Steve Faulkner - Distinctive Magic
17 Jul

How to perform under pressure. Part 2

 climber

 

 

One of the things I continually bang on about is my firm belief that in our culture talent is a very limiting ‘excuse’ for achievement.

 

If we see someone excel at something, we tend to attribute it to some innate ability or gift. Therefore there is little point in us trying to achieve something at a similar or higher  level if we have never noticed this gift within ourselves. We’re off the hook.

 

This talent mindset is so embedded in our society that often, regardless of the mounting evidence, I have found people arguing rather passionately against the idea that peak performance is a result of determination, dedication and hours of practice. In the past I have done so myself, because the work I thought I may have to put in terrified me.

Don’t wait 

For years I sat at home with all the juggling and magic skills I had learned, getting no bookings because I thought myself  “an artist, not a businessman”. I am embarrassed to say that these words actually came out of my mouth. It was a long time ago so don’t judge too harshly. Of course “I am an artist, not a businessman” translates as  “I want to sit practising magic and I’m too scared and can’t be arsed to do much else”. I had no talent for business, therefore it wasn’t for me.

 

So we are immediately at a huge disadvantage if we just depend on our talent, at some point in our lives, springing out from us as a lovely surprise. One day we may wake up, our hands for the first time ever hitting a computer for something other than Facebook and email, and we find ourselves writing the modern equivalent to Moby Dick. I’m a child at heart even as I reach 40). I think not. Success for all is the result of trial, error, failure and frustration.

 

If we are not lucky enough to find our passions at a young age, usually through play and exploration, then by adulthood it is common for many to end up believing that they are incapable of achieving anything other than their day to day skills – like parenthood, driving, walking and working. All of which took a great deal of practice and dedication. Even more of a worry, for society as a whole, is that we can very easily pass this onto our children. If little Johnny is still struggling with something in the first few months, then maybe it’s not for him, even if he loves it.

 

If I’d had this belief there is no way on earth I would have ever succeeded as a street performer, magician or parent. All of these things I found a massive challenge on the outset and one of them I still do and believe I always will. But challenge is no negative thing – actually I believe that challenge is one of the ingredients of happiness and boredom avoidance, but that’s for a different time. Let’s just say that I, along with many others I know, are living proof that this talent stuff is nonsense. I have no talent whatsoever, in anything.

 

So what does all this have to do with performing under pressure?

It is these thoughts of insecurity and doubt in our ability that are the root of poor performance under pressure. If we don’t believe ourselves able to achieve the same as those who inspire us, we are going to find it difficult or impossible to excel in our field. Whatever your occupation or life situation, you will be called upon every now and then to do something that sits outside your comfort zone. Something that doesn’t come naturally. Again parenthood, an interview, driving, exams, exercise and a new job spring to mind. These instil fear in most of us when they are new, but we tend to accept them and get on with it because we are surrounded by other people doing these things. We are subconsciously and perpetually inspired. None of these things comes naturally to anyone but we see the struggle and the pay off all around us. We need to try to treat every skill in the same way. So if you want to, for example, learn the guitar, treat it in the same way. Don’t wait for talent, get to work and enjoy it.

 

The upshot of this thinking in my view (and I have seen/read much to support it), is that we can pretty much achieve anything, within our human and physical abilities, that we choose. The only thing that prevents us is mindset, lack of passion and fear of failure. All of which can be altered within us, again I am living proof of this. The closest thing I have witnessed resembling talent or innate ability is innate desire, resulting in the amounts of practice, time and effort required.

It’s just another skill

 Let’s take the example of public speaking, but this applies to anything that puts you out of your comfort zone. If we are called upon to do this many of us will have feelings of fear, insecurity and vulnerability which in turn can leave us with the believe that we are not cut out for such things. We have no evidence to tell us otherwise if we have only done this a few times or if it’s the first time.

 

So the first thing we need to do is nip this in the bud and replace this with the belief that it’s just something we have to learn. Like driving a car or riding a bike. It’s something we can’t be good at yet because we haven’t practiced.

 

So the next step is to practice. But to practice with purpose and with no doubt in our ability to succeed. Also to practice effectively (more in another post).

 

Then we find inspiration. When I died on my arse in Covent Garden the first few hundred times, I watched those who were successful and I learned (and yes, sometimes copied). The same with magic, jugging and even renovating houses (shudder). I saw that normal people were achieving the thing that I wanted to achieve. Intimidation was replaced by inspiration.

