Another Key Component

agosto 31, 2007

I happened to be channel surfing the other night when I came across a show on VH1 called The Pick Up Artist. From what I watched of the show, it seemed kind of silly, as quite a lot of reality TV strikes me. The premise here is some nerdy guys are taught how to pick up women by an expert pick up artist, a guy called Mystery

As I was watching, Mystery was telling the guys that when talking to women they should be enthusiastic. He said it didn’t really matter what they were talking about as women find enthusiasm irresistible, or words to that effect.

Well, he was half right. Actually both sexes find enthusiasm captivating. Like confidence, which I touched briefly upon in the last post, enthusiasm is a key component in that larger variable known as charisma, and it’s something you can employ to improve your appeal to an audience.

You’ve no doubt heard the expression, “Enthusiasm is contagious.” It really is. I remember in college having to attend an algebra class. Now, I am not a math person. Actually that’s putting it mildly – I hate math. For whatever reason, my brain isn’t wired to work well with numbers, and even doing elementary calculations can be a trial.

Anyway, I was sitting there the first day in this algebra class, an English major who loathed math, thinking what was to come was going to be about as enjoyable as getting teeth pulled. In walked the instructor, this rather plain looking guy in a short sleeve shirt and tie and wire framed glasses. He might as well have had a slide rule in his shirt pocket and a tattoo on his forehead that read Math Geek. No, I decided, this wasn’t going to be as enjoyable as getting teeth pulled – I’d stumbled into one of Dante’s inner circles of hell.


Then magic happened. He started to speak. He started to explain to us why algebra was important and what a fascinating subject it really was. And I found myself listening and believing what he was saying. Why? Because he was really into what he was saying. He wasn’t just giving it lip service. He was excited about what he was teaching, passionate about his subject. In a word, he was enthusiastic.

It ended up becoming my favorite class that semester, not because of the subject – I finished the class with a high C and was grateful for it – but because of the instructor. More than teaching me about constants and variables, he taught me that enthusiasm is a power unto itself. Here was a guy who at first glance appeared as boring as watching dust accumulate but who was able, through his enthusiasm, to become during class time one of the most captivating people I’d ever seen. It was a real revelation.

So how can you put that power to work? By simply being enthusiastic about what you’re doing. It’s that easy. Do you love magic? Probably so or you wouldn’t be here reading a magic blog. Do you find magic fascinating, does it hold your interest as nothing else can? Share it. Share your passion. Get excited about what you’re doing! If you’re excited they will become excited and everybody wins.

That doesn’t mean you have to jump on tables and yell, “Wow, watch this!” You want to communicate enthusiasm, not insanity. Passion loses none of its power for being restrained; to the contrary, quiet passion can be even more captivating as it suggests much happening below the surface. The most important thing about enthusiasm is it be genuine. Like sincerity, nothing’s more difficult to fake and when faked devolves into self-parody.

I guess what I’m saying is don’t be afraid to show people how you feel about your magic. Allow them into your secret world, your private heart. Fear is probably the biggest obstacle to overcome in displaying your enthusiasm, just as fear is the biggest inhibitor to charisma. Imagine a guy standing there mumbling, afraid to look into the eyes of his audience, huddled over his props as if someone might grab them. Would you feel captivated to watch such a person? Not unless you had a perverse desire to see him fall flat on his face. Contrast that image with one of a performer speaking passionately about what he’s doing, looking directly at each and every audience member, open with his gestures and body language. I think maybe that’s the real difference: One performer is closed and one is open. Enthusiasm opens you to the audience. Listen to me, they want to like you, they want to be entertained. Being enthusiastic about what you’re doing allows them to do just that.


agosto 30, 2007

They look where you look. It’s a fact that magicians (hopefully!) pick up on very soon, a fundamental of physical misdirection. When you look at the audience, the audience looks at you; when you look at your left hand, the audience directs its attention there in turn. The simplicity of the concept belies its power, as it gives you the ability to move a group’s focus from point A to point B unobtrusively. You’re secretly manipulating their attention, and they don’t have a clue.


Only it doesn’t always seem to work, at least for some. I recall talking to a young magician who was having a lot of trouble directing attention away from his right hand at a crucial point. I watched him, and from a strictly physical standpoint he was doing everything correctly. He was looking where he was supposed to be looking. So what was the problem?

Those watching him weren’t following his gaze. Why? His gaze was weak.

Okay, you may be sitting there thinking, how can a gaze be weak? Maybe it even sounds like a lot of subjective nonsense, but I assure you what I’m talking about is firmly grounded in objective reality. The eyes of an audience won’t be led by a weak gaze. Your gaze needs to be masterful and captivating to successfully lead the audience’s.

