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.