 

Don’t look up

 In our culture we do a lot of ‘looking up’ to people. The problem with this is that it immediately puts us at a lower level. I began thinking of it more as looking across at people as equals, even if they had achieved something seemingly super human. With this thinking we can begin to break down what it is we need to do to perform well and not just panic. In a nutshell we need to alter our beliefs, replace fear with possibility and the embrace excitement of a new challenge.

 

Pretty easy to write I know.

 

This is starting to sound dangerously like ‘think positive’ and of course this is the desired result. But to tell someone to think positively, apart from being like nails on a chalk board, is like telling a heroin addict to quit. There is a whole process here. As humans we are pre-programmed to take the path of least resistance and to take the easy route. To achieve a more positive outlook in the face of external pressure takes practice and hard work. But with repetition it’s very very possible. Like driving a car or riding a bike.

 

When we look up at experts, performing under pressure or not, we need to understand that their relaxed demeanour and seemingly incredible coping mechanisms are a result of learning, practise and mindset. Skills we all have the ability to develop. The first step is believing it. I hope this post has helped you to do that. Please let me know.

 

I hope you enjoyed this post. These things don’t come naturally to me so please share this with whoever you can.

 

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Steve

3 Apr

On being a professional close-up magician 1

  amazing magic

As a close-up magician, it is easy to take for granted that everybody knows exactly what a close-up magician does, or how he or she would fit into an event, especially a high-end corporate event. But I have met a fair few people recently who have never seen a live, close-up magician. The cheesy of 1980′s style magician, or the jolly but bumbling uncle that knows a few tricks, do seem to be the default images that spring to mind for many. This can, for me, be both a gift or a curse. A curse because it can be tough to convince someone that I can enhance their event, so tough in fact at I tend not to bother anymore. Think about it, I could bang on about how good I am but my opinion would be naturally biased. So I tend to let the testimonials and a videos speak for themselves, answer as many questions as I can and be completely honest about what I do.

 

The negative magician stereotype can also be a gift. A gift because when people do see me (or one of my ‘type’) work, they can immediately see the difference. Usually this is a mix of skill level, communication and a feeling of confidence with that all important lack of arrogance. For me, these are the key ingredients for being a successful close-up magician. You can be the finest card and coin handler in the world, but the second you add a bit of ‘look how clever I am’ into the mix, you alienate your audience and become nothing more than a show off. In a time of YouTube, we can see all manner of everyday folk doing extraordinary things. The mark of a true professional is to be able to use your skills and make people LIKE you at the same time. This is usually a case of just being yourself, showing your human side and not trying too hard to be ‘cool’.  Easier said than done I know.

 

There is also the flip side of the coin. Some people believe you should show no skill at all in your magic as to make the magic more,well…magic. The argument is very valid. However, I do feel that when someone has paid good money for your performance, it’s good to show that you are doing stuff that doesn’t simply rely on knowing a secret or having a gimmick. The sad truth, that we magicians need to admit, is that most people know that what I do is an illusion and that I have no real magical power (and if I did I wouldn’t tell anyway). But it is heartbreaking to walk away from a table and hear someone say ‘my son has one of those trick decks’. Especially when you have just performed a card routine that you have been honing for the last 10 years. Again there is a fine line between showing off and showing a bit of skill. If I feel a bit flash I find it good to add a little self-depreciation after my indulgence, as a softener. I also like to know that if someone goes home and looks on YouTube to see how one of my tricks are done, they still wouldn’t be able to do it without ridiculous amounts of practice. But each to their own.

 

So one of the many distinctions between a professional and an amateur (neither being positive or negative) does seem to be the work we put into how we present our magic and an understanding that the routine we have worked on tirelessly for years may still die on its arse if we present it in a cocky, arrogant or even insecure way. This can only really be achieved by a lot of trial and error and an acceptance that failure is part of the journey. A good lesson in both magic and business and a rule by which I live.

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Steve

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

 

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11

AUTHOR

Steve

28 May

I’m Scared

 

Blackpool Grand
Performing at Blackpool Grand. A routine I hadn’t done for years. Terrified.

 

As a performer and a self-employed person, fear has been a part of my life for a while now. Not real fear you understand. Real fear, I imagine, is being on the front line just about to go over the edge, or being on a plane that goes out of control, or being in any situation that provides you with every right to be very scared indeed.  No, I’m on about the fear that is shared by most of us in our society. More of a phobia than a fear because of its irrationality. But fear is quicker to write so we’ll stay with that.

 

It’s a fear that can stop us dead in our tracks. It can stop us from (more…)

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Steve

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