Works: Lessons and Learning
|"If all of your peers can understand what you are doing, you are probably not creating." Dr. Henry Heimlich
"Everyone wants to change, but no one wants to do anything differently." Eugene Burger
"Tried and true means dead and buried." Brandon Tartikoff
"It was like close-up magic. You know - how it doesn't really matter whether the balls are disappearing, because it truly is magic that human skill can make it look that way." From Burden of Proof by Scott Turow
Sleights and Scripts
I do not teach remedial magic. I teach sleight of hand conjuring. I do not believe in teaching remedial material, be it tricks or sleights, or, for that matter, presentations. It seems to me a terrible waste of time and energy for a student to study a recognizably inferior sleight or trick, only to be forced to eventually abandon it, essentially starting over with the superior version. Far better, I think, to invest the time it takes to learn the inferior model in an approach that will last a lifetime - and extend the effort with whatever is required to master the superior version.
This does not mean that I insist that a beginning or intermediate student attempt to master the very best, often most difficult material. This would not make sense either since, as the saying goes, one must walk before one learns to run. I just like to skip the crawling stage, if we can help it.
This approach extends even to my initial selection of material. It would be foolish to begin with something as difficult as the cups and balls, for example - a trick that can take years to fully master. But I do not believe in self-working mechanical novelties that ultimately teach little of the principles of conjuring. I teach sleight of hand. And that means I begin with sleight of hand card magic. The student need not become a specialist. After the first two to five tricks, we will most often move on to other props. But at first, there is a good return on investment in studying sleight of hand with cards. Coin work, on the other hand, is a losing proposition for most beginners. I generally teach them the Classic Palm and a year later we come back to the subject. Even here there is no hard rule - I have one student who managed to master a superb stand-up one coin routine in her first year, while at the same time she worked on card material.
For those who have studied guitar, I can construct an analogy that may be of use. Unless you are teaching a child, whose small hands may limit their initial technical efforts, I think it is largely a waste of time to learn "baby" chords, that is, incomplete root chords, as in the case of a three string, one finger "C" chord. On the other hand, it would be foolish to begin with bar chords, which are well beyond the grasp of any beginner. A useful and effective compromise is to teach full root chords; it will take a little longer to learn a three finger, five string "C" chord, but it will remain useful for the rest of the student's life.
Similarly, I will not teach the usual beginner's Double Lift, wherein a break is (usually quite visibly and suspiciously) obtained, and then the card is lifted off the deck perhaps by the ends, or at one narrow end, thumb at the face and fingers behind. These handlings are simply unnatural and unconvincing. Period. They are, ultimately, unacceptable. By the same token, I do not teach any but the most advanced student the type of "stud" Double-Lift that I myself use. This is a difficult technique beyond the grasp of the average student. If he insists, I will teach it when the time comes. I decide the time.
Therefore, I choose to teach what I regard as an effective and acceptable compromise, namely the hit or strike style of Double Lift. This is a simple and direct technique that looks reasonably natural, and when precisely executed is completely deceptive. Also, I find it is well within the reach of any serious student, regardless of his level of previous experience. It takes most students about six to twelve weeks to become comfortable and consistent with the technique. That is a long time, but I warn my students to expect a certain amount of delayed gratification. Magic is not a pursuit given to instant gratification, so why mislead them? And there is plenty to do and to discuss and to, in fact, reward the student with, while he is struggling with his Double-Lift. The beauty of the thing is that within a handful of months they master a technique that the average life member of the magic club has never accomplished. Patience and perseverance offer substantial rewards.
And so, in fact, the first sleights that I teach are the Vernon Double-Undercut (as a control and false cut),the hit or strike Double Lift, the Vernon "Topping the Deck" top palm, and Robert-Houdin's Top Change. The first three sleights are incorporated in the first trick I teach. The Top Change is taught in a separate trick, the second trick to be studied.
The Top Change trick is taught second for several reasons. One, I want to teach the sleight early while the student is, if you will, too ignorant to know that the move is reputed to be difficult. Since he's not allowed to hang around the magic store or the magic shop, he is not yet infected with the "knowledge" that this is a dangerous and challenging sleight. I tell him it's easy. It is. Most students, in this context, master it very quickly. Then they are stunned when they go to the magic shop and can't find anybody who uses it.
