Steve Faulkner - Distinctive Magic
28 Feb

Practice makes perfect..ish

Magician Steve Faulkner performs the Classic Miser's Dream

 

I’m writing this in Blackpool, where I am performing four shows a day of relatively new material. It’s a HUGE learning curve, both rewarding and frustrating in equal measures. There are a few routines I perform that I have spent years polishing and adjusting, so that they play well pretty much every time. The problem is that I have about six other routines that are fine but need a little ironing out, plus two more that are all over the place and need some ‘work’. So I decided to bring three of these to Blackpool.

Performing four shows a day for ten days gives me a rare opportunity. The tricks are good enough to not be rubbish, as the audiences need to be entertained. But I know that the timing and delivery could be better. I have three tricks, the Miser’s Dream (producing coins from various places), a rope routine and a needle swallowing routine.

 

The needles routine is the most solid, having been performed the most times. The rope routine is fine, but the Miser’s Dream is a real challenge. Each time I have performed this routine it has been different and I can’t seem to stick to a set format. It’s a challenging and frustrating process and goes like this -

 

1. Practise at home
2. Practise loads more
3. Get bored and leave it for a bit
4. Feel guilty and practise some more
5. Perform live, badly
6. Practise again with notes
7. Perform again, usually still badly
8. Repeat until improvement occurs

 

The hardest parts are numbers 5,7 and 8. It’s the most infuriating thing. Hopefully, most performers will be able to relate to this. You get a routine or trick so solid in the practice room that you feel like you don’t even have to think about it. Then you take it out on stage and it all falls apart. Your skill level drops instantly by between 20 and 40 per cent!

 

Nervousness has a lot to do with it but that seems to be only half the story. I have felt completely relaxed on stage and yet when I start the new bit it can feel and look like I’m a beginner again. Maybe another factor is that in a rehearsal room you literally don’t have to think about anything but the trick. You are totally focused on just the mechanics. And of course there is no pressure.

 

A relationship with an audience is a conversation. Even if you are performing silently or to music communication needs to be established and maintained. This takes effort and that effort dilutes the focus you can have on a trick. But there is still something else that is so frustrating.

 

I’m performing the Miser’s Dream every day and I feel fine beforehand – which is one massive bit of progress as, due to the routine dying on its arse in front of 1000 people at a big corporate event, I am usually terrified at the thought of doing it! Also, I have rehearsed the moves over and over until I’m not really having to think about the order of the routine as such. So why is it not clicking?

 

Last night, just by chance, I think I found the answer. I was watching the amazing TED talk by Dan Pink, The Surprising Science of Motivation. In this amazing talk, Dan discusses the findings of numerous scientific studies on how our motivation affects our performance. The results are indeed surprising.

 

The findings are that when given a task that is anything more than basic – usually a logic puzzle – the higher the reward (usually monetary) for completion, the lower the performance. Have a look at that again – the higher the reward, the worse people become at completing the task. The ramifications of this are huge and I will refrain from going into it in detail here – have a look at Dan’s talk – but it pulls into question every reward scheme used in many of the companies with whom I have worked.

 

The upshot is that performance improves only when the motivation is internal – when it means something to you that is deeper than just external gratification, massage to the ego, or a bit of cash.

 

So what has this got to do with me and my Miser’s Dream routine?

 

At the moment I am surrounded by other performers and members of the public who I would like to impress. Putting it bluntly, I don’t want to look like a tit. Also, some magicians have watched the show so this adds another external factor – ego. To look like a coin magic master is a huge reward, but an external and ultimately shallow one, and it will earn me nothing in the long-term. Therefore, a big but ultimately short-lived reward has resulted in decreased performance. Looking back on all of my performances, I can now see the times they started working. Here is the usual order of things.

 

1. I go out with a new routine and it’s a bit of a mess because all I’m thinking about is looking good for peers or bookers. Mistake! I should be thinking about the enjoyment of the audience. Not how professional or clever I look, but how much they, and I, are enjoying it.

2. I go out another few times with the same routine and things improve a bit. I am growing more confident because I now know how it feels to perform the routine on stage. I’ve become familiar with the level at which it’s at. I have something to work from.

