Last week, in an open air theater in the Dominican Republic, I stood up in front of most of my coworkers and several of their family members to share with them this thing that I do. My performance served as the opening act for our guest speaker, whose encouraging work regarding time, attention, and creative work has contributed greatly to my ability to tolerate sucking while I work at getting better.

I’ve been taking magic seriously for several months now and I’ve been feeling pretty good about the progress I’ve made, a couple of embarrassing moments notwithstanding. But a few months ago, I began to notice a plateau with my progress. I frequently perform one-off tricks for friends and family or the occasional unfortunate barista, but I don’t have many opportunities for longer performances. I think this was hampering my improvement.

With our annual company get-together was coming up. I realized that if I worked hard, I could have a set prepared to perform. So, that’s what I did. The set consisted of:

  • A John Carney sponge ball routine from Carneycopia
  • A torn-and-restored napkin effect from Mark Wilson’s Complete Course
  • A card trick with a magician-in-trouble plot element, modified from Royal Road
  • A copper and silver effect that led into
  • A coin vanish, revealed in an impossible location.

Video of the performance is just over fifteen minutes, and I felt really good about it. I was able to get several audience members involved, including the kids. Watching the video back, I see I missed a couple of performance nuances and I could do a better job of maintaining my status, but overall, for my first proper performance, I’m really happy.

Here are a couple of things I did that I think made my performance successful.

First, I kept the set short and manageable.1 Even with some trusted guidance, I was tempted to extend the card section of the set in a way that would have created more stress for me. I eventually came to my senses and I kept the set short and straightforward.

Second, I made sure to create a performing environment where I didn’t feel pressured or scrutinized by anyone but myself. I didn’t want to get a paying gig or busk; I wanted a safe environment for my first performance since I tend to get very nervous.

Finally, I picked my audience. Performing for a birthday party or other unpredictable situation means the magician has to pay a lot of attention to the crowd to avoid troublemakers and other such performing obstacles. Since these were all my coworkers, I already knew who to avoid, who would react well to certain effects, and who would get the most delight from the experience. I knew all of this going in and that made a huge difference in letting me focus on my performance.

I’m not sure what’s next for me in terms of performance, but I’m going to keep working at the process, learning more material and learning more about my own performing style and character because, as Merlin says,

as far as I can tell, dedication to the process can’t help but make you a better photographer — or a better whatever, for that matter.

  1. Thanks to Andrew for his gracious assistance and feedback in putting together the set. 

My card fans were bad. I mean awful. They were uneven, clumpy, and slow, which meant they were ugly, ugly, and ugly.

I searched online for tips and tricks about what I might be doing wrong. The best tip I found was to use new cards and apply fanning powder. Not exactly helpful. I seriously almost bought a beret.

There’s very little instruction about how to do the thing that you’ve been tasked with doing. “Make the cards into an attractive array.” But how? The thing is, no one can tell me how. It’s opaque.

I got fed up with it the other night and said to myself, “This can’t be this damned hard.” I picked up a deck of cards and while I was watching TV with my wife, I fanned the deck. And then I fanned it again. And again. Each time, I noted what happened and how the deck felt in my hands. That’s my job. Attempt, evaluate and adjust. Iterate. Try, fail, review, repeat, fail better.

So, how are my fans now? Less crappy. But my thumbs are sore as hell.

Friday night, my wife and I went to a high school football game to see our niece perform in the halftime show. During the third quarter, I turned to our other niece and said, “Do you know any magic tricks?” She looked at me skeptically and said, “No…””Do you wanna learn one?” “Sure…” So, I performed Mark Wilson’s Sucker Torn-and-Restored Napkin from his Complete Course.

It was a good experience. Afterward, she said, “That freaks me out!” which is a pretty good reaction from a ten year old.

On the way home, I asked my wife if she saw our sister-in-law’s reaction. I was wondering how it played with her. She said she wasn’t watching. She was just focused on the little girl. That’s when I realized that I should be doing the same.

In their talk from SxSW back in 2009, John Gruber and Merlin Mann talk about finding an audience for a blog. More than that, though, when writing a blog post, have in your mind a picture of someone that you want to delight with it. The guys at Panic bust their ass to make their software “keynote-good” because they dreamed of making software good enough for Steve Jobs to demo1 on stage during one of his famous keynote presentations.

With magic, I’ve been trying to delight people in this way. When I’m practicing a trick or learning something new, I think of people like  John Carney, Ricky Jay, and the late Tommy Wonder and try to make my efforts something they would like. Closer to home and perhaps more realistically, I think of Patrick and Devon at the magic shop, the guys that showed me cool stuff the first couple of times I ventured into the store.

But, now I think there’s another kind of delighting that I need to focus on. When the practice and preparation are done and the performance comes, I want to pick out someone in the audience to delight. Yesterday, in the bleachers of a high school football game, I had one little girl with rapt attention letting me show her something cool. I don’t know if I flashed. I hope I didn’t but if someone down the row caught a glimpse of something, that’s not my concern. The wide eyed look from the little girl to her mom was more than enough to make the performance a success.

  1. Sadly, that’s no longer a tangible goal, but there’s nothing wrong with keeping it an ideal to make something he would have liked. 

