By Noa Kageyama, Ph.D.
Edited and adapted for magicians by Mark Hanson
While it may be true that there are no shortcuts to anywhere worth going, there certainly are ways of needlessly prolonging the journey. Magicians often waste lots of time because nobody ever taught them the most effective and efficient way to practice their magic. Whether it’s learning how to code, improving your writing skills, or learning card tricks, practicing the right way can mean the difference between good and great.
You have probably heard the old joke about the tourist who asks a cab driver how to get to Carnegie Hall, only to be told: “Practice, practice, practice!”
My first experience of practice was when I starting to play the violin at age two, and for as long as I can remember, there was one question which haunted me every day.
What Do Performers Say?
I scoured books and interviews with great artists, looking for a consensus on practice time that would ease my conscience. I read an interview with Rubinstein, in which he stated that nobody should have to practice more than four hours a day. He explained that if you needed that much time, you probably weren’t doing it right.
And then there was violinist Nathan Milstein who once asked his teacher Leopold Auer how many hours a day he should be practicing. Auer responded by saying “Practice with your fingers and you need all day. Practice with your mind and you will do as much in 1 1/2 hours.”
Even Heifetz indicated that he never believed in practicing too much, and that excessive practice is “just as bad as practicing too little!” He claimed that he practiced no more than three hours per day on average, and that he didn’t practice at all on Sundays.
It seemed that four hours should be enough. So I breathed easy for a bit. And then I learned about the work of Dr. K. Anders Ericsson.
What Do Psychologists Say?
When it comes to understanding expertise and expert performance, psychologist Dr. Ericsson is perhaps the world’s leading authority. His scientific research is the basis for the “10,000-hour rule” which suggests that it requires at least ten years and/or 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to achieve an expert level of performance in any given domain.
That’s a pretty big number. So large, that at first I missed the most important factor in the equation.
Meaning, that there is a specific type of practice that facilitates the attainment of an elite level of performance. And then there’s the other kind of practice that most of us are more familiar with.
Have you ever observed a magician (or athlete, actor, trial attorney) engage in practice? You’ll notice that most practice resembles one of the following distinct patterns.
1. Broken record method: This is where we simply repeat the same thing over and over. Same tennis serve. Same set of cuts and shuffles. Same powerpoint presentation. From a distance it might look like practice, but much of it is simply mindless repetition.
2. Autopilot method: This is where we activate our autopilot system and coast. Recite our sales pitch three times. Play a round of golf. Run through a complete magic routine from start to finish.
3. Hybrid method: Then there’s the combined approach. Going through a routine until you hit something you don’t like, at which point you stop, repeat the moves over and over until it starts to look better, and then resume the routine until you find the next thing you don’t like, at which point you repeat the whole process over again.
Unfortunately, there are three problems with practicing this way.
1. It’s a waste of time: Why? For one, very little productive learning takes place when we practice this way. This is why you can “practice” something for hours, days, or weeks, and still not improve all that much. Even worse, you are actually digging yourself a hole, because this model of practicing strengthens undesirable habits and errors, increasing the likelihood of more consistently inconsistent performances.
This also makes it more difficult to clean up these bad habits as time goes on – so you are adding to the amount of future practice time you will need in order to eliminate these undesirable tendencies. To quote a professor I once worked with: “Practice doesn’t make perfect, practice makes permanent.”
2. It makes you less confident: In addition, practicing mindlessly lowers your confidence, as a part of you realizes you don’t really know how to produce the results you are looking for. Even if you have a fairly high success rate in the most difficult moves, there’s a sense of uncertainty deep down that just won’t go away.
Real on-stage confidence comes from (a) being able to nail it consistently, (b) knowing that this isn’t a coincidence but that you can do it correctly on demand, because (c) you know precisely why you nail it or miss it – i.e. you have identified the key technical or mechanical factors that are necessary to perform the trick perfectly every time.
3. It is mind-numbingly dull: Practicing mindlessly is a chore. We’ve all had well-meaning fellow magician tell us to go home and practice your Elmsley Count x number of times, or to practice x number of hours, right? But why are we measuring success in units of practice time? What we need are more specific results-oriented outcome goals – such as, practice this move until it looks natural, or practice this sleight until you can figure out how to make it lead perfectly into ABC.
So what is the alternative? Deliberate, or mindful practice is a systematic and highly structured activity, that is, for lack of a better word, more scientific. Instead of mindless trial and error, it is an active and thoughtful process of hypothesis testing where we relentlessly seek solutions to clearly defined problems.
Deliberate practice is often slow, and involves repetition of small and very specific sections of a skill instead of just running through the whole trick. For example, you might work on just the first sleight of an ambitious card routine to make sure that it looks exactly the way you want, instead of performing the entire first revelation that the playing card is now at the top of the deck.
Deliberate practice also involves monitoring one’s performance – in real-time and via recordings – continually looking for new ways to improve. This means being observant and keenly aware of what happens, so that you can tell yourself exactly what went wrong. For instance, was the first turn over too fast? Too elaborate? Too controlled? Too close to the body? Too low down?
