Take The Stage | Visual Noise

By Ian Kendall - Tuesday, September 17, 2019

It’s looking noisy up there...

All magicians have a book about which they are evangelical – telling everyone that they have to have this in their library and it’s just absolutely wonderfully just spiffing. For me, that book is Leading with your head by Gary Kurtz. Ironically for this blog, it’s mainly about close up magic, but there’s one section which is possibly the most important lesson for a stage performer (and yes, I know I say that a lot, but this is the real one). Kurtz talks about visual noise. This is the effect of the little tics, the shuffling of feet, the pacing back and forth, the constant riffling of the cards; those visually jarring things that make watching so much more challenging (for example, four years ago I bought a download for a routine that I wanted to learn. I still haven’t been able to get more than five minutes into it, because the person teaching the effect cannot sit still; he’s rocking back and forth continually, and it makes the video unwatchable).

If you watch video of yourself in the early days of your performing journey, I imagine there’s a fair bit of visual noise going on; there certainly is for me. It took me a few years before I was able to eradicate most of my noisy actions – occasionally I’ll catch myself doing something, and I’ll have to consciously dial it down, but thankfully that happens a lot less these days…

Some noisy actions are quite easy to dispel; constantly riffling cards, for example, is a symptom of nerves. Once you can conquer the nerves, it becomes much easier to reduce the desire to play with the cards. Another option is to keep the cards in their box for as long as possible, or even place them on a table. Once you are aware of the action though (for example by watching on video) it’s easier to quit.

Others are a bit harder, and take more effort. Whenever I see a speaker, or a performer, who constantly shuffles their feet, shifts their weight from one foot to another, or paces back and forth, I find it much harder to concentrate on what they are saying. In order to cut this out, it’s useful to understand why we pace; basically, it’s a reaction to the flight or fight mechanism, which the body is trying to overcome. If you are nervous on stage, or have some anxiety about being up there, your body will either get aggressive (fight) or try to run away (flight). In order to prepare for this, you will subconsciously shift your weight onto a different foot so you can step away. At this point, your mind realises that you don’t actually want to run away, so it shifts you back again. And so you get this rocking motion back and forth that is so distracting. On occasion, you get a couple of steps before returning to the start position. So, the first, and most effective, way to stop the rocking is to calm your nerves. We can talk about stage fright at a later date, but being calm and confident on stage is 90% of the way to eliminating noise. In the meantime, though, there is something else we can do to help ground ourselves. It involves standing up, so on your feet. Now you are standing up straight, look down at your feet. I imagine that they are pointing out at five to one on a clock (or five past eleven, if you want to be picky). Try rocking your weight from side to side – it’s pretty easy (and you’ve evolved this way so that it’s relatively easy to make a quick getaway if a predator wanders into your standing meeting in the office). However, it’s not good for us on stage, so we are going to change something; put your weight on your toes, and rotate your heels out so that your feet are parallel. Do not bring your toes in – make sure that your heels move out. The end result should be that your feet are now the same distance apart that your toes were at the start.

Now, try to rock again. You’ll find it significantly harder, and this is a very good thing. In this position you have to make a conscious effort to move your feet, since you have to shift your weight first. This makes both rocking, and pacing, much harder to do unconsciously. Practice standing somewhere, and then planting your feet in this way. After a while, you will be able to get automatically into the position without thinking, and you will be much less noisy

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