of routine.

Like effect progression, the ‘M’ pattern is not necessarily easy to formulate impromptu unless one has a good idea of openers, middles and closers. Nonetheless, keeping the formula in the back of the mind will help provide a subtle structure to an otherwise unstructured demonstration.

Intuitive/tailored

For the more advanced student, tailoring a specific group of tricks in an order which suits the moment will help ensure getting maximum effect from the magic. Some magicians would argue that this isn’t routining; that routining must involve a deliberate and set sequence of tricks. However, formulating this sequence in the moment as opposed to six months before the show doesn’t alter the fact that the sequence is formulated. If anything, this sort of routining is more effective as it avoids the square peg / round hole syndrome mentioned earlier.

Improvised

This is for the expert and does not involve applying a known, limited number of set tricks but performing based on recalling effects from one’s whole knowledge of magic. Again, this could be argued as not being a routine, but routining is all about making the effects complement one another and form a pleasing whole, in a similar way that a DJ mixes records and makes the whole greater than the sum of the parts. Routining is the act of linking tricks, whether fixed or improvised.

The thing that really impressed me was not the tricks per se, but the way the magician kept the pace as a showman for 10 minutes. – Student (after seeing a magician at a function)

Variety

When I was a youngster my parents took me to a magic and variety show at a theatre in Battersea. There were illusionists, manipulators, all kinds of magicians. I remember being impressed by a stage manipulator, but something struck me: after producing multiple sets of cards from thin air, he started to produce coins in a similar manner. Although technically impressive, my lay-person’s mind thought ‘He’s doing the same tricks all over again.’ Of course, on a general level he was.

Rioja and burgundy are quite distinct, but to the untrained palate they are both just red wine. To some people, all jazz music sounds the same. When routining, remember that lay people don’t have the same refined sense for subtlety and distinction of effect that we do. We may feel the five phases of our sandwich routine are different and warrant being showcased. But the poor spectator may feel otherwise. Always err on the side of caution.

When we routine, we are forced to look at all of our effects in relation to one another. This can help us cut out undesirable repetition and increase variety, whether it’s variety of props or variety of effects (vanish, appearance, change, penetration and so on). In particular pay attention to variety of effect, as what may seem obvious repetition to a lay person (coins across, travelling matches etc) may not to us. Conversely, two tricks that may use the same underlying method (say, coins across and coins through table) may be perceived as entirely different.

As well as variety we should think in terms of making our mark in the right amount of time, whether it’s a one-minute ‘elevator pitch’ type performance or something where people are expecting five minutes. It comes down to feel and experience, not how many tricks you know or which ones you are dying to show. Again, being aware of time helps avoid needless repetition.

Themes

In a similar manner to a comedian using a theme which incorporates a series of related gags and jokes, themed routines are those where, for example, several effects are linked by a general theme such as gambling or mind-reading, or by a specific patter theme (astrology, sense of touch, luck, card-counting; any number of things). With theming, effects which may not necessarily be regarded as belonging together or to a certain theme can be made a part of that theme when linked to tricks which do belong more naturally. For example, in a gambling theme, ‘Ambitious Card’ may be passed off as a demonstration of centre dealing or some incredible means of card control.

Soft routining

For the informal performer who does not have a routined repertoire of effects per se, time spent routining will be applied to multi-phase effects and routines. That is, we don’t have a programme of effects and routines because we aren’t putting on a formal show. At most we might link tricks together in twos and threes.

In informal situations, what you might call soft routining can work well. A good example of this is producing the four Aces and then performing some effect or routine with them.

Follow the links

A beginner recently asked me a good question: she had learned how to Swivel C**l four Aces during a previous effect, ready for ‘PPP’. Her question was: ‘Now we’re ready for the Ace trick, what’s our reason for doing it? We can’t just go into it.’ That’s right. The short answer is to use presentation as a link, but a better answer is this: just because we have the Aces ready, doesn’t mean we need to use them yet. Nor does it mean we have to rush ahead into our next effect. Once again, we can slow down, take our time, even perform something else first before making use of our secret stock. The Ace trick is then introduced via a theme in the usual way.

This should be our approach to routines in general. One common symptom is where the performer is so concerned with the routine and rushing ahead to the next phase, that the spectator essentially gets left out of the loop. The performer ends up as a robot and the spectator may as well not even be there. This is closely reminiscent of those phone conversations where someone phones you in order to ‘unload’; you could almost put the handset down and go away for five minutes to make tea; when you come back and pick up the phone, the other person is still unloading. Magicians are often guilty of this when performing, except they are unloading favourite tricks and ideas.