I also want to teach the Top Change as an exercise in misdirection. Misdirection is a reliable tool, with predictable results. It is neither a substitute for technical skill (one or the other can fail at times), nor is it a bastard technique for wimps. It is a critical component of conjuring, and the Top Change is the perfect vehicle for learning it, in that the Top Change is an all but useless sleight without accompanying misdirection. You must study both together, and master the resulting unit as a whole. The Top Change trick I teach is from Eugene Burger's manuscript, Audience Involvement .. a lecture. It is a superb trick which teaches many valuable performance skills and concepts about the performer's relationship with the audience, as well as the proper use of misdirection. I use it myself, just as I also use the first trick of my course of study. [For the Top Change itself, see Robert-Houdin's "Modern Method" in The Secrets of Conjuring and Magic, or for an excellent contemporary description, see Ken Krenzel (sic) "The Top Change" in Best of Friends by Harry Lorayne.]
And that first trick is one of Eddie Fechter's, entitled "I've Got A Surprise For You" from Fechter, The Magic Of Eddie Fechter, by Jerry Mentzer. This, too, is a superb trick that I have used and used often for many years. I choose to teach it first for several reasons. One reason is that it teaches the three utility sleights already described, all of which have universal application in card magic, and will serve the student well throughout his lifetime. The second reason is that it is such a good trick that the student will be compelled to make certain that any trick he learns in the future will be as good if not better. This prior restraint, if you will, prevents him from collecting a repertoire of junk. If he uses this trick as an opener, the rest of the act better be good.
Briefly, the effect is as follows: a card is selected, noted, returned and lost in the deck. The magician turns over the top card, which turns out to be indifferent. This card is tabled. The magician immediately reaches into his pocket and produces another card; this card turns out to be the same indifferent card seen a moment before, and now supposedly resting face down on the table. When the tabled card is turned over, it turns out to be the original selection.
That is, to put it mildly, a darn good trick. The technical requirements are, in general terms, a control, a Double-Lift, and a palm. In the original Fechter description, an additional sleight-the "Toss Change"-is included, as an alternate method of switching the top card for the face of the double, rather than the usual turning over of the double onto the deck, prior to dealing it off. The change is a useful sleight, and Derek Dingle published an excellent variant in the premier issue of Richard's Almanac, called "The Alpha Toss." Both are worthy of your investigation, and I encourage you to pursue them. But the broad mechanics of the trick do not require the addition of this sleight, and my students rely upon the conventional method of switching out after a Double-Lift.
The student begins by learning the in-the-hands version of the Vernon Double-Undercut, which by its nature includes learning how to obtain and hold a fourth finger break. Eventually this will lead to many variants, including the Reverse Double-Undercut, the Double-Undercut to the table, and so on. It is a utility sleight with wide application, but we needn't learn all the variations at once. If the student is not already familiar with the Overhand Shuffle Control, I may sometimes teach the basics of that utility technique first. [For the Double-Undercut, see Version?s "Cutting the Aces" in the original Stars of Magic. For the overhand shuffle, see The Royal Road to Card Magic by Hugard and Braue.]
The student quickly moves onto the Hit Double-Lift, once the mechanics of the Double-Undercut are understood, but before they are mastered. In this way, both sleights are studied at once. As lessons proceed, the pace varies from student to student; there are always technical corrections and additions to make week by week, and there are plenty of other theoretical issues and concepts to discuss to fill the time and vary the menu. I want the student to accumulate a body of knowledge and a breadth of understanding in the course of the first year. And I don't want them to become bored or discouraged. [For the Hit Double-Lift, see Dr. Jacob Daley's "The Itinerant Pasteboards" in the original Stars of Magic; The Cardician by Ed Marlo; and/or Daryl's Ambitious Card Omnibus by Stephen Minch (perhaps the best description extant).]
The sleights are taught with an emphasis on soft, gentle handling , and slow, precise execution. Only when precision is achieved do we begin to bring the move literally "up to speed." It is the tendency to attempt to learn sleights in "real time," too soon and before precision is within grasp, that leads to sloppy execution that is never perfected. A sign that says slow and soft should hang over every student's practice mirror!