I’m sure you’ve had the experience of talking to someone who seemed incapable of looking you in the eye or, worse, whose gaze transmitted fear and uncertainty when he did. That’s a weak gaze, and it can be disastrous for a magician. On the other hand, you’ve no doubt talked to someone whose eyes never left your own, whose gaze bespoke confidence and power. Whose eyes do you think you’d be more likely to follow? It’s a subtle thing, sure, but so is the idea that they look where you look. If you want to boost your ability to control attention with the eyes, a commanding gaze is a must.

Fortunately this isn’t something you either have or you don’t. It’s a component of charisma, and the good news is charisma can be learned. That’s right, charisma isn’t just the natural gift of those lucky few — the characteristics responsible for charisma can be learned.

As to developing a more powerful gaze, you can read this article for some useful exercises. I found the first exercise described in a book (the title escapes me) when I was a teenager, and it really helped me out. If you go to the trouble of doing it.

Sadly, many will never bother, will dismiss it as stupid, not worthy of their time, etc. But those who do go to the trouble will note a definite improvement in their ability to direct attention with gaze alone.

Don’t dismiss this. A magnetic gaze is gold to a performer as, beyond its uses in physical misdirection, it also provides you with a visual manifestation of confidence. If there’s one thing missing from many magicians personas, it’s just that, confidence. You need to cultivate the ability to draw eyes upon yourself, and a magnetic gaze is a wonderful way of achieving that.

The Show

agosto 30, 2007

Over the years I’ve worked a good number of children’s parties. I suppose if I had my choice I’d rather work for adults only, but when you live in an area that’s comparatively low in population it’s often a case of taking what you can get. Besides, the magic I do for children is essentially the same as what I do for adults. I recall reading long ago that when working for children you can either go down to their level or expect them to come up to yours, and I’ve always found the latter approach works best for me.

It’s not my desire to discuss the pros and cons of working for children, however. I bring it up because, if you’re obliged to work children’s parties or not, out of necessity you often find yourself taking gigs which are anything but stimulating. Sometimes you ply your trade for lively and engaging audiences who offer great feedback, and sometimes you find yourself before folks who could care less. It’s ironic that the tough groups are often the most rewarding to work for because when you succeed in winning them over the feeling of accomplishment is immense.

Even when you have an ideal audience, it’s easy to get bored. When you’re first starting out and each performance is a challenge, there’s real excitement in what you’re doing. But after doing the same act hundreds of times it’s very easy to find yourself wishing you were doing anything else. That’s what I want to talk about.

I remember a Saturday some years ago when I had to do the same act multiple times in one afternoon. I think I was on the third repetition when it suddenly occurred to me that I was strictly on auto pilot. I mean I wasn’t putting anything of myself into what I was doing; I was delivering the lines and doing the effects strictly by rote. I realized I’d been gazing rather blankly through the people watching and was actually thinking about washing the car or something. Not good.

That moment had a real effect on me and helped to shape my philosophy when it comes to performing. You see what I realized was that I had been cheating. Here was a group of people who had paid me their hard earned money in return for a service, but instead of rendering that service to the best of my ability I was providing an imitation of it. I wasn’t really there, and not being there was incapable of giving my best.

What I came up with shortly thereafter was the approach to performing that’s served me well ever since. Simply put, I treat every performance, no matter the venue, no matter the audience, as if it were The Show.

What do I mean by The Show? Well, imagine if you were booked to do a show which was to be attended by those you admired and revered most, a show which would decide the rest of your life in magic, what caliber of magician you would forever be remembered as. In other words, the single most important show of your life. Would you go out and do it on auto pilot? Would you stare through the audience and think about watering the dog?

No, you would put everything you had into making it the best show you’d ever done. You’d diligently rehearse what you were going to do even if you’d done it a thousand times before. You’d look your best, sound your best, be the very best you could possibly be.

Treating performances in this way is a terrific motivator. You stop settling and start giving everything you have to insure that what you’re doing is going to be stellar. It’s really a kind of pledge to always put your best foot forward and not short either your audience or yourself.

Listen, it can’t be an abstract concept. You have to treat it with seriousness and really go out of your way to pretend that it’s so. But you know the best part? By treating every performance as The Show you’re always ready for the time when The Show is a reality. Because the truth is any performance you give has The Show potential. There might be a producer in the audience just looking for the next great TV magician, or an agent who’s able to make you rich beyond your wildest dreams. You never know when opportunity is going to come knocking, and doesn’t it make sense to be at your best when it does?