3. Things start to improve because I am subconsciously making adjustments. The process is becoming internal or between me and my audience, not between me and my ego and peers. Of course I still want them to like it but IT becomes more important than ME. For example this week many of my friends and colleagues have seen me mess up or perform something that isn’t that tight. I’ve got that out of the way now so a huge weight has been lifted from me. I can feel my focus becoming about the coins and the audiences’ reactions and not about how clever I am, or how I look.

4. The trick or routine becomes more relaxed and with time and becomes a solid piece of performance of which I can be proud.

 

Throughout this process the motivation for my performance becomes a little deeper and meaningful. The whole thing becomes more relaxed and, more importantly, my performance level increases. This obviously takes time. It can take years. But to be aware of this has made a huge difference. For some time now I have been trying to reach a level where I can go on stage and take my ego out of the equation and just concentrate on the relationship between me and my audience. I feel like I am getting there. If anyone else is interested in the same journey, let me know. It would be fun to compare notes.

 

Thanks for reading.

 

Steve

 

COMMENTS

11

AUTHOR

Steve

11 response on “Practice makes perfect..ish

  1. “A relationship with an audience is a conversation.”

    That seems to me to be the key to an entertaining, engaging performance. Does everything else — skill, technique, timing, whatever — serve that? All necessary components but of limited entertainment value on their own without the “conversation”.

    Do we as magicians (jugglers, circus performers…) sometimes need to be reminded of this when we get too hung up on polishing technical skills? As essential as they are, maybe excessive concentration on them can lead to ‘demonstrations’ or at best performances which lack some defining spark?

    Those of us lucky enough to catch the amazing ‘The Last Waltz’ may have marvelled at the skills on display. But it was something more that made it magical.

    • Absolutely Russell. I was actually not looking forward to seeing the Last Waltz as I had way too much circus in circus school and OD’d. Also I heard there was a lot of Aerial performers, not my thing at all. The fact that I loved it proves your point very much. I think certain routines need the skill level to be high to make it look effortless, so in magic the skill is covered. This is hard to deal with sometimes, especially when ego is involved and we want to look ‘clever’ and flash. My favourite routine is Cardini’s and it’s so skilled. But it’s character that elevates it. He is so unconsciously competent that it becomes a perfect package. The audience is let into his world through his eyes and expressions and the result is a piece of theatre. This mixed with skill and flow makes for a lovely experience. I think as magicians we are too eager to get move onto the next trick (myself included) so many of us never reach that mastery. In vaudeville it was said that many people did the same 5 minutes for 30 years. And look at Yu Ho Jin from Korea. That act has been taken somewhere that can only be reached through agonising hours of repetition and practice but of more than just the skills as you say. I totally agree with you but I reckon a magic lecture on such things may not be a big success ;)

  2. Nice article, some really interesting points there.

    One thing that came to my mind is comparing how the ’20-40% drop in skill level’ differs in music and juggling:

    Usually (most often to beatboxers but this applies to all skill performance) I recommend starting your performance at an absolute maximum of 25% ‘complexity’ with regard to your technical ability.
    I’d say this is plenty to work with until you have warmed up, picked up what the atmosphere is like, and found that balance between the stuff you feel like doing and the stuff that the audience is enjoying.
    From there, if you’ve been doing what you do long enough to have a high skill level, you will most often get the best result from your crowd by only going up to 50-60% and keeping it really tight.

    However, once in a little while you end up in a position where the audience would prefer you to go up to 98-100%. This usually happens with the more intimate audiences and particularly if they’re really into their music/beatboxing (or magic/juggling). What satisfies them is now a mixture of your ideas and the ‘story’ of your investment. It can be a lot more exposing and is good for you in other ways. If you’re lucky, things line up and you go for 100% at the same time as your adrenaline boosting your level. This ‘star power’ can give you some of the best sets of your life. You’re basically dodging bullets as you play above your level without making a single mistake. In turn, you feel it so much that the audience sees you genuinely enjoy what you’re doing. Of course, this works best if you’re improvising.

    I’m interested to know whether this translates to magic. Obviously, in juggling, there is the risk of dropping a ball. I guess in magic there’s the threat of revealing the trick. Also, you have more time to take in a lot of ways. I imagine something similar must exist but it must have a few differences at least.