As these two sleights begin to come under the student's control and understanding, we move on to the palm. This is, admittedly, a difficult sleight. But I consider the Vernon top palm to be the finest single top card palm in all of conjuring; one of the very few cases where a single technique stands out so clearly above the rest. It can be achieved with absolute naturalness and complete invisibility under the staring eyes of a spectator, with none of the unnatural actions and hand positions that many palming techniques require. It is worth the effort. [See "Topping the Deck" in Select Secrets by Dai Vernon.]
Some students catch on quickly. Others do so more slowly. It makes little difference. If the student has difficulty, we will not rush things; we may instead add other things to study in parallel, to keep things interesting. Perhaps the French Drop with a coin, a sleight that I find takes most beginner several months to fully comprehend, given the amount of body language and misdirection required to execute the sleight correctly. Or we might work on some additional card trick on the side with less ambitious technical requirements, such as "Out Of This World" or the Brainwave Deck. It does not matter to me how long it takes, as long as I can hold the students' interest and prevent them from becoming too frustrated. It has been my experience that it all tends to balance out in the end. A year down the road they will have several polished tricks in their repertoire, regardless of whether they have mastered them in a linear progression, or have brought all of them to completion almost simultaneously. As well, there is much to be done during this period in reading theoretical material, studying presentation, and writing original scripts. There is plenty of variety, and plenty to do.
And in fact, the bulk of the work is oriented towards presentation and performance. Here is where I serve as creative consultant, assistant writer, and theatrical director. Eugene Burger has written that "Presentation is the point at which you put yourself into your magic." I make every effort to assist the student in getting themselves into their magic from the very start. It is the failure to achieve (often even to pursue) this very goal that renders so many magicians into flavorless, generic, cookie-cutter performers. Audiences seek out performers - be they musicians or magicians or any type of performing artist - to discover interesting characters who reveal themselves, sincerely and believably, to their audiences. Bland, mundane performers who lack character and are indistinguishable from one another are what holds magic back, well behind the other performance arts. Any professional has had the experience of approaching an agent for possible representation, and hearing, "Magician? Sorry, we have one." Yet that same agent has a roster of comedians and musicians. Are all magicians the same? He thinks so.
And so, along with creative consultant, assistant writer, and theatrical director, my role as teacher often encompasses something akin to therapist, as I lead the student on a voyage of self-discovery, helping him to search out ways in which he can integrate his own interests and knowledge and experience - indeed, his life! -into his magic. This is hard - sometimes very hard. That which is easily obtained isn't worth having. But anyone - and I do mean anyone -can do it. Creativity is a muscle that everyone possesses - it's merely a question of exercise. The more you practice being creative, the better you get at it. If you can learn a Double-Cut, you can learn creativity. It's that simple. What's that? You say you can't? You say you've tried? How long have you tried? How hard? Anyone who says they can't is merely lazy-and a liar.
With that in mind, I will now - and with some pride - present to you some of the product of my student's efforts. I don't propose to teach you any tricks here. I propose to teach you how to learn tricks - and by the example of some of my students. Dai Vernon's presentation for "Triumph" is a wonderful creation, but it has far more of him in it than it does of you - doesn't it? Here are examples of the work of people - amateur magicians all - who have succeeded in putting themselves into their magic. I am impressed with their results. I am proud of them and grateful for what I have learned from them. Perhaps you can learn from them as well.
Scripts for Card Warp and the Brainwave Deck
Card Warp and its many variants have remained a popular standard since its release by Roy Walton in the 1970s. I well remember Derek Dingle's performance of the trick on national television, which seemed to immediately set everyone in New York upon adding it to their repertoire. I have also seen a handful - just a small handful - of wonderful and uniquely original presentations, most notably by Peter Samelson (a routine I first saw him perform in about 1977) and Eugene Burger. Several of my students have managed to create what I think are equally delightful scripts that, quite frankly, are far superior to my own rather simple presentation.
D.W. "Chip" Denman is a statistician who manages the Statistics Laboratory at the University of Maryland. He was one of my co-founders of the National Capital Area Skeptics, of which he was President from 1986 until 1992. The following script is short and to the point, but provides a terrific hook that crystallizes the imagery of the effect. Chip clinched his job interview at the University of Maryland when the last of a panel of interviewers noticed that magic was listed as one of Chip's hobbies, and asked him to perform something. He did Card Warp.
