In two previous posts, I’ve introduced and briefly outlined the main differences between sleight-of-hand magic and self-working tricks. There were two reasons for this:
a) for those completely new to learning magic, you now have a definition, with a little clarity, around the common misconceptions of each
b) I get many people asking about the pros and cons of each approach, and which they should choose as a speciality.
For this post, I’ll concentrate on the latter.
First, I’ll very briefly summarise the main difference.
Sleight of hand magic: Magic requiring more physical dexterity and the learning of moves and ‘sleights’. The learning emphasis is on physical practice.
Self-working magic: Magic requiring a piece of apparatus, or methodology/process to achieve the effect. The learning emphasis is on memorising the routine and building a presentation around it.
So which is ‘better’ ?
In my professional opinion, based on the experience of performing and watching hundreds of people react to hundreds of magic tricks, is that there is no good, bad, right or wrong. But you still may have a preference and choose one over the other. I know this sounds like a cop-out, but let me explain.
An audience, presuming that they haven’t been scouring YouTube to find out how magic tricks are done (this happens far less than many magicians believe), should have no idea of the method. They want to be entertained. With either approach, they’re probably not going to know how the trick was done. If you’ve put the work into practice, they will be ‘fooled’. But what kind of ‘fooled’ will they be. They could see a long, drawn-out dealing process that results in their chosen card being revealed. They may not know how it was done, but hey may think it was something to do with the process. Or by the end of it, they may not even care and just be praying for it to be over.
So to remedy this, we can go one of two ways: Make the process so entertaining, they don’t care, or create a plausible reason for the procedure. No easy task, but sometimes just having someone take part in an unusual process can be novel enough to create entertainment. As long as you can engage the participants and perform the routine smoothly, again taking rehearsal and practice, you’ve got a good chance of still being perceived a wizard.
If you’ve read the previous two posts, you would be forgiven for thinking that the last paragraph describes a self-working trick. However, I’ve read, learned and seen many incredibly challenging sleight of hand tricks that have so much process you’ll need a photographic memory just to follow what’s going on.
The point again is that the spectators shouldn’t see the sleight-of-hand anyway. So to them, there’s no difference. It’s either an entertaining magic trick with a magical finale, or it’s a puzzle. Either can be achieved with either a sleight-of-hand or self-working routine.
However, personally, I prefer sleight of hand. Here’s why:
Preference. I enjoy the practice process. I’m a very kinaesthetic person, spending time juggling, playing the guitar and of course practising and teaching sleight-of-hand magic. I can work on a move for hours, but after twenty minutes of trying to remember a magic routine, I lose the will to live. So it makes sense that I’m going to go with what I like, rather than what someone says I should like. Any approach is going to take a lot of practice and rehearsal. If you go with what you enjoy, you’ll have a lot more chance of achieving a high competence level.
Freedom. I enjoy the freedom that extensive knowledge of moves gives me. I can improvise in real-time. It’s like understanding scales on a guitar vs knowing some pre-written pieces. Both are valid approaches (and I do both), but I feel constrained when limited to the latter.
Peace of mind. This is a biggie for me. The thought of getting half-way through a routine and getting lost, or something going wrong terrifies me if I’ve got nowhere to go. With a tool-kit of sleights, I can take the trick in a different direction if things go south. This can be done with some self-working concepts, but I find it way more complicated. Because my brain doesn’t work that way.
Variety. If you work on sleights, it opens up more avenues for learning and performing. It’s a lovely feeling to know that you can open up nearly any magic book and learn anything from it. The skills are transferable, so learning new sleights becomes quicker. Additionally, you can usually find a move to substitute if you don’t want to learn another force, control or count. It’s also worth remembering that many classic routines blend self-working ideas with sleight of hand. This often gives the spectator less chance of being able to get anywhere near the method.
Performability. Though not always the case, many self-working tricks, especially with cards, require more time and focus. This can be an issue in a performance setting, where background noise, space and attention span can be an issue. Sometimes the sad truth is that you don’t have long to impress.
Strength of effect. With gaffs, you can create miracles that are pretty much self-working. However, if you want to perform with regular coins, cards, elastic bands or even sponge balls, you’ll need the chops. Borrowing a deck of cards, getting someone to name one, and pulling it out of your pocket is stronger that anything I’ve been able to achieve with a self-worker. Direct and unforgettable magic may be harder to learn in this way, but it’s way easier to perform once you’ve done the work.
