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!
Rules are like inflatable armbands when a child is learning to swim: once you can swim the armbands become a hindrance. Once we start to become competent at magic we develop an intuitive sense of when to do certain things and when not to; continuing to think rigidly in terms of ‘rule #7 says such and such’ will hinder us. But when we are starting out our knowledge is less sophisticated and benefits from general guidance in the form of simple rules. The truth of many of these rules still resonates for years to come.
The difference between the casual card-trick doer watching YouTube and the amateur or professional magician, is that the latter always uses correct grips and positions with the cards and props, as well as purposeful choreography, patter, presentation and misdirection. The former simply muddles through using more or less homemade handling. In every field there are right and wrong ways, whether it’s golf swings, piano chord-changes or chess openings. The casual hobbyist is either unaware of their ignorance (understandable particularly when a youngster) or willfully ignorant through insufficient interest to do things properly. No harm is done if people just want to whack a ball, play Scott Joplin badly, or bluff their way through a chess game or card trick.
In the first two parts of this series (Part 1 and Part 2) we looked at patter and misdirection in terms of their psychological impact on spectators. Using patter is so much more than reciting words (when performing informally we don’t usually recite anything at all): we have to use the right words in the right way, both to connect with people and misdirect them effectively. The subtlety and complexity of this task comes to light when we acknowledge that everyone we perform for, and every situation, is different. The more one is aware of this difference, the harder it is to produce satisfactory results, but the better those results will be. This is why at top levels in any art form we have the pained and self-loathing artist, whereas at the bottom, anything goes and everyone is happy doing a slapdash job. Probably the best approach for the everyday magician is the middle path: concerned and interested, but not obsessive about getting it right.
In Part 1 of this series we looked at how patter forms a link between ourselves and our magic on the one hand, and our spectators. If nothing else, patter justifies what we do. In everyday life there is normally no reason, for example, to thread a finger ring onto a pencil and then look at it! Only a child playing a make-believe game would do such a thing. But if the ring represents, say, Houdini, and the pencil, prison bars (or the two objects, and the magic done with them, illustrate particles in quantum physics, say) then we have a reason for doing something that in everyday life has no purpose (making a ring appear on a pencil). It would, in fact, make more sense to use special props – a magic wand and/or magic ring – as then we are demonstrating the special properties of those specific props, properties that borrowed rings and pencils do not have.
For the amateur performer, choosing the right trick for the right context is key to doing magic effectively. We may know some great tricks, but if we don’t speak our audience’s language, for example, then we may have to find some alternatives or get creative. While ‘strong’ magic is usually preached as the gospel, there is another pathway to performing based on quite different criteria.
A common concern of amateur magicians is how to present magic effectively to friends and family. This includes work colleagues and anyone else with whom one comes into regular contact. On the surface it may seem the easiest audience to do magic for, but in fact it is the hardest when it comes to patter and presentation. People who know one’s usual vocabulary, interests, body language and ways of expressing oneself can easily smell a rat the moment one veers away from this ‘normal self’ into the realms of magician’s patter and unusual actions; all of a sudden making more or less eye contact than normal or bringing up subjects they know you have no real interest in.
Marshall McLuhan famously stated, ‘The medium is the message’. When people first saw motion pictures they would have marvelled as much at the medium of film as the content of the movies. Whole societies have been shaped – how we work, travel, and relax – by technological media such as cars, television, and internet; it’s not what we look at but how we look at it that is McLuhan’s message. Magicians now learn from YouTube and video downloads rather than books, and this affects how they learn magic, what they learn, and how they understand it. Right-handed magicians are learning card moves left-handed (and vice versa) from YouTube, because they aren’t aware that the online instructor’s handedness is different from theirs, or they’ve been told it doesn’t matter (it does).
I mentioned previously how certain fundamentals of learning only take place ‘in the field’. Learning in the classroom only ever takes the student halfway. The other half comes from ‘trying out the tricks live, failing or succeeding, logging how and why the failures and successes happened, and keeping on until the failures represent nothing more than minor, unforeseeable glitches which even an expert magician will likely face.’ Continue reading “Self-Improvement Courses”