An Essay on Sleight of Hand (for people who don’t do sleight of hand)
As the mighty Bob once said, “the times they are a’changing”! Now of course Mr. Dylan was not referring to the influx of youtube based magicians and their subsequent viral distribution throughout social media networking, but in his own unique way he might as well have been.
I’ve been ‘into’ magic for just under a decade, which is an extraordinarily short amount of time compared to some of my peers of a similar age. I started at the grand old age of 24 and, must admit that the magic bug really bit hard. An early obsession rapidly turned into countless hours of practice, reading and studying all kinds of magic, from all over the world, covering a timespan of hundreds of years; which is without mention of the exorbitant amount of money on a shameless amount of ‘props’ (please read: tat) that sit neglected and unused in a box like the scraps at the end of a very enjoyable, if unhealthy meal.
I mention this, as my magical timeline also coincides with the adoption of the youtube as a media to enable magicians to publicly share (and often ruin) performances and knowledge. When I first started there really wasn’t much in the way of information available on the internet aside from a few forums which would point you in the direction of a recommended book or DVD. This is in stark contrast with the plethora of available online resources for budding new magicians. In honesty there is so much available now, it’s often difficult for the novice to know where to start.
I am not against this adoption of new technology, as it is impossible to ignore that the internet has changed every aspect of modern living. From shopping, to film to dating and all points in between the internet has changed our relationship with how we engage with the world. It has however also changed the dynamic of how a vast number of people experience magic and more specifically sleight of hand magic.
The unblinking eye of the camera necessitates the need for a close up magic trick to be performed to technical perfection in order not to ‘flash’ the secret move to the viewing public. It’s unfortunate that many amateur magicians fail to appreciate this small but incredibly important point and inadvertently expose the methodology of a sleight. Even more unfortunately ruining the thinking and work of the original creator of the sleight, who might have spent years pondering whether or not to release his efforts to his fellow magicians (normally for a healthy profit ;)), in case of such an event occurring. This need for technical perfection (and there are some stellar examples of such) means that largely the focus of the video is on the prop, resulting in the gloriously lurid ‘magic crotch shot’ found on so many online magic vids; wherein the camera is pointed directly at the deck of cards and said magicians ‘in-betweeny bits’ in background; thankfully normally clothed.
It is understandable for the bedroom magician, having spent many hours practice on a particularly nifty sleight or routine to want to air his efforts to the internet at large; subconsciously often armed with the thoughts that accomplishment of this visually stunning, albeit largely pointless achievement, will facilitate the global takeover of the magic community. The luxury of talking at magic conventions in faceless hotel function rooms, in front of other magicians keen to gain a glimpse of higher knowledge could potentially await such a video.
This somewhat saddens me, as I have to suggest that the whole process is sleightly (sic) counter intuitive.
THE GOAL OF A WELL EXECUTED SLEIGHT IS THE FACT THAT IT REMAINS INVISIBLE IN BOTH EXECUTION AND INTENT!
I would hope upon first reading, the main sentiment of the previous sentence is clear to most magicians who might be reading, but perhaps not to any non practitioners of the ‘dark arts’ (honestly I wish it was that exciting). The focal point of these youtube videos is the sleight itself, precisely the one thing that should not be drawn attention to, regardless of the level of technical execution.
Even the reader with a casual interest (and I’m assuming you have at least a casual interest to have made it this fair into the blog post) in magic would be aware of what is referred to as a ‘sleight’, and the importance of it not being detectable to the eye. However, this is only a very small part of the underlying psychology of the successful execution of a move. A very well respected book written in 1902 called “Artifice, Ruse and Subterfuge at the Card Table” by the mysterious reformed gambler S. W. Erdnase (a pseudonym, whose true identity is still not accurately known to this day) has become the ‘bible’ of card magic and underlines explicitly not only the physical working of playing card techniques, many of which are still used 112 years after it’s initial publication, but also the intent and covering motions which are key to making them a success. In it, the author clearly states:
“…the most critical observer should not suspect, let alone detect, the action.”
I believe that, like many other sentences in “Erdnase”, the author manages to perfectly capture the essence of the execution of sleight of hand in an eloquent and perfectly succinct manner. The point being, that the physical execution of the move should not be apparent to either the viewers eye nor instinct. If the audience is aware of something happening, even if they aren’t fully aware of precisely what has occurred, the overall effect of the routine is ruined and the participant’s experience diminished. It is a sentiment that is echoed in arguably the second most important book on card magic after “Erdnase”. “Expert Card Technique”, published in 1940, is a tremendous and comprehensive resource for any magician written by two very well respected authors Jean Hugard and Frederick Braue (although the origin of some of the uncredited material contained therein is worthy of a blog post all of it’s own), in the chapter on performance they state:
“The card expert commands the respect and admiration of those who watch him because he apparently does not manipulate the cards.”
I feel that the subtext to both these statements is that the execution of the move (or moves) to a high standard should be taken as a given rather than something to display. What is paramount is the experience of the audience and what they perceive during the timeline of a routine. Any suggestion that the magician has ‘done something’ has a detrimental effect on the audiences level of astonishment.
The reader would be forgiven at this point for wondering what exactly the point of this rambling diatribe. Well the point is this, if magic is to experienced to it’s fullest potential, it must be experienced live. There is no substitute for a well performed effect in the hands of someone who has given the trick the time and thought it deserves, and more so understands how to guide the audiences’ experience in order to maximise their level of astonishment. The most important element being the magician, not the trick itself.
The aforementioned youtube style of magician will always fall short when delivering ‘crotch shot’ magic because there is no human element to form a connection with the audience. Instead the video merely displays how ‘clever’ the magician is and how he ‘must be very fast with his hands’. That kind of reaction is almost the antithesis of what astonishment should feel like. Notice I use the term ‘feel like’ rather than ‘look like’.
I am aware that this short essay seems to be pretty damning of youtube, and I don’t mean it to be. Youtube is a wonderful resource that can be used creatively as a new format for magicians to exploit, like the incredible Marco Tempest or the magnificent Richard Wiseman in the following examples
Or as a great way to spread the word about your abilities and encourage people to come see your show like Helder Guimaraes or Derek Hughes.
Let’s embrace magic as it should be enjoyed. As a performance of something wonderful, literally full of wonder; not as a demonstration of how much practice a move has taken to get to the point where it is felt able to share.
I’ll leave you with a wonderful performance (yes on youtube!) by esteemed American magician Eric Mead of a classic of magic. Eric ‘gets it’, note how there’s very little in the way of script, no tasteless jokes, no overt moves. He just performs a wonderful (and very technically challenging) piece of magic and allows the routine to speak for itself. The requisite sleight of hand disappears amongst the moments of magic and all that’s left is a true feeling of astonishment at the hands of a truly gifted performer. Enjoy.