    • Yeah it totally depends on the routine and the audience. In my show in sheffield I have done new stuff and it has not had the drop in skill level and as you say, when I’m riding it and performing in my style it can seem like I can do no wrong. The new routines were out of my comfort zone in style (to music) and the skill level was doable but fairly technical. If I’m working at a lower skill level and in my verbal style I can improvise and have a good time. In Blackpool the audiences were nice but very quiet and there were pretty much no reactions until the end so it was relying on the material alone and very difficult to improvise. These routines were much like juggling routines with very little room for error where as lots of my stuff is a variation on a trick I may have been doing for a long time in close-up gigs. Also, when I looked at the props and just went through the routine it was kind of OK but I really want to keep the contact with the audience and inject some character into it. This character hasn’t really been developed yet so it’s something else that is making me multi-task and therefore dropping the skill level of the routine a little. I suppose it all depends on how ‘new’ the actual style of the routine as well as the trick. Thanks for your comment vid and I hope you are well.

  3. Vid, I like the dodging bullets metaphor! An audience does seem to love the performer on the edge. There’s a lot of magic tricks that pretend to be risky and a magician acting like he’s made a mistake or is struggling, is very common. Often the audience perception of difficulty is reversed with magic as the actual methods are hidden. I’ve found that the real risky/difficult magic tricks that I dread to perform become doable once they have realised that being fooled is FUN and so relax and stop trying to catch me out!

  4. Hi Steve,

    I was always taught that once you had mastered the technical and could “auto pilot” that was the beginning of work on the trick. So many stop there.

    There’s nothing other than “flight time” with a set to knock off the edges and refine unless it’s a director. And if you are directing yourself, this is where the value of theory comes into it’s own.

    A solid understanding of theory empowers the analysis of the performance and leads to quicker and more efficient refinement than trail and error. Once you are on auto pilot I find myself in a place where I can perform, but also do a mentally detached virtual video recording.

    As you internalise theory, this process often happens on the fly rather than during a post mortem. Performing, analysing, editing or mentally noting high points or bits of business that worked during the show happens as you “watch” yourself. That’s the power of flight time and the journey of a trick.

    People swear by analysing video and I know Copperfield used to video every single live performance and watch it back with his team to critique. I personally find using video scary and it hard to be objective watching myself but there’s no doubt it’s a great tool for accelerating refinement.

    Personally the refinement is the process I really enjoy. I love the journey as much as the performance and the amount of pain you go through is directly related to the amount of satisfaction and pride.

    Take care!

    • Thanks for the great comment Chris. I totally agree and I love the process too. I find that I’m getting better at watching video but to be honest I usually use it just to check technique and obvious dead-time and glaring weaknesses. The rest needs to be sorted by repetition as you say. The secret, I believe, to enjoying it is to know and trust that the improvements will happen. So many use the initial challenges as a sign that they should quit and therefore revert to what they know. That’s why after the first show I nearly began ringing round to try to borrow some cups! I also agreed with the importance of theory in this and knowing that these feelings are all part of the process and should be embraced rather than feared. Hope to see you soon Chris and take care :)

  5. Therefore taking the pressure off. After all both you and the audience should enjoy it . Personally I always think I can do better and being filmed to view later is brilliant in fact probably the only way to view yourself working. Anyway I think I’ me beginning to waffle so stay lucky Dave mob 07740404948

  6. Hi Steve 2nd time lucky,for me personally its all about the audience.I interact as much as possible,get them onstage and i always work with easy effects so all the effort is in presentation. adding more technical pieces as i feel comfortable with at the time, that way they are introduced very naturally with no pressure. i also run with the thought that most audiences will enjoy themselves whatever you do if you have had fun with them and made them laugh, there are 1000,s of effects requireing very little skill that can do that, also if you perform an effect requiring great technical ability (FANTASTIC) but only you knows you did it. thats not to take anything away from the pure technical guys, just saying that a show can be done with almost no pressure if required. I find the larger the audience the easier it is, a small intimate dinner party for 12 say is a totally different ball game, one the does require skill.I think therfore if anyone feels under pressure when working is probably trying to hard, keep it simple whatever your level is enjoy yourself, that way the audience will as well, your confidence will improve and because of that giving you the boost to up the technical skills in your performance.I hope some of that made sense, alway remember every job is an opportunity to learn and improve.Good Luck out there. Dave

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