The Two Types of Perennial Beginner

One of the most desired card sleights among dabblers is the Diagonal P— Shift (DPS), despite the fact that it is one of the least used card sleights. If this sounds contradictory, it isn’t: popularity is unrelated to functionality. Of course it’s possible that people don’t use the DPS because it’s difficult, but there are many difficult moves that magicians use all the time. The main reason is that the concept behind it is not particularly useful.

Beginners don’t know this because they aren’t in a position to know, and Erdnase revivalists constantly demonstrating and praising the move in isolation are simply muddying the waters. Yes, it’s beautiful; yes, it works; yes, Erdnase was a master. No, the DPS is not that useful.

Ain’t got no rhythm

The broader issue is that beginners want to be able to do the equivalent of break-dancing before developing a sense of rhythm or an understanding of where break-dancing is possible.

We are not talking about lay people who want to learn a few tricks. Many people know a few recipes without becoming chefs. We are talking about potential magic students or hobbyists who recognise and admire real talent and want a piece of the action. The only problem is that they are choosing the wrong pieces.

This is understandable. The beginner comes armed with a wish list of desirable but random techniques: ‘I want to learn the double l—, the back p— and the Tenkai p—‘. They may travel thousands of miles or pay lots of money to learn such things, believing that distance covered or expenses paid somehow legitimise the search. What they really need are the common techniques that form the bases of these moves.

Whacking the ball

You could argue that if someone wants to pay for something, you should give it to them. But what if they want to learn the equivalent of juggling five balls before they can even juggle two?

If one went for golf lessons and the coach said we will spend the entire first lesson learning how to stand, how to hold the club and how to swing, we should consider that money well spent. Unless one learns how to hold the cards, how to pick them up and put them down, how to square them and so on, nothing else is possible other than a lifetime of going round in circles.

The grips and finger positions are very specific not because we’re pedantic but because each cog in the machine serves its own purpose. Yet many beginners imagine all they need to do is ‘whack the ball hard’. The fact it lands in a lake doesn’t seem to bother them.

The perennial beginner

The result is what you might call the perennial beginner. Every year a fresh resolution is made and each year the same hurdles crop up.

I once gave a workshop at The Magic Circle and was asked the familiar question: ‘Do you have any tips on the diagonal p— shift?’ I gave a pretty comprehensive answer. The following summer I went back to give another workshop. The same person asked the same question!

The real issue is that learning basic grips and underlying concepts involves focusing the intellect and extending awareness and observational skills in a sustained manner for limited periods. If the self-inflicted habit of avoiding this in other areas of life kicks in (as it often does), the result is all manner of avoidance tactics.

Because magic is considered a hobby (and a fairly superficial one, it seems), people approach it wearing their leisure hat, not realising that their chosen pastime is also an art and a craft, and a work hat is also needed.

The leisure side of magic kicks in properly (and more enjoyably) once the work part has been introduced. The paradox is that the work side, once its value is appreciated, becomes the leisure side and thus fuels itself. Practice becomes fun (and even therapeutic).

The Rules of the Sleight-of-Hand Artist are Three
and All Others are Vain;
the First and Second are “Practise”,
and the Third One is “Practise Again”.
– Edward Victor

Synthetic study

Dabblers thus struggle with ‘playing tunes’ having failed to learn about notes and keys, and then naturally give up for another period or until the next lecture at the local magic club sparks their next attempt.

For at least 50% of the magic world (conservatively speaking) attending conventions, lectures, magic-club meetings and reading forum posts on the latest miracles and instant downloads is at least in part a beguiling and yet synthetic substitute for sitting down and practising.

At lectures, instead of soaking up knowledge people soak up the sales pitch at the end. (Unlike academic lectures, magic lectures nearly always conclude with items – tricks and DVDs – for sale; often to cover the travel expenses of the lecturer.)

But there is no placebo for work. We are learning to make jewelry with gold rather than panning for fools gold.

The wise fool

The other type of perennial beginner is the true student of magic who recognises with every passing year of experience that the more he or she learns, the less he knows and the more he needs to master (the wise-fool paradox).

A child playing chess or cards for the first time wants to keep changing the rules on a whim and ends up annoyed and frustrated. The perennial beginner is in a similar predicament, not realising that they’re shooting themselves in the foot or trying to push a door marked pull.

It’s understood that not everyone wants to be a professional or go on Britain’s Got Talent. But a dabbler can have a whole lot more fun if the basics are mastered to a competent degree. We can spend a lifetime having fun playing chess with other dabblers, but it’s so much more fun if we master basic rules, tactics and strategies.

We’re not aiming for Grand Master; we’re just avoiding Perennial Beginner. This is all people mean when they talk about taking something to the next level. It’s only the next level, not the ultimate level.

A matter of faith

Really knowing and understanding why something is beneficial or necessary only happens after doing it. Before then you have to take it on faith and follow whatever the book or instructor is saying.

There are three scenarios facing a beginner with regard to an instructor:

  1. They are a charlatan who doesn’t know what they are talking about.
  2. They’re the real thing, but they’re mistaken or pedantic.
  3. They’re the real thing and the student is ignoring them.

How do you know, when you don’t know? Just look at things you have mastered elsewhere. When something works properly, whatever the context, it has a beauty and harmony that is unmistakable. When something is trying to be done incorrectly you have to fight and use brute force, and you end up with something ugly.

I’ve never bothered to learn to type properly. I can get by with just two fingers, but I keep missing the right keys and the end result is disjointed, stilted and ugly.

Energy-flow is a signal

When something doesn’t work it’s because one is misapplying energy. We’re using the wrong quality and direction of energy, and probably the wrong amount. We never use brute force or struggle with lots of pressure and so on, in magic. We mostly do things gently and gracefully.

If, for example, you’re trying to use lots of force to achieve a Tabled Riffle Shuffle, it’s probably because you’re trying to bend both sides of the cards up instead of only the thumb side. It’s that simple. Bending the cards up at the front with the fingers serves no mechanical purpose whatsoever. It really is throwing a spanner in the works.

When you consider how diverse technologies have advanced over the past 100 years, you can be sure magic has followed a similar trajectory. But somehow the neophyte faced with a new skill believes that the laws or rules that apply in every other discipline don’t apply here. He or she can beat the stock market where millions have failed or learn Chinese without even trying.

Magic itself comes preloaded with a further factor (‘it’s all a bit silly’ – partly because a lot of magicians really are a bit silly) which seems to seal its fate for a lot of people.

Bottom line: if you ever find yourself trying to achieve something in sleight of hand via brute force, it’s automatically wrong. By that I mean you’re doing it wrong; there is almost certainly nothing wrong with a technique developed and refined by tens of thousands of magicians over numerous decades.

Exit through the gift shop

Once a grip or technique has become conditioned – assimilated into one’s body language on an unconscious level – it is three times as hard to correct any errors. Conditioning is a double-edged sword which works for us if initiated correctly.

Two people starting on a journey at fractionally different angles will end up on different sides of the planet eventually. Where you end up or where you start is your choice, even if that choice has been made inadvertently through faulty thinking. It’s never too late to change direction, but it does get harder the longer you leave it.

All one has to sacrifice is five minutes a day for a week in order to master the basics (plus the terminology that allows the mind to fit all the pieces together) and thus start off in the right direction. That’s about half an hour in total.

I’d call that the deal of a lifetime. Come to think of it, that would make a good download…

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