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.

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.


Eye of the Beholder

I’m just in from Chicago where I was undertaking a site survey of the O’Hare Westin Hotel for the 41st annual Magic Collectors’ Weekend. The facilities are excellent, and the theatre gives us the opportunity to showcase each presenter in the best light.

While in Chicago, I managed to attend the exhibition Apostles of Beauty: The Arts and Crafts Movement from Britain to Chicago at the Art Institute of Chicago just before it closed. This superb exhibition was of interest because the Arts and Crafts movement had a direct impact on magicians such as Karl Germain, Harlan Tarbell and Paul Fox. Fox, in particular, was greatly influenced by Dard Hunter, a resident of Paul’s hometown, Chillicothe, Ohio. Dard’s brother, Phil Hunter, was also a professional magician, and Dard and Phil toured Chautauqua prior to Phil’s passing. The influence of Arts and Crafts movement is evident in the promotional literature and posters of both Phil Hunter and Karl Germain.

Of course, Tarbell cites Elbert Hubbard and the Roycrofters various times in his magnum opus, “The Tarbell Course of Magic”, although I suspect Tarbell had little actual contact with Hubbard. Either way, it was wonderful to see some of the stellar works of this artistic movement close up.

I attended the Potter & Potter auction of items belonging to the late Bruce Cervon. The core items of the auction were, in fact, items that Bruce acquired directly from his mentor, Dai Vernon, or from Vernon’s family after Vernon’s passing. The recession seems to be over, at least for those who collect magic, as the prices realized consistently fell near or exceeded the high estimate.

I acquired a few items including Louis Falanga’s copy of the Deluxe Edition of Mike Skinner’s “Classic Sampler”, complete with copies of Skinner’s handwritten instructions for the items in the book. Louis was the publisher.

Classic Sampler has to be one of the most undervalued books in magic literature. It is surprising how much great information is in it. The “Profile” of Mike Skinner by William Murray at the beginning of the book describes not only what Skinner performed but also what he said and how he said it; invaluable information for a budding performer.

I only spent time with Skinner once. It was in the early 1980s at small conference organized by the late P. Howard Lyons and Bob Weill. (The conference, “the Ibidem Event”, was the inspiration for 31 Faces North, a gathering that I co-host with Allan Slaight and Magicana each August.) Skinner’s performance left an indelible mark. His magic was beautiful. I suppose that’s why I admired it so. My own mentor, Ross Bertram, also performed beautiful magic. So I, too, try to perform beautiful magic – funny, but beautiful.

In the departure lounge prior to my flight, I thumbed through a copy of the January 2010 issue of ARTnews and discovered a fascinating article,“Is Beauty in the Brain of the Beholder?”. The article explores the evolving field of neuroesthetics and traces what happens in the cerebral cortex when we see art. Researchers are trying to “figure out what makes great works so mesmerizing.”

Beauty, it turns out, is not just in the eye of the beholder.

Size Matters

It’s nice to know that something you secretly suspected may just be true.

Size matters.

We’re talking about the size of your hand, of course, and the ability to perform sophisticated sleight-of-hand.

A recent study published in The Journal of Neuroscience suggests that, in this case, the small guy wins.

Layman, that is the general public, and – I suspect – most magicians, believe that the larger the hand, the easier it is to perform sleight-of-hand; that it must be easier to ‘hide’ things with big mitts.

Vernon, whose hand was of modest proportions, indicated that a smaller hand was no impediment to performing superb sleight-of-hand. He informed Lewis Ganson, editor of Malini and his Magic, that Max Malini, one of the great magicians of the twentieth century, had a small hand with short and pudgy fingers, and yet could perform miraculous feats of card conjuring, and such bold illusions as making a block of ice appear underneath a borrowed hat.

I myself have rather small hands; broad but small. Riffle shuffle work, however, has built up the muscles around my phalanges so that there are no gaps or spaces – magicians call them “windows” – between my fingers. They are strong.

Daniel Goldreich, a professor in the Department of Psychology, Neuroscience & Behaviour at McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario – alma mater of both the late master magicians John Booth and Doug Henning, suggests, if I interpret the findings correctly, that smaller hands are more sensitive hands. We are given, for example, a finite number of sensors at the fingertips regardless of the size of the digit. This means that, in larger hands, the sensitivity is spread out across a greater surface. Small hands, with smaller fingers, pack the same number of sensors in a more confined area, giving the holder a more sensitive touch.

