Deliberate Practice

Check out Alina Tugend’s column, Shortcuts in the April 9th edition of the New York Times. She discusses the ‘Nature v. Nurture’, ‘Talent v. Persistence’ arguments for success.

First, I found her discussion of practice, and in particularly “deliberate practice”, interesting. Deliberate practice is a useful term.

One of my pet peeves has always been listening to people who pontificate how long they have been involved with something as if the length of time at an activity warranted respect. We’ve all heard someone – who is not particularly good at the task – state, “I’ve been doing this for thirty-five years…”

My mental response is usually, “Well, if I had been doing it for as long as you have, and was still that bad, I’d want to consider an alternative career.”

The reason they are bad is not because they haven’t put the time in, but because they have not done ‘deliberate practice’. Tugend cites Professor Ericsson’s notion of deliberate practice: “It involves spending hours a day in a highly structured activities to improve performance and overcome weakness.”

The key words, in my opinion, are ‘highly structured activities’ with the goal to ‘overcome weakness’. Sheer repetition is not enough.

The practice exercises must be well-conceived, targeted exercises designed to overcome specific weakness. Going back to one of my earlier posts, I find working slowly allows you to understand each component of the task at hand so that you can flag the weakness you need to correct.

One of my mentors, Ross Bertram – one of the great sleight-of-hand artists of the 20th century – often used a rhythm count to help him flag weakness. He would apply a musical count (1-2-3-4) to a series of sleights not to give him a mechanical rhythm to the piece, but to flag any stutter in the routine, one that his eye would gloss over, or for which his mind would provide a false justification such as, “no one would notice that”.

If his hands couldn’t keep pace with the fluid timing of the count, then he would focus on the point where the rhythm was broken, and fix it.

Second, I found Tugend’s comments about the optimum length of practice sessions interesting. It appears, for example, that four hours is about the maximum that anyone can practice in a day consistently to achieve great results.  After that, the sessions can be counterproductive.

This certainly holds true from my experience.

So, I’ve always questioned the stories of certain performers who maintained a practice regime of 8-10 hours a day. It may sound great in a media kit but, if they really did so (which I doubt), it probably wasn’t very productive.

Third, Tugend flags the emotional and human cost of such dedication. The focus required to persevere day in and day out has a price. Relationships slide, and empathy – the EI (Emotional Intelligence) of the player or performer is often diminished.

There are certainly enough examples of artists, performers and athletes who have sacrificed all for their art, craft or sport. That’s why I dedicated the first volume of my biography on Dai Vernon – a man who sacrificed all for his art – to the children of magicians: “May you grown up and still believe in miracles.”

It’s also probably why, as I mentioned in that previous post, after I pointed out to my son Harrison, then age 14, that the Vernon biography was dedicated in essence to him and his brother, he said, “Dad, you should have written something else.”

“Like what?” I asked.

“You should have written,‘To my sons, Courtney and Harrison, who will never read this book.’ ”

How true.

It’s Amazing

I find it amazing.

I find it amazing how my interest in magic crosses into so many fields – performing, speaking, writing, consulting, publishing – and now, fonts.  Yes, fonts.

In 2007-2008, I had the privilege of working with Mike Caveney and Michael Albright on Revelation, Dai Vernon’s magnum opus on The Expert At The Card Table.

Publishing any book is gratifying. This one, however, was particularly so. It combined superb commentary (Vernon), exquisite design (Albright), and artful bookmaking (Caveney) in a form that is both a joy to read and a pleasure to hold.

I am pleased to report that another by-product of that project has now just come to market: a font designed by Andrew Leman as an homage to Dai Vernon.

In addition to being the most influential magician of the 20th century, Vernon was a skilled draftsman and artist. His handwriting, particularly as expressed in the 1920s and 1930s, was unique.

Albright wanted to incorporate Vernon’s styling in some of the headers in Revelation. His search led him to Andrew Leman who, by sheer coincidence, had been developing a font with similar attributes. Andrew was completely unaware of Vernon and his work.

