What we study in private is only, say, 50% of the overall lesson or learning of magic, but it is of course the basis for the other 50% (what we learn in performance) and deserves close analysis. Probably the best way to learn magic is via a triangulation between books – which ideally means illustrated textbooks – videos, and a teacher/mentor.
Bullets that flow
As we have seen in Part 1, we need to know the key moments or bullet points of a method and effect on the one hand, and how the sequence as a whole moves and flows on the other. An illustrated textbook describes and shows the key moments. Many magic books only show the most important key moments due to space restrictions. A video, on the other hand, shows how they flow together. A teacher or mentor shows and tells us both and, most importantly, gives us feedback and advises where we are going wrong and how.
You can start with any of these learning methods – book, teacher, video – and the other two will back up, reinforce and clarify, filling in the gaps. The triangulation also helps us process the same information with different parts of the brain, which is important when it comes to understanding magic as opposed to simply learning by rote.
Once you start to grasp general principles which include both how key moments look and how the ‘lines which join the dots’ flow, we can predominantly learn from books which often contain more detail and information than either a video or live lesson is able to provide. The way we physically move in a lot of sleights is generic in many ways, and we instinctively learn how to act and look at people during sleights and sequences of actions. When we learn not to hold the deck flat (horizontal) for pal—g, say, we then know not to hold it flat for other moves. This is why many magicians who are au fait with methodology and terminology can easily read a magic book like a recipe book. They don’t need someone to keep showing them how to crack an egg open or toss a pancake, as it were.
With the triangulation method, a video adds a personality to a name from a book, and if you have a teacher or mentor (or people at your magic club who can be de facto teachers – both in terms of revealing what you should do and what you shouldn’t) they may have colourful anecdotes to tell about that magician. All of this creates a sort of 3D learning experience instead of a two-dimensional, academic one. (Some people, of course, join magic clubs in the hope that other people’s talent will rub off on them. This can happen, but only as part of an integrated learning process. By itself, joining a club as a substitute for practising, results, more often than not, in the perennial-beginner syndrome.)
We don’t memorise terminology in magic the way we might for an academic test. There is no drudgery as in the schoolchild memorising elements of the periodic table. Magic terms and formulae are meaningful, living, even colourful entities which we associate with people, books, tricks and experiences.
Accurate terminology and credits are learnt from books and not from YouTube channels which only give a sort of Chinese-whispers or hearsay version of these. YouTube is not a legitimate source of magic, full stop. It’s pot luck as to whether or not something is taught correctly or information is accurate, whether what you are seeing is original, public-domain, or plagiarised. It is what it is and can be useful, but as a primary source of authentic information it’s a non-starter. Remember that many more people make videos than become authors, simply because it’s easier both in terms of skills and labour time. This in itself tells us something about these people who purport to be teachers.
If one doesn’t read magic books, which predominantly explain tricks using standardised terminology, then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that one won’t understand magic books and terminology! And thus video becomes the preferred medium and magic books are ‘too hard to understand’. But there are formulae in magic which is helpful especially when describing effect-methods (as opposed to sleight-methods). Anyone who has read The Royal Road to Card Magic knows what fo—-g a card, con——-g it, and then shu—–g it third from bottom means. This is a formula.
Where formulae break down is with sleights, which require very precise, detailed explanations. Authors may not get the details right or they may make silly mistakes such as ‘Take a br–k under the bottom card of the deck’, which, of course, is impossible. You have to know what they mean and understand the gist. Being technically proficient, talented, original and so on does not qualify one to write, which is a talent in and of itself. Experts in both magic and writing are rare: those who know how to analyse a sleight and describe the analysis clearly in a manner which target readers will understand.
‘…[Y]ou find yourself in the roomy inner space of your own head, and here your imagination concocts what the book does not teach.’ – Jon Racherbaumer (Foreword) in Kaufman, CoinMagic
But in spite of the many shortcomings of magic books, we cannot discount their necessity through the argument that many are poorly written. True or not, tens of thousands of magic books and hundreds of thousands of magicians who have successfully learnt from them show us that something is working successfully. The lore of magic is contained in books and all the experts agree that they contain the real secrets.
Magic is somewhere in between cookery, ballet, psychology, and snooker, so there is no direct analogy with anything else and it is misleading to use another field where book learning doesn’t apply, to magic. We need to use our knowledge templates and reasoning capacities, and the triangulation approach to interpret and understand. Through the struggle to make sense we really learn.
In places with wide cultural diversity (metropolises such as London), locals develop an ear for their native language spoken with all manner of (almost) unintelligible accents, spoken by people from all parts of the world. When you visit ‘monocultures’ (places with little input from outside or with a strong ethnocentricity), locals often can’t understand a foreigner’s attempts at their language even if their accent is only minor degrees off from the correct pronunciation.
In learning magic we need the equivalent of the cosmopolitan ear. The paradox of learning from poor magic authors is that we need to read lots of them (not try to avoid them) for them all to start making sense.
Badly drawn ploy
Here’s a starter exercise for those who don’t normally read magic books:
‘[I]n reality you have reversed one half of the deck, and there really is no face to it. Backs will appear from either side if deck were to be shown, but it is not. All this is done almost in and under cover of merely squaring up the cards as you return to position in front of audience.
‘Now the next move is to transfer the deck to the left hand in exactly the following manner. Deck is simply placed in palm of left hand face down (as it appears) with left edge of deck against thumb, and base of thumb of left hand, and the second, third and little fingers closed around the deck and thus appearing on the right side of same and ends of these fingers on right top edge of top card. The left index finger is slightly crooked under the bottom card against what would be the upper part of the face of bottom card if the deck were not half reversed. You will note that the left thumb does not rest on top of the deck, but right along the left edge of deck.’ – RW Hull, More Eye-Openers, 1933.
Did you get that? Using now-standard terminology (developed since the 1960s), the above means:
Having faced the deck [i.e., arranged two halves face to face] place it into left-hand Mechanic’s Grip, then curl left index finger under deck.
That’s it! The poor magician who hasn’t developed an eye or brain for magic writing will be trying to make up new and impossible grips from those badly written paragraphs. (In all likelihood they would give up and turn the page.) The learning triangulation may be used for nothing more than making up for shortfalls or filling in gaps in other learning methods. But many magicians muddle through and, in so doing, develop understanding and a flexible outlook.
Understanding vs programming
Indeed, much of magic is problem solving, and the expectation to have everything handed to one on a plate – not to think, struggle, experiment, research, but to have information programmed into one like in a school classroom – is one of the biggest obstacles to learning magic.
That, and overlooking the importance of the fourth dimension of magic learning: time.