Again, it’s a simple philosophy and one I feel has made a great deal of difference for me. Now if you’ll excuse me I have some practicing to do. That’s right, The Show is coming up. Catch you next time.

Street Magic?

agosto 29, 2007

In a post yesterday I expressed my rather low opinion of the argument that magic’s not an art and in passing also mentioned my equally low opinion for the argument that what David Blaine and his copyists do is not street magic. I want to return to that last for a moment for a closer look.

The main argument against Blaine style magic not being called street magic, from what I can piece together, is that calling it street magic takes away from performers like Jeff Sheridan, street performers who were plying their trade long before the term street magic came into vogue.

Now, to the people for whom such distinctions matter, serious students of magic, I can’t imagine there’s any confusion about the differences between Blaine and Sherridan. As for the rest, new students of magic and the general public, the first group will certainly be made aware of the differences, should their interest continue, while the general public is likely to never give a damn. That might sound harsh, but do you think the general public has any real grasp of who Vernon was, Charlie Miller, Max Malini, and on and on? Unless magic undergoes some unimaginable renaissance in which the general public develops a deep and abiding interest in the history of the art, there will continue to be scores of legendary conjurers whose shoulders we stand on who will never get the public acclaim we feel they deserve. That’s just the way it is, and no amount of belly aching is ever going to change it.

As a matter of fact, all such belly aching is likely to do is reinforce the negative stereotype that magicians are strange, anal people who fret over their secrets and complain that they don’t get any respect.

Look at it another way. Elvis Presley was the king of rock and roll, right? I think most folks would go along with that statement. But Presley didn’t invent rock and roll. There were people who came before him, many who’ve never gotten the credit they deserve, at least in the public arena. What those people were doing probably wasn’t exactly mirrored by Elvis. There were those who derided what Elvis was doing as but a phony imitation of the original sound. But Elvis gave a face to a new kind of music – he was able to establish the concept in the public mind.

The truth is that David Blaine has done more for the public perception of close-up magic than any performer in history. Close-up magicians are working today because Blaine popularized what we do. It seems to me that he deserves the title of street magician, even if his kind of magic doesn’t fill the earlier criteria, if for no other reason than that.

I have to wonder if things were different if the argument would exist at all. What if it hadn’t been David Blaine who did a special called Street Magic, but a more traditional performer – a guy in a cheap Tux doing sponge bunnies or something. Would the old guard be so upset then?

Considering that most of the people doing the bitching seem to be the older guys, you have to wonder.

Could it be that the real problem is that Blaine represents something they fear? Something called change?

I’ve written before that that which does not change stagnates…and dies. The very nature of life is change. If magic doesn’t change, and continue to change, it dies. That doesn’t mean that we ignore those who came before. It does mean that while respecting and remembering our predecessors we also embrace that which is new and different, because it just might be our art’s salvation.

Growing up I remember very well the old guard’s initial reaction to Doug Henning. Henning came along and shook up magic at a time when it seemed to be on its last legs – he revitalized the art, made it popular again. Yet some acted as if he were the devil incarnate, as if no good could ever come from what at the time was such a shocking break with tradition. Of course they were wrong. And history repeats itself.

So there you have it, my feelings about what Blaine does being called street magic. I’m sure there will be those who agree and many who disagree. C’est la vie. See you again soon.


agosto 28, 2007

Morph is a PDF I recently authored which contains eight transformations for the close-up performer. These transformations were created and refined over the last few years, and I’ve used all at one time or another in my close-up work – I still use half or better on a regular basis. The effects were developed with practicality foremost in mind – in other words they’re easy to do and look great. These aren’t difficult pipe dream effects. They’re fairly easy, audience tested workers that you can use.

I’ve long believed that quick magical changes like these possess a power all out of proportion to their working. When your lighter won’t fire and you change it into a box of matches, people can relate to that on a deep level. We’ve all experienced the desire to change one thing into another in the course of our day to day lives, and these effects address that desire and vicariously fulfill it for the audience. It’s effects like these that an audience is likely to remember long after a performance is over.

You can get the full details of the effects here. Hope you’ll give this one a try as I sincerely believe it’s quite a bargain for the price.

Artist At Work

agosto 28, 2007

I’ve read a couple of essays recently which postulate that magic is not an art. Now for my money such essays are little more than transparent exercises in self-aggrandizement, much the same as those that rail that what Blaine and his imitators do is not street magic – and never mind that Blaine and his imitators are doing their magic on the street. Such minute, anal distinctions serve no purpose that I can discern other than demonstrating what oh-so-enlightened-thinkers their authors are. They’re pointless intellectual exercises at best, and self serving bullshit at worst. Whether or not magic is, by exact definition, art and whether or not what Blaine and company do is, according to self-styled experts, street magic doesn’t matter much to me either way. After all, I’ve got grass that needs watering and carpets that need vacuuming, if you get my not too subtle drift.