Albright brought me into the equation, and I sent Andrew samples of Vernon’s handwriting as expressed in his private notebooks and letters so that he could refine his own work and incorporate some of Vernon’s calligraphic flourishes into it. I was also able to arrange for Andrew to meet Dr. Gene Matsuura.

Dr. Matsuura provided Andrew with additional samples of Vernon’s handwriting from his own collection. Fittingly, in June 2008 Andrew scanned Vernon’s original notebooks in the lobby of the Biltmore Hotel, in downtown Los Angeles.

It is one thing to inventory the design of letters; it is another have them dovetail together. Andrew did a superb job. He comments, “Fonts, like movies and radio plays and all other creative endeavors, are never finished, just released.”

You can check out his release here.

I’m sure that Vernon would find it equally amazing.

A Grand Exposé

I have just returned from five days in beautiful Fisher Island, a private island just off of Miami. I was there to work with my host, Allan Slaight, on his business biography, which is slated for publication later this year.

As per one of my earlier Tricks & Tweets postings, I adhered to my Walter B. Gibson mode of working, and managed to finish proofing the text of Magicana’s forthcoming reprint of A Grand Exposé, a scare but significant book on deception published in 1860. It is now in the hands of Michael Albright who will cast his magic spell so that the reprint mirrors, as much as possible, the look and feel of the original publication.

As I write in the Present Day Publisher’s Preface, it is full of surprises. A sample passage is set out below. I find it, given the 1860 date of publication, particularly enlightening.  For many of you, however, it will be gobbligook. To paraphrase Joseph Dunninger, who Sid Lorraine discusses on his Blog, “For those who understand, no explanation is necessary; for those who don’t, no explanation will do.”

So, from A Grand Exposé:

Hollows and Rounds.

The next kind of cards which I shall describe are called hollows and rounds, and squares and rounds. These two kinds of cards are acknowledged by gamblers to be the most ingenious now in use, which is, beyond a doubt, true. The hollows and rounds are made in the following manner: It is first decided how they are to be arranged, as in the case of the strippers, mentioned above; then one half of the deck is cut so as to leave each a little rounded on the edges, which makes them a trifle wider in the middle than at either end; the other half of the deck remains square. Now, by placing the two half decks together they can be stripped or pulled the same as the common strippers – the difference being that the common strippers are stripped by being pulled lengthways and from the ends, while the hollows and rounds are stripped by pulling them lengthways from the middle of the deck; thus, a person who has seen a deck of common strippers, could not pull a deck of rounds or a deck of rakes either, and consequently would think they were fair cards; and another great advantage which these cards possess over others, is that they can be turned around and thrown about the table, and still they are not divested of their fraudulent character as strippers and rakes would be, should they be used in the same manner.

There are some few persons, who, having heard of strippers, often turn the cards around if they suspect they are being cheated; such a proceeding would have no effect whatever upon such a card as just described; hence the bettor in such a case would be satisfied that he was playing against a square game. I am told that many professional gamblers could be swindled five or six years ago with this kind of card. Squares and rounds are made much in the same manner – they are cut to pull from the ends, like rakes; they also can be turned round without producing any effect on them; also, like hollows and rounds, they can be shuffled after being pulled and run in without changing the relative position of the cards; they take two and use them otherwise in the same manner as described of the common strippers. It will readily be perceived how easily the uninitiated can be swindled at this game with these ingenious contrivances of the professional gambler. The reader (if he is not a gambler) will now presume that he has learned all the secrets of the Game of Faro, and if the cues should come out correct by his keeping, that it would be an impossibility for the gambler to swindle him at the Game of Faro. To such I must say that they are still ignorant of the entire system of this game. I have yet some very important expositions of this game to make which I have no doubt will surprise the readers as much or more than the expositions I have already made.

Forewarned is forearmed!