While traditionally women have been flagged for the sensitivity of their fingers, it turns out it is due more to the size of their hands rather than their gender. This goes a long way, the study suggests, to explain why people with fine motor skills, such as surgeons – and I might add gratuitously, sleight-of-hand artists – have smaller hands.

Thankfully while the index finger appears to be the most sensitive, other fingers can be trained. This certainly explains why, after years of dedicated practice, strip-out shuffle work can, indeed, be performed with such a fine tolerance.

That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it!

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.”

The Art of Practise

Me, age 12

Some have said – myself included – that I’m a recluse.  It’s not true.  For the past number years I could be found on any given night at a hockey rink.  Both of my sons play hockey, the youngest one – named Harrison and now not so young – at quite a competitive level. (Harrison has a certain notoriety with the magic community. They are his hands, age seven, shuffling the cards as a young Vernon in Dai Vernon: The Spirit of Magic. He also tossed out the memorable retort when he was asked, at age twelve, what his father did for a living. He replied:  “My dad’s a clown…I have really big shoes to fill.” And finally, when I pointed out to him that I dedicated the first volume of the Dai Vernon biography to he and his brother, i.e. “For the children of magicians: may you grow up and continue to believe in miracles,” he said, “You should have dedicated the book, ‘To my sons, Courtney and Harrison, who will never read this book.’” ) Being born and raised in Toronto, I am also a member of the Leafs Nation – Go Leafs Go.  Now you are probably wondering what this has to do with magic.

My youngest, Harrison, age 17.

Well, I’d like to think that hockey has informed my magic, and that my magic has informed my sons about hockey. Many years ago I undertook the challenge of learning Dad Stevens’ Riffle Cull.  I’ve been practicing it virtually everyday now for six or so years.  I considered it the most difficult sleight in the canon and also one of the most rewarding. The idea is to “locate, secure and stock”, as Erdnase would say, target cards as they flicker off your thumbs during the course of a riffle shuffle.  To do it with control and without hesitation is very difficult. I do, however, get into a Zen-like state as I practice the maneuver.  It really becomes a meditation on improvisation. One of the challenges, of course, is to recognize the indices of the cards as they flicker by. That’s where hockey comes in. I remember from my youth the concept of blocking out all of the net except for the four corners. The idea is train the shooter to aim for the most vulnerable spots on the goaltender, at that time, the four corners of the net.  (Some have added a fifth area – between the legs – as another zone, but that is discussion best saved for another day.) By reducing the size of the target, the shooter develops greater accuracy.

So, I thought I would apply that principle to the Stevens Riffle Cull. I started practicing the sleight with “Texan” playing cards, specifically No. 45-R as they had small indices.  This helped me quite bit for when I used a standard deck of cards the indices jumped out at me as if the deck was made for the visually impaired. I learned years later from Jason England that Steve Forte used a similar technique, namely gluing pairs of cards slightly off-kilter, but face to face, so that when he tabled the pair, he would have to determine the value of the card with only a hint from the contour of the index.

Hopefully my obsessive interest in practice has helped my sons with their hockey.  Recently, I had a conversation with Harrison about practice. Much to my surprise, Harrison seemed interested in how I practice.  (I practice a couple of hours each day.) He was trying to learn a move – the toe drag – in which the player drags the puck with the toe of his stick in an artful manner around – hopefully – the defender.

One of the things I stressed was the importance of executing the move slowly. “It is only by executing it slowly,” I said, “that you can obtain a real understanding of the move and the ability to execute it.”  I learned that from Ross Bertram, a master sleight-of-hand artist with whom I studied for many years. Not only do you learn how the move should feel like when executed properly, but you also embed every nuance of technique onto your soul.

Harrison informed me that he already knew the mechanics of the move. I replied that by going slowly he would learn more details than he ever imagined, that his hands would be able to sense every change in position and movement required to execute the move at speed.  It was only then, after he thoroughly understood the mechanics of the move that he could start to bring it up to speed.

After discussing this concept further with Julie Eng – a wonderful magician who, fortunately or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it – is more obsessed with Argentine tango than magic – we agreed that one of the main benefits of performing something slowly was that it gave you the opportunity to “self-correct” as the technique was in motion. That is a very important concept. You have to develop the ability to self-correct, and you can only self-correct in performance – and at high speed – if you have a deep understanding of every nuance of the technique.

It takes discipline to slow down and self-correct especially when your peers equate speed with success. Hopefully, I will be at the rink the day when Harrison executes his maneuver because I will know how difficult it was to perform and also how much it is like performing magic – hours and hours of practice and dedication for something that takes place in the blink of an eye.