Magic By Design: Study