"The Twilight Zone"
D. W. "Chip" Denman © 1994
You are about to enter another dimension, a dimension of sight, a dimension of sound, a dimension of mind.
Please fold this card exactly in half and crease it.
You will travel through a land of shadow and substance, of things and ideas.
There is a signpost up ahead ... your next stop ... the Twilight
Nee-neeh-NEE-ne nee-neeh-NEE-ne etc. [Here Chip approximates - very roughly indeed!-the infamous theme music from Rod Serling's "The Twilight Zone."]
Consider the case of one Jack-of-Clubs, an unremarkable, unassuming playing card. But today this card will be forever changed as it reaches an unexpected turning point ... to be altered for all time by a simple twist of fate.
Confused, this card will question its own background... Distraught, it will question its own face.
Pushed to the edge by questions without answers, this card will go half-mad.
This card, another helpless pasteboard, torn between two
A mystery, submitted for your approval, here in the Twilight Zone.
Dimis Michaelides is the vice president of marketing for a large chemical production firm in Paris, France. At the time we met and he studied with me, we were both living in the Washington D.C. vicinity, while he was employed at the World Bank. Cypriot by birth, Dimis speaks several languages fluently, is an accomplished singer and musician, and brings many of his eclectic interests to bear in his magic. As well, he has a beautiful baritone voice which he uses effectively in performance; like Poe, he sometimes goes for the sound more than the sense of language. He even sings one of his presentations a capella, for which he won a special award in a British magic contest some years ago. Here is his presentation for the Brainwave Deck.
"Sharing a Fantasy"
Dimis Michaelides © 1994
[Dimis wraps his Brainwave Deck in aged parchment paper (coffee works well, as any good bizarrist knows), and keeps the package in a beautiful old carved wooden box, which also contains a smattering of dried seeds and herb.]
I need someone with a vivid imagination. Do you have a vivid imagination? Would you share a fantasy with me? Don't worry, it's only a fantasy!
The other night I had a dream, and I'd like to share it with you, Kate. Just place your hand over this box, the box of my dreams. Keep your hand still, relax, sit comfortably... Relax ... and...
Imagine a lake with a bed of white lilies, a soft breeze is blowing, and from a wandering cloud drops a full pack of fifty-two playing cards. It's my dream! One by one...
Monarchs and maids from the city of Spades,
One by one, number cards and picture cards float down with the breeze, landing gently on the lilies of the lake, in an air of bliss and tranquility.
Kate, can you visualize the lake, the cards, can you feel the air, smell the lilies? Good!
Now rather abruptly the light breeze turns into a strong wind, which becomes a powerful gale, a violent thunderstorm, a raging tempest, and on the tempest rides a mean - looking sheriff with a filthy orange pig on a leash. On the pig sits a man with a scar on his chin, stinking of smoke and gin and wearing a hideous grin on his face, and a ruby ring on his hand that is fondling the body of a madam! She's size forty, ten long red fingernails, two purple eyes, a golden tooth ... and she is hounded by a howling mob of pimps, punks, perverts, prostitutes, politicians and priests of every persuasion and a patrol of a hundred and one policemen dressed in drag!
How's that for a fantasy? Or do you prefer the calm before the storm, Kate? [If yes: Unfortunately, that's all over. If no: Good!] Because now there's thunder, lightning, the ground trembles, the waters rise, as the freaks scream and snarl and spit and curse and hiss, destroying the blissful tranquility of our fifty-two playing cards ... which one by one...
Monarchs and maids of Spades,
... one by one, number cards and picture cards fall face down on the lake, as the tempest with its frenzied crew moves on having devastated all the lilies of the lake.
All the lilies? Of course not! One lily remains at the edge of the lake ... and on it is one card ... looking not face down like all the rest, but face up.
Do you see it with your mind?
Which one is it? Name it! Name it!
The Queen of Hearts? Oh, Kate! How I love to hallucinate with you! You fit so perfectly in my dreams! But was it a dream? You see, when I woke up I realized that in my hand was a box -this very box that you are now holding! And in it- please open it-was a pack of playing cards. All face down, like in the dream we just shared, except one, only one, looking face up.
The Queen of Hearts! The one on the lily at the edge of the lake!