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.

Ignite the Imagination

Some of you may know that I also serve as the Artistic Director of Magicana, a performing arts organization and registered charity that I co-founded with Patrick Watson and Daniel Zuckerbrot almost ten years ago.

One of my roles – a recent one – is acting as the editor and publisher of Magicol, a quarterly journal that explores the history of magic, and the personalities, apparatus and ephemera that are its foundation. Magicol was first published in August 1950. It is a privilege for me to join the ranks as one of its editors.

The first issue under my watch is now being mailed to subscribers. The cover features a painting of the great Compars Herrmann (1816-1887), provided to us courtesy of the Belvedere Museum and Magic Christian, both residents of Vienna. I would like to thank both of them for sharing with us this stunning portrait of one of magic’s greatest practitioners.

Articles include a walking magic tour of Chicago by William Pack; observations on Dai Vernon by his wife, Jeanne Verner; and a scholarly discussion regarding the burning of Scot’s Discoverie of Witchcraft by Clay Shevlin. There are, of course, conference reports, books reviews, and additional commentary.

The production of Magicol also gave me the opportunity of working with Michael Albright. Michael is a lifelong student of magic. Fortunately for us, however, he is also a designer of international renown. His recent work includes redesigning the media pages for the BBC, promotions for Oprah Winfrey, and American Idol. Michael and I have collaborated on several publications including Revelation, Spins and Needles, and How Gamblers Win. I have supplied Michael with the text and images for five other publications for future release. With any luck – and provided I don’t exhaust his good graces – three of them will be released this calendar year.

In the interim, consider subscribing to Magicol. It was assembled, to paraphrase the great American magician Harry Kellar, to feed the mind with mystery and ignite the imagination.

You won’t be disappointed.


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!

Setting the stage

While the New Year reminds us of what occurred during the past twelve months, it also gives us a chance to look ahead.

2010 promises to be a busy and exciting year with many projects on the go.

As the Artistic Director of Magicana, we have added additional responsibilities to our portfolio: we are now the stewards of the Magic Collectors’ Association and their publication, Magicol, a quarterly magazine that focuses on the history of magic and the apparatus and ephemera associated with it. Our first issue will be sent to members in February. Membership in the MCA is one of the best bargains in magic. If you are interested in the history of magic, you should really join now!

We will also be programming the 41st annual MCA Conference held near Chicago. Scheduled from May 13th to 15th, the conference will feature a broad range of speakers, performers and dealers, and be the perfect opportunity for those with kindred interests to share information and build new friendships. We will be releasing information on the conference shortly on Magicana’s website.

Although I also have several books in various states of completion – the business biography of Canadian media mogul Allan Slaight, the life and magic of Paul Fox, and the second volume of the Dai Vernon biography – several other books are scheduled for release in 2010.

I took my M.O., so to speak, from Walter Gibson, the creator of “The Shadow”. Gibson was one of the most prolific authors of the twentieth century, writing scores of books and articles under a sundry of names. Apparently, Gibson had a typewriter in virtually every room in his house, and a different story set in each carriage. He’d wander into a room, read where he had left off and then, if the muse struck him, continue on with that particular story. Yes, there was multi-tasking prior to Microsoft.

Titles in our 2010 queue include a book of finger-flinging one-handed cuts by Dr. George E. Casaubon (Msgr. Vincent Foy). Nick Sacco and I finally convinced Msgr. Foy – a pioneer in this area and now age 94 – to release a manuscript of his favorite cuts. Photographer Ron Van Sommeron took photos of Msgr’s hands – or rather, hand – performing each cut!

Also, with the success of How Gamblers Win, Magicana will reprint another rare title: A Grand Exposé. Published originally in 1860, there are reputedly less than 12 known remaining copies of the first edition of this book. It is a marvelous work and one that should be in the hands of serious aficionados of card table artifice.

Speaking of card table artifice, 2010 should also see the publication of the first volume of three centered on The Expert at the Card Table. Although not my original intention, I’m sure that it will raise a few eyebrows and some controversy.  It’s been a longtime coming. I completed the first draft of it almost ten years ago. Hopefully, it will be worth the wait.

With any luck we might be able to squeeze in another publication or two.

The big news, however, is still to come. If you love magic, just plan on spending some time in Toronto this summer.

Playing By Ear

“Your work is not at a level where I can offer criticism.”

Albert Goshman made the comment to a young Irish magician as the young man was driving Goshman to the airport. The two had appeared on the same bill at an Irish convention and the young man was seeking advice from the master as to how he could improve his act.

When word spread of Goshman’s response, many magicians were taken aback by the curt nature of his comment. “How arrogant,” they chimed.

For those who take their work seriously, however, and have achieved some measure of success, it is difficult to dispense advice because they understand how challenging it is to perform magic.

Great magicians must fashion words like a playwright, possess the digital dexterity of a concert pianist, move with the grace of a dancer, harness the quick wit of an improvisational comedian, tap the emotional depth of an actor and present the bravura of an opera singer. Not many can. It takes years of training and development.

Second, there are few – if any – academies or formal training grounds for magicians. Even the books that purport to be “courses,” have no pedagogical underpinnings. Most are just collections of tricks assembled because they can be advertised as being “easy to master.” They do both the subject and their audience a disservice.

Now, more than ever, most interested in magic play by ear:  they see a trick on television or on the Internet and they mimic it. The result is they have ‘moves’ but little technique. Without technique, however, there is little one can criticize. So, until there is a more formal program that provides a technical grounding in all aspects of performing magic, the craft will stumble on. Perhaps the best advice one can give in the interim are the words Dai Vernon scrawled on Ed Marlo’s annotations of his annotations of The Expert at the Card Table: “Keep striving, Ed.”