We also need to stop thinking in terms of linking all our tricks together and more in terms of linking those tricks that seem to work well together while also recognising those effects that stand out best when done alone, without any form of link or segue into or out of other effects. These effects need breathing space for their full impact to sink in, whilst others rely more on segues for their deceptiveness (eg, coin vanish and reproduction).

Fantasy routines

We’ve all been there: we spent hours, days, even weeks or longer planning our killer routine; all the ins and outs, our themes and links; then when the moment came it turned out there wasn’t a table and our whole routine went out the window. In a way we’re relieved because a part of us knows it was all a fantasy; it was all too much, too meticulously planned and too sophisticated for any real-life context.

We can learn from this and next time be less focused on ‘hard’ routining, following a softer approach. Hard routining is fine for set shows and formal performances, but for informal use it is hard to make these routines work.

Edited highlights

Many years ago I wrote summaries for financial firms. My job was to read a two- or three-page article and condense the underlying message of that article down to four lines, including maybe one key quote and some key figures. When we think about the message communicated by our magic, we should edit it down to the core elements of any effect or routine.

One of the best ‘Ambitious Card’ routines that I have seen was in the foyer of a theatre performed by a close-up magician during the interval of a stage magic show. The performer had a card signed. The card was turned down, inserted in the middle, a ruffle of the deck, and the signed card reappeared on top. That was it. This magician had recognised that the entire concept was contained in one effect performed slowly and deliberately. Repetition would have detracted from this.

Left brain, right brain

Let’s say we want to routine the sponge balls. Start by listing those effects and elements that appeal to you or stand out as being the strongest parts. You will have seen other magicians use these or read and tried them yourself. You love the sawing-a-ball-into-two effect, you know that the balls multiplying in their hands is a must, you think it would be good to make the balls appear at the start (instead of just removing from your pocket) and the balls should vanish at the end. Over time, other elements may come to mind. Don’t rush but take your time to collect the best bits.

Now compare all the desired elements and if any seem repetitive, decide which of two similar elements you like best or feel is the strongest magically. Discard the weaker of the two, writing down a separate discard list. So far the process is purely intuitive and based on feel. Having whittled the parts down to a bare minimum, assemble them to form a beginning, middle and end; not necessarily three phases but at least in a way which spectators will comprehend as forming some kind of progression and which has a nice ending.

Overcoming hurdles

At this stage we come up against a hurdle, or number of them: choreography. We want to link two phases but the p****d ball is in the wrong hand. Doing a p**m-to-p**m t******r is a poor solution; switching two phases around (or substituting one of our initially-discarded phases) may work as long as it doesn’t confuse the overall effect. Often this raises issues elsewhere in the routine (my friend, Kevin Baker, refers to this as the bubble under the wallpaper). So we find routining is not all plain sailing: it is a technical and logistical exercise as well as an artistic one.

Having finally found solutions to these issues we practise our routine, rehearse it, and finally try it out. Observe what works and what doesn’t. Try adding or subtracting segments of the routine, and try phases that you initially discarded. Our relationship with the routine has only just begun. Streamlining and improving can take months or even years, but this is all part of the art of routining, like a sculptor chipping away at a marble block. Eventually you end up with a routine that is uniquely yours or at least becomes yours through your own way of presenting it.

A neutral tool

Routining itself is neither inherently good nor bad. If people have to follow a theme through a 10-minute routine it can tire and bore them; they will look at their watch and each other, thinking ‘When is this going to end?’ You will come across as having an agenda beyond entertaining them; and you will have such an agenda: your routine! The opposite approach is creating a bespoke show where you and the people participating create something unique and real together. The result is their becoming totally absorbed in the moment.

Yes, there are routines that consist entirely of the same effect repeated or with multiple variations on a theme. ‘Matrix’ is one example. But multi-phase matrix routines and the like are forms of speciality act. You could have everyone at a house party go into a separate room to watch your act for 10 minutes; this is fine. But it needs to be a formal ‘performance’ because people are then primed for sitting down for 10 minutes and not thinking about other things. You wouldn’t just knock this out in a coffee shop when someone casually says ‘show us a trick’.

Context is everything.

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