Today was the first time I applied knowledge I picked up from one source and applied it to another source. I want to say I’ve improved it, but I’m still not comfortable telling someone like John Carney that I’m improving his routine.

In Transplant, the requirement that the three be pre-loaded on the face of the deck bothered me from the first time I read it. It seemed unnecessary to me and the “happened to notice it” part never seems natural. If I turn the deck over to look for a card of the needed suit, why would I not notice the three there already. It’s the first card I see when turning over the deck! Having the three there is suspicious.

So, I now bury the three in the deck and openly look for the card in the deck. When I find it, I implement a key card control technique from Royal Road as I cut the deck to maintain the deuce in the proper position for the final move. This has the added benefit of burying the four that kicked off the routine as well.

This is a simple modification to be sure, but for me, it made the routine much more satisfying. More than that, though, it felt more creative. Anyone can ape a method, but when my neurons start firing in a way that makes my magic feel more like my own, that’s the start of something really cool for me.

I’ve been working on this trick for just a few hours total. So far, it’s pretty rough. Nothing near as good as this version. I find my sleight at the critical moment flashes a bit, makes a sound (much more noticeable with the new pack of cards I just opened), or simply takes way too long. More work is needed before I can show this to an actual audience. But I’m going to stick with it because I simply love the effect. It’s delightful.

Remember when I said I bombed those two tricks before? Well, tonight I sat down in Roots with a new deck of cards, and someone sitting on the couch across from my chair said, “Practicing blackjack?” I somewhat reluctantly said, “No, I’m not much of a gambler these days. I’m sort of an amateur magician.” To this, the guy said, “Do you have a trick?” So, I performed the Topsy-Turvy Cards again since it’s one of the tricks I feel is both impressive and challenging enough to merit performing for people. It played well, and I was happy to have my last performance failure officially behind me.

I’ve been working on a couple of card tricks lately from Royal Road and been feeling pretty good about them. Today, I performed them for an audience of acquaintances that didn’t know I was a magician. Put simply: I totally bombed. Not in the sense that the tricks didn’t play well or even in the sense that they figured out the method. I bombed because I completely botched the tricks. I didn’t get the deck into the proper position for “Topsy-Turvy Cards” so the ending had the cards face up instead of face down except for two cards at one end. Then, I incorrectly controlled the selected card in “Design for Laughter” and ended up with the wrong card in the revelation.

There are a couple of lessons I was able to learn from this experience. First, even though the tricks bombed, the audience didn’t really care. Of course, of it was a paying gig or something, the stakes would have been higher but in an impromptu situation, there’s very little risk. They can’t eat you no matter how badly you do. Really, no one cares about my magic as much as I do. That’s oddly reassuring.

Second, I need to learn how to handle the situation better when things go wrong. When I revealed the wrong card at the end of “Design for Laughter”, it was a happy accident that the user’s selected card was the king of clubs and the card I revealed was the ace of clubs. I panicked a little bit about the trick going “wrong,” and didn’t recognize the opportunity to say something like, “Oh, look at that! Your king got a promotion,” or some other such patter that wouldn’t have meant the trick “didn’t work.” More study about performance will certainly help.

Even though I bombed, I am glad I tried. I forced myself to ignore my lizard brain, and no one ate me. No one even laughed at me. And to top it off, I learned a couple lessons that I could never have learned sitting at my desk at home practicing alone.

The way I approach learning magic, there are three modes in which I find myself working: learning, practicing, and reflecting. One of my biggest struggles is learning to recognize the difference between all three of these useful working modes and the unhelpful, blissful state of procrastination.

I’m getting better at recognizing the numb psyche that comes along with procrastination. When I know I should be learning something new, but I sit and “practice” blind cuts and shuffles, it feels qualitatively different from when I am working on those things because they need genuine improvement. When I know I should be writing a genuine, reflective article about an experience but I choose to browse the media section of instead and “get inspired” by what others are doing, I feel that I’ve wasted my opportunity to take another step forward in favor of the safety of admiring those that are on the path.

The only time I never feel like I have done myself a disservice is when I choose performing. If I’m ambivalent or uncertain about what I should be doing, I never go wrong in stopping someone in the coffee shop and sharing my work with them.

My new mantra is, “When in doubt, forego the meta.” “Meta” means things that are related to your thing but are not the thing itself. For magic, this includes but is not limited to reading blogs, buying new props and books, hanging out at the magic shop, going to magic club meetings, or even writing about it. These things are important, but they should never be mistaken for magic itself.

If you’re a writer, you could be going wrong by doing more “research,” but you will never go wrong by sitting down and making the clackity noise. If you’re a guitarist, you could go wrong by reading that new issue of Guitar Player or buying some “inspirational” guitar music from the iTunes store, but you will never go wrong by picking up the guitar and putting your fingers on the frets. Most of the time, these won’t be your best efforts, but sometimes, your art will reward you with something unexpected because you didn’t settle for the numb comfort of procrastination.

One of the things that I’ve been noticing is that I need to make my sleights more subtle. I’ve been watching myself, and I see that I need to improve a lot in this area. I need to hold smaller breaks, make shorter jogs, shift and palm more quietly, top change more smoothly, and shuffle and cut more naturally. Through the miracle of iSight cameras, I’m able to keep iterating on this, but right now it’s a really weak part of my skills.