I bring this up because to me the highest compliment one magician can pay another is to say he’s an artist. Being an artist implies, to my maybe primitive way of thinking, that the practitioner has transcended the technique of his/her particular medium so that the technique itself has become invisible and we see only that being created. In the context of magic, we see just that, magic. No bumps, no hesitations, but only a seamless and straight forward whole without explanation.

I want to show you an artist at work. Click the YouTube clip at the end of this post. It’s a clip of Morgan Strebler bending forks. Why do I call him an artist? Because he’s completely transcended the technique of what he’s doing. I know every single move he’s making, and those of you familiar with metal bending, and his DVD Liquid Metal, probably do as well. However, I am unable to detect the moves, even knowing them. There’s simply nothing to see.

Even more amazing, I was talking to Morgan about this clip some time ago and he said he can’t detect the moves himself. That’s right – the guy making the moves just can’t see them. Now if that’s not transcending the technique I don’t know what is.

How did he acquire this level of expertise? By performing the routine thousands of times. Read that again, performing the routine. You don’t attain that level by doing it in the mirror or in front of the video camera. It’s only through taking a routine out into the world and working it time and again before audiences that you’re able to refine what you’re doing to such a state.

I think you also have to remember that Morgan honed this routine before audiences that would make the average magician cringe. I’m talking about audiences composed of the super rich and famous, people who’ve seen it all, done it all, and who are having a few drinks to boot. This routine was mainly polished to its current state by being done in some of Vegas’ most exclusive night spots, including the Caramel bar at The Bellagio. Now, if you think an audience is an audience, I would invite you to perform an act for a group at a family restaurant and the same act for a group at a bachelor party. Tough audiences make for exceptional performers.

Again, the guy’s an artist, what more can be said? It’s a lesson in what can be attained through hard work and repeated performance. I’ll be doing a review of Morgan’s Taste Conditions sometime in the near future. Stay tuned.

What Moves Do I Need To Learn To Be A Magician?

agosto 28, 2007

In the previous post I observed that what someone needs to learn to be a magician is the ability to interact with others. Now, because I have strong feelings about the subject, I may have inadvertently given the impression that moves are of no importance at all. Nothing could be further from the truth. It’s just that it sticks in my proverbial craw that whenever the question of what’s most important to learn comes up, interpersonal communication is usually not even mentioned, let alone seriously considered.

Look, I love sleight of hand – nothing gets me going like a really clever and deceptive move. It’s just that in the overall scheme of being a magician, I would argue that the moves are subordinate to other less tangible attributes. Think about it for a second: Who do you think would fare better before an audience, the person who’s naturally charismatic and gets along well with others, armed with a couple of self working tricks, or the guy who’s withdrawn and socially inept, yet imbued with astonishing manipulative skill? I know who I’d put my money on. It’s a hard fact, and one that drives certain enthusiasts crazy, but manipulative ability takes a back seat to communication ability.

When you see magicians bashing someone like Blaine, this is what they fail to comprehend. His double lift sucks, he mumbles, he has no presentation. What they’re missing is that Blaine has the ability to connect with an audience, and he does it exceedingly well. The audience isn’t scoring his double lift or ability to speak clearly or denuded presentation. They’re responding to him, they’re connected to him. And that ability is worth all the moves in the world.

On to the moves, which is what I wanted to focus on this time around. Because if you want to be a magician, especially of the close-up variety, you’re going to need an arsenal of moves to make your wonders possible. Some might say you don’t need any moves, with the wide range of self working effects available, but I would disagree. I’m no sleight of hand purist, but merely a pragmatist who believes in the best tool for the job, and many times the best tool is a sleight. More, if you rely solely on gimmicks, there will come a time when something goes wrong and a sleight can bail you out. When taking piano you learn and practice scales; in close-up magic you learn and practice sleights. But probably the greatest argument for mastering some sleights is the ability it affords you to do magic anywhere, anytime, with just about anything. That, my friends, is about as close to real magic as you can get.

Where to begin? When you venture into the land of close-up sleight of hand you discover right away that there’s an overwhelming assortment of choices – moves which can accomplish nearly any secret action you can imagine with cards or coins or other small objects. The other thing you better discover quickly, or risk a lifetime of mediocre magic, is that there’s no way you could ever come close to mastering everything, or even learning everything. There’s way way too much information available. Discernment is key.