Please be aware that these are my preferences, but I have nothing at all against self-working magic. I perform it regularly in the right setting. I just like the feel of working this way. The ongoing learning is something that I’ll never tire of. But that’s just me. Go with what you love, and have fun. If you’re doing that, You’ve already succeeded.
Steve Faulkner is a professional magician and creator of Card Magic Course. An extensive and ever-expanding resource for those serious about learning magic in a very unserious way.
In a previous post, I mentioned that when learning magic, we can take a number of different approaches. In fact, when we think of the thousands of tricks with various apparatuses, there are hundreds of approaches. That’s why learning magic can be so intimidating. Just look in any magicians (often unused) collection, and you’ll know what I mean. But for this post, I’ll be focusing on one of the many overarching preferences: Self-working tricks.
On one end of the magic skill spectrum, we have knuckle-busting sleight-of-hand, where it can take years to master a specific move or ‘sleight’. Way over on the other end, we have self-working magic tricks. A self-working trick is where the process, or the prop, does most of the work for you. It seems that all you have to do is memorise a set series of actions and viola! You have a miracle. What’s not to love?
No Skill Required!
You will often read tricks marketed with copy such as ‘no skill required’ or ‘totally self-working’. This sounds like a good thing. And for those starting to learn magic, it is. But like the craft itself, it is also deceptive. As in my experience, there is no such thing as a self-working trick. To make a trick deceptive, you have to know the routine inside out. That means practice and rehearsal, which means work.
You may be able to play a simple tune on the piano, but there’s a difference between playing it and performing it. And if you’re showing someone a magic trick, you’re performing, even in the least formal of situations. Yes, you’ll get away with it if you’re a little clunky, having to think about what to do next. That’s an essential part of the process. But you’ll only create a magical experience for a spectator if they have no idea how you did the trick. That means you need to think of the subtleties, script and premise. If you just follow the procedure, you’ll be demonstrating nothing more than a puzzle. Remember, we’re not talking about anything complex here. Just a nice, engaging presentation that creates rapport is fine. Less is, rather often, more.
I’ll write about learning self-working tricks in more detail in other posts. But for now, know that self-working tricks can be amazing, but they’ll still need some work. Maybe not as much, but put in some time and you’ll find them a joy to do. And what’s the point if you don’t?
Steve Faulkner is an award-winning professional magician and the creator of the acclaimed Card Magic Course. An incredible resource for those seeking mastery in Card Magic. For any level. Click here to check it out.
So what does it take to become a good magician? Is it skill, dexterity, psychology or just clever props? As a professional magician, I get asked about this a lot. One of the most fascinating, and sometimes most overwhelming things about learning magic is that it incorporates all of the above. There will be posts on each of these approaches to magic, as if you want to take your learning seriously, you’ll need to gain knowledge of all. But for this post, we’ll focus on the dexterity part, known as sleight-of-hand.
The Oxford English Dictionary describes Sleight-of-hand as:
skilful movements of your hand that other people cannot see
the fact of tricking people in a skilful way.
This means that as well as spending time learning and remembering the script, process and method of a trick, you’ll also have to spend time learning a certain amount of ‘moves’ which can vary in difficulty. For some, like me, this can be an attraction. For others, it can feel like pulling teeth. In another post, I’ll look at the pros and cons of taking this path. But for now just know that you can learn many magic tricks, requiring no physical skill, that will get a great response due to the other factors mentioned above.
So what’s the point in learning sleight-of-hand?
Magic tricks that don’t require sleight-of-hand are not necessarily easier—even those known as Self-working tricks. As the name suggests, these are tricks that need you to know only the process. But the name deceives, as making these tricks entertaining sometimes requires more scripting and performance, which is a separate, but not necessarily easier skill. Other tricks may require memory work, which for some will be more comfortable, but for others (me) it can prove more challenging than sleights, when under pressure. Then of course, some use special apparatus or adapted, seemingly innocent props (gaffs) that hold a secret.
You can also learn tricks that require massive amounts of skill that will receive a lukewarm, in any response at all. Again, more on all of this in future posts.
So do you need to learn sleight-of-hand to become a magician? Certainly not. Many magicians make an excellent living with no physical dexterity at all. As I’ve said, doesn’t mean that they have no skill, because as I’ve mentioned above, performance, scripting, engagement and psychology can be more challenging to learn and demonstrate than the tricksy finger stuff.
Whether you choose Sleight-of-hand, self-working or performance-driven magic is a preference. But my advice is to have an open mind. Understand that there is a reason for learning each of these. The important thing is to learn what you love. If you do that, you can’t go wrong.
Steve Faulkner is a professional Sleight-of-hand magician and creator of Card Magic Course, a huge library of videos and tutorials, with live sessions weekly. If you want to take your learning seriously, check it out here
Following my piece on how to learn magic, books, or videos, I thought I would share some information for those who are just beginning their journey or maybe just thinking about it.
Learning magic used to be a lot of hassle. Most magicians would, quite rightly, adhere to the ‘magicians code’ which states that, among other rules, magicians must not share the methods behind their tricks. (I’m completely paraphrasing here, but you get the idea). This makes complete sense, as if everyone knew how a magician did his, or rather too rarely her, tricks, then they would become rather pointless. So with all this secrecy, how would one even begin to learn magic?
There were books, and later VHS cassettes (the things that people of a certain age had before DVD’s and downloads), but they were rather expensive, and took significant effort to track down (or decipher). So, it was accepted that if someone were willing enough to put the effort (or money) in to learn magic, they had earned the right to gain further knowledge. More experienced magicians would usually be much more open with secrets if they could see, or feel, genuine enthusiasm and willingness to learn. This was a wonderful and rewarding process, of which I have very fond memories.
The Perfect Source For Learning Magic
Now with YouTube and the abundance of magic downloads, this process may seem to be archaic and time-consuming. But if you are interested in learning magic, I have a little advice. It may seem obvious, but like the magic you are interested in learning, not is always as it seems. And it may not be as easy as you think. If you want to become a magician, the advice is this.
Learn from one.
Simple. Or is it? Unfortunately, many people teaching magic have yet to perform, and a great deal never will. If they did, they would learn that the tricks and routines that they claim will ‘slay audiences’ do little more than confuse or bore them. Of course, you may want to learn magic just for the joy of it, and you have no interest in showing anyone. That’s fine and brings its own rewards, but my feeling is that at some point, you’ll realise how wonderful providing the experience of amazement and wonder can be. If you learn properly, this craft can change your life as it has mine. It would be a shame to waste the opportunity.
Luckily, the internet hasn’t completely killed this craft, and in some ways has enhanced it. Because many professional magicians have seen the problem and done something about it. My initial motivation to create my own course was just this. But there are others, and I suggest you shop around. Have a look on youtube or ask them about their experience. Most will and should provide you with some free performance footage (you’ll be able to spot the fake audiences that some use). And most experienced performers will be able to point you in the direction of some authentic performance footage (have a look at me with Arctic Monkeys, and apologies for the name drop!)
You’ll be surprised how many people will be happy to help, if they see that you really do want to learn. Magic is a beautiful craft, and many of us want to keep it that way.
Once upon a time, learning magic took a lot of effort. Well, pre-internet, learning anything took a lot of effort, but to learn magic had that extra layer of difficulty, due to the whole secrecy thing. Magic literature is rich with stories of magicians travelling miles and spending considerable amounts of time and money to track down those who would share a move, sleight or approach. Even when more magic books became available, they were expensive and to learn from them took considerable effort and dedication. As well as the ability to perform magic, to learn magic through the available literature was a skill in itself!
Things become easier with the arrival of magic videos. We could now see how the sleight or move was supposed to look, or the timing of a critical moment of the routine. But for some, easier didn’t necessarily mean better, and camps began to form. Many magicians were, and some still are, against learning magic from video. They claim that, among other issues, we may learn not only the moves but the flow, character, timing and flaws of those teaching. This could (and has) lead to poor imitations of not only classic routines, but the magicians who created them. More on this later.
Until relatively recently, making a video took rather a lot of money and time. The equipment needed to film and edit was expensive. Then, of course, there were the audiences that many companies drafted in, which became endearingly familiar but raised the bar of what was expected. Often, the filming of the magic video was an event, as was it’s release.
With great power…
Now, as we all know, things are very, very different. The process of shooting, editing and selling magic on video is easy. What’s more, we can have this material seconds after purchase so we can start learning immediately. And there’s so much of it! However, quantity doesn’t equate to quality, because now anyone can create an online magic tutorial for video or in writing. Though there are many excellent self-published magic books out there, they can be hard to find. as many are charging a considerable sum for PDF that looks like it’s been thrown together in ten minutes. Because quite often, it has.