Let’s say that when you turned the playing card over, it was too fast and looked like you were trying to hide something. Well, how fast was it? A little? A lot? what should the movement look like in it’s real, natural form? How much more speed did you add when ‘mimicking’ the real natural movement?
Ok, the move was a little fast, just a tiny bit rushed, and required a move clear and natural looking gesture with your finger and thumb in order to be consistent with the natural movement. So, why was the move fast? What did you do? What do you need to do instead to make sure the move is perfectly paced every time? How do you ensure that the speed is just as you want it to be, and how do you get a consistent speed each time you begin the sleight?
Now, let’s imagine you video recorded each trial repetition, and could watch the last attempt. Does that combination of ingredients give you the desired result? Does that combination of elements convey the natural movement you are attempting to mimicked?
If this sounds like a lot of work, that’s because it is. Which might explain why few take the time to practice this way. To stop, analyze what went wrong, why it happened, and how they can produce different results the next time.
Simple though it may sound, it took me years to figure this out. Yet it remains the most valuable and enduring lesson I have ever had. The principles of deliberate practice have remained relevant no matter what skill I must learn next. Be it the practice of psychology, building an audience for a blog, parenting, or making the perfect smoothie, how I spend my practice time remains more important than how much time I spend practicing.
How to Accelerate Skill Development
Here are the five principles I would want to share with a younger version of myself. I hope you find something of value on this list as well.
1. Focus is everything: Keep practice sessions limited to a duration that allows you to stay focused. This may be as short as 10-20 minutes, and as long as 45-60+ minutes.
2. Timing is everything, too: Keep track of times during the day when you tend to have the most energy. This may be first thing in the morning, or right before lunch. Try to do your practicing during these naturally productive periods, when you are able to focus and think most clearly. What to do in your naturally unproductive times? I say take a guilt-free nap.
3. Don’t trust your memory: Use a practice notebook. Plan out your practice, and keep track of your practice goals and what you discover during your practice sessions. The key to getting into “the flow” when practicing is to constantly strive for clarity of intention. Have a crystal clear idea of what you want (e.g. the movement you want to perfect, or specific articulation, intonation, etc. that you’d like to be able to execute consistently in the tricks ‘patter’), and be relentless in your search for ever better solutions.
When you stumble onto a new insight or discover a solution to a problem, write it down! As you practice more mindfully, you’ll began making so many micro-discoveries that you will need written reminders to remember them all.
4. Smarter, not harder: When things aren’t working, sometimes we simply have to practice more. And then there are times when it means we have to go in a different direction.
Dominic Reyes told me about the time he started learning the ‘bottle through table trick’. For some reason, he just wasn’t getting the right misdirection at the critical moment of the trick and couldn’t find a way to build it in to the style of the trick that preceded it. He kept getting busted. It would have been very easy for him to simply abandon the trick and add something else to his act at that point. He kept at it, but didn’t seem to be making progress and started to dread performing it.
Instead of stubbornly persisting with a strategy that clearly wasn’t working, he forced myself to stop. He brainstormed solutions to the problem for a day or two, and wrote down ideas as they occurred to him. When he had a list of some promising solutions, he started experimenting.
He eventually came up with a solution that worked, and it’s now one of the tricks he enjoys performing the most.
5. Stay on target with a problem-solving model: It’s extraordinarily easy to drift into mindless practice mode. Keep yourself on task using the 6-step problem solving model below.
- Define the problem. (What result did I just get? What do I want this move to look like instead?)
- Analyze the problem. (What is causing it to sound like this?)
- Identify potential solutions. (What can I tweak to make it look more like I want?)
- Test the potential solutions and select the most effective one. (What tweaks seem to work best?)
- Implement the best solution. (Reinforce these tweaks to make the changes permanent.)
- Monitor implementation. (Do these changes continue to produce the results I’m looking for?
- Make Your Time Count
It doesn’t matter if we are talking about perfecting card technique, improving your coin work, becoming a better mentalist, improving your marketing skills, or becoming a more effective pick-pocket.
Life is short. Time is our most valuable commodity. If you’re going to practice, you might as well do it right.
This article is an edited version of an original article by Noa Kageyama, Ph.D. It has been reproduced and edited in parts to relate to the subject of magic practice, with the permission of the author.
About Noa Kageyama, Ph.D.
Sport & performance psychologist Dr. Noa Kageyama serves on the faculty of The Juilliard School and the New World Symphony, where he specializes in teaching performing artists how to utilize sport psychology principles to perform up to their abilities under stress.
Also a conservatory-trained violinist with degrees from Juilliard and Oberlin. Dr. Kageyama’s work has been featured in media outlets ranging from The Wall Street Journal to Musical America.
The Merchant of Magic highly recommends you visit his excellent website Bullet Proof Musician Although written specifically for musicians, it has a wealth of information that will improve your magic practice.