There are certain criteria you can apply to prospective moves to gauge their potential value. The first thing you should ask yourself — and it might seem obvious, but judging by the bad magic out there ostensibly it’s not – is, can I use this? Do you have a specific purpose for the move, or are you simply taken with its cleverness? How exactly can the move be used?
Assuming it is something you can use, you should next determine the extent of its usefulness. If it’s a move which can only be used for a single effect, is that effect worth the investment of time required? A move with sundry applications is usually far more valuable than a move with minimal uses.

How practical is the move? Can it only be employed with the audience directly in front of you looking down at your hands? To go into it do you need to have the deck balanced on your left heel? To get out of it do you have to flip the deck so it lands on your head? Okay, I’m employing a bit of hyperbole…but not much!

How difficult is it? You have to balance that response against the previous responses to decide if it’s worth the time. Are you willing to spend ten years practicing something with only a couple of uses, or something with angles so restrictive you’ll only be able to use it one time out of ten?

As you can see, there’s no secret formula at work here, only common sense. And yet magicians devote years to monstrosities with limited use that are so difficult as to be nearly impossible. Hey, if you’re the type who enjoys practicing in front of the bedroom mirror, maybe that’s for you. God knows there’s a legion of move junkies out there, so enamored with developing their digital dexterity they’ll never see the forest for the trees. If you want to do magic, however, you have to keep things in perspective and remember that the moves are but a means to an end.
What moves, specifically, would I recommend to the beginning magician as being worth his or her while?

I remember in Paul Gertener’s book Steel And Silver he talks about meeting his mentor in magic. He showed the guy some goofly and unimpressive little tricks using the glide, after which the mentor patiently asked, Can you palm a coin?

I’ve always liked that story as it pretty much sums up everything I’ve been talking about here. How many magicians are out there, do you suppose, who could show you any number of obscure sleights but would be unable to do something as seemingly basic as palm a coin? In David Ben’s Vernon biography he talks about how Vernon was reluctant to release some of his moves because magicians on average didn’t go to the trouble of mastering even basic moves. The more things change the more they stay the same.

If there’s a fundamental starting sleight in close-up magic, I would say it’s the palm. It has more uses than just about any other move I can imagine. Think about it – it’s the ability to secretly conceal an object in the palm of your hand. If you’re a magician without a use for that ability… Well, maybe you should take up the guitar or juggling or something.

Here’s the amazing thing. It’s the most basic sleight in close up magic and yet there are people out there who say they can’t palm a coin! Even worse, the so called experts come along and say, Well so and so couldn’t palm a coin either so you’re not alone, and it took me twenty years to palm a coin correctly.

Listen to me: If it takes you twenty freaking years to learn to palm a coin or do just about anything else you are in the wrong game.

My take on this is that the people claiming they can’t palm a coin are under the mistaken impression that the hand must be held perfectly flat when an object is palmed. Wrong. Take a look at your own hands. Unless they’re flat on your desk, or you’re just a very strange person, you’re not holding them flat. Holding your hand perfectly flat would be weird. A hand relaxed is slightly curled with the thumb about parallel with the index finger, not sticking out. If you can’t palm a coin you’re just not doing it right. It’s not that you’re genetically unable, etc. You just need to go back and learn how – or even better get someone to show you how.

So that’s where I would advise any would be magician to start. Learn to palm, and by no means limit yourself to coins. Try to palm any small object you can, and once palmed try to keep it palmed while doing other things. Any time I’m in a store I’ll be walking around with coins palmed in one or both hands. After a time you don’t even think about it. That means that in performance it’s a natural thing, second nature. You don’t think about it and neither will anyone else.

Beyond the classic palm, I would learn the Thumb Palm and Downs Palm, both moves with many potential uses. Learn a couple of vanishes, at least one of the Retention of Vision variety, if for no other reason than to understand this very important concept. Moving to cards, the palm is again something that can’t be over rated. Vernon’s Topping The Deck is a very good, invisible way to palm a card. Learn a control, and it doesn’t have to be the pass. There are lots of good alternatives, which is why people like Daryl and Ammar don’t use the pass themselves. A double lift that looks like a single card being turned over – and not being thrown all about in the process. Hell, learn to do a neat in the hands shuffle. There are kids who have multiple packets of cards flying around who can’t do a neat shuffle.

Learn the basics, get them down. They’re basics because they have so many uses and have proven themselves time and time again. From there the choice is yours, but by having a firm grasp of the basics you’ll be building on a solid foundation and that’ll make you a much better magician.