So learning magic is now more accessible. But not necessarily easier. The abundance of downloadable or physical material it has, for many, become overwhelming. On my own Card Magic Course, people often struggle with knowing where to start (with which I provide guidance). So with the seemingly hundreds of magic products being released by the day, it’s hardly surprising that the mountain seems too high to climb.
So when faced with learning material that will take more years to get through than you have left, what’s the best way to start?
If you’re just starting out learning magic, or like me, you’ll never stop, here’s a little comparison to help you get going.
For a while, many magicians thought that learning magic from books would be a thing of the past. Some claim that it is. But on my YouTube channel, I’ve realised that every time I create a video about a magic book or even talk about the books on my shelves, people get interested. This, along with the publication of some stunning magic books and the fact that they are selling out, tells me that books are still going strong and will continue to.
There’s just something about opening and sitting with a book. Much of it is about aesthetics; the look and feel (and smell?) of a tome. However, for me, it’s also about the depth and quality of the experience. There is a ritual to sitting with a book, cards in hand, that I find enormously appealing. It puts me into a different, meditative flow state. It creates focused energy that is different from viewing a video. It can’t necessarily be called a ‘better’ state because it’s incomparable. It’s just a very different, slower activity. Because of this, the material that I learn from magic books does tend to stick more. It seems that there is a correlation between time invested and retention of information. Who would have thought!
There are, of course, limitations to this approach to learning. Books take time, and sometimes there isn’t an abundance of it. When I was learning magic years ago, I was a street performer, so I had time on my hands. Now I have kids, admin and general tedious grown-up stuff that means that sometimes finding the space, and peace, for this kind of deep magic learning is a challenge.
Additionally, it can be hard to know which routine or move to focus on in a magic book, as there are often so many. For example, whilst working through any of the Roy Walton classic books, great as they are, one soon realises that there is no summary of the effect of the routine before the method begins. So reading through the whole routine first, to get a clear idea of the effect is required. This can be a skill in itself, and one that is, importantly, improved through practice.
Of course, none of the above is relevant if the book isn’t well-written.
A deeper, more meditative experience for some.
The material may stick due to the time taken.
More detail with hand positioning and expectations if well-written.
The abundance of material.
Books are pretty and feel nice.
The time investment needed.
Reading magic can be a separate skill, again more time investment needed.
Sometimes difficulty in visualising the final effect, or how the move would look like to a spectator.
Badly written books can be frustrating and difficult to decipher.
You can watch me ramble about magic books in the video below.
From some magicians, video still gets a bad rap. Yes books are lovely and for me just a bit more ‘magical’, but that’s because those of us who feel that way tend to love books anyway, regardless of whether they’re magic books or not.
Taught well, video can be a powerful learning tool. And this is the key. As a magic book needs to be very carefully written, a magic video has to be taught appropriately. Teaching magic (or of course anything) is a skill and not an easy thing to do well. The teacher should be engaging, relaxed and, in my opinion, entertaining to create a connection with the student. There also has to be an ability to empathise with the learner. So many people I’ve seen teach, seem to forget how difficult learning magic can be for the complete beginner. It takes time, repetition and patience. I think this is where the adage ‘less is more’ can sometimes be inaccurate. You don’t want to create meaningless filler, but to repeat and get into detail too much is better than not enough. We learners can always move on once we understand the concepts, but if the content isn’t there, we’re left guessing. Sometimes this can spark creativity, but often it creates frustration and exasperation, followed by wanting to throw ones computer out of the window.
So presuming we have a good teacher, who has considered their teaching approach, video can provide something that books can’t: an accurate representation of the move or sleight described. I’m not saying that a magic book can’t offer a detailed description of a magic trick, it can. But it just can’t give us the full visual picture. We have to either wait until we’ve learned the trick or watch it performed. On more than one occasion I have done both and realised that witnessing the latter has resulted in regretting the time taken with the former. Many of us, depending on learning preference, will find it so much easier to make a decision of what magic to learn based on what we see rather than what we read. Seeing something, either live or on TV, is the answer I most often hear when professional magicians are asked ‘how did you get into magic’. Seeing and witnessing inspire, the importance of which cannot be overestimated.
Oddly enough, the main issue often cited with video content is the one I have fewer problems with. The claim that learning magic from other magicians results in copying their mannerisms and routines. Whilst this can be true, it also happens with all art forms, and has little to do with the medium. I remember writing my first stand up routine with the voice of my favourite comedian, Bill Hicks, in my head. Like Bill’s, my material was political and subversive, two things that were pretty much the opposite of me. Unlike Bill’s material, it was crap. The point is that I still copied, not because I learned from Bill Hicks, though in a way I probably did, but because I had watched him and was inspired by him. Learners will always copy and plagiarise, and with time they will learn to find their voice, or not. To me, this says more about the individual rather than the learning medium.
