I taught the ‘Geiger Counter’ card trick to a couple of nine-year-old magic students recently. The theme of the trick is that due to ‘human radiation’ left behind on a chosen card, the Joker – your makeshift Geiger counter – can locate their card. Both of the boys loved this trick and both knew intuitively that the theme was a flight of fancy (which, nonetheless had a ring of truth to it on some level: humans do emit a form of radiation; the best fictions contain a seed of truth).
The difference between something seen and something reasoned or thought about is obvious. I can show you, say, two apples and three bananas (five fruits in total) or alternatively ask you to think of ‘2a + 3b = 5f’. One is perception (or a mixture of perception and thought) and the other, purely thought. In magic, however, the differences between visual magic and cerebral – tricks seen and those created in the mind – are not immediately clear, mainly because most tricks are a mixture of the two.
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.
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.