I love learning from video, but only if it entertains me and engages me. If not, I can barely stay awake. This is similar if I’m reading a poorly written book, but the vetting process seems to be a little more strict with books released by trusted publishers. Again, abundance can be an issue as well as a gift.
Provides an accurate and visual representation of the material.
Can be entertaining and engaging.
Can provide inspiration (again if done well).
Is quicker, more accessible for many.
Less time investment can mean less retention.
The teaching is sometimes ill-prepared and not engaging due to ease of production. It takes less to video than it does to write.
The opposite of the ‘pros’ if poorly done.
Watch the video below on…erm…video.
Other ways of learning, once you’re up and running.
I’m going to discuss this briefly here, as for most beginners, this may not be as relevant. With a few exceptions, many magicians begin to attend lectures once they have started to learn magic. But for those life-long learners such as myself, lectures can be a valuable source of inspiration, but a slightly less valuable source of learning the tricks or moves themselves. This is why so many get no further than watching the lecture. We see the trick, get inspired and realise that we then have to get to work. In my experience, not very many people learn how to perform the routine at the lecture, as it’s very difficult to retain the detail in real-time. They get only a demonstration of how the magic is done with, if the lecturer is a good one, some valuable theory. There will be future posts about this, as I feel that the established lecture process could be enhanced to improve learning and retention.
Like teaching on video, this can be an incredibly powerful way to learn magic, if the relationship is right. You’ll find that most top-end magicians have had mentors. If you can afford it, I suggest getting a coach, even if it’s just to start you off and provide guidance. Being accountable to really help with motivation, but be aware that there are many people giving coaching who don’t have the skills or experience to do so. Additionally, be ruthless and don’t be afraid to quit and move on of it isn’t a good fit. No decent teacher or coach will take this personally, as sometimes it’s just a chemistry thing. Try to get a ten-minute chat with someone before committing.
Virtual Seminars and Masterclasses
Whilst personal coaching can be a very enriching learning experience, it doesn’t come within budget for many of us. The good news is that though a luxury, it’s definitely not essential. Virtual seminars bridge the gap between video and live teaching in a way that I have found deeply satisfying, especially through COVID-19. Though sometimes, due to numbers, you will not be able to interact directly with the teacher, this still provides a feeling of connection and group experience. The knowledge that you are all there now feels very different and more engaging than a recording. The good news is that you will usually receive a download of the event, or be granted access to it, which means you can process and sit with the details later on. Incidentally, on my Card Magic Course, I hold weekly sessions on different aspects of magic, or sometimes it’s just a general chat and Q and A. Because this is a members-only environment, we can interact directly as numbers are limited. Oh, and the sessions are added to the course for permanent viewing. Right, enough of the plug!
So which is best?
This is probably going to be a predictable answer, but neither. In my opinion, and experience as a professional magician and teacher, I have found very few exceptional magicians who don’t use both mediums. Saying that one is better than the other is like saying blue is better than green. They are different, but depending on the context and requirements, one will work for you more.
For the complete beginner, I suggest starting with the thing that got you interested in the first place and (card magic, coin magic or stage magic) and start learning in a way that you find enjoyable. You’ll soon know if you’re a video person or a book person, Importantly don’t judge your first experience as a general rule. The first magic book I bought was way too advanced, which put me off books for a while. This can also happen with video. This is why I provide advice and guidance on the course and why the library is so extensive. Different learners want different things!
Learning magic is a rich and rewarding experience, and your joy in doing so will be enhanced with an open mind. Try everything, experiment and play. Obviously, I would love for everyone to sign up to Card Magic Course. I’m biased because I made it. But if it meant that people chose that instead of other sources of learning, I would be worried. To become an expert magician, or even a decent one, we must learn from multiple sources. In this way, we become knowledgeable, rounded practitioners and will find it so much easier to find our own style and ‘voice’. Because of this, learning magic has been, and continues to be one of the most important aspects of my life, and I hope you will find the same.
Next, we’ll look at some recommended books for beginners.
Steve Faulkner is the creator of Card Magic Course, an online, extensive and ever-growing learning experience with over 400 video tutorials. You can also check out his YouTube magic review channel, Real Magic Review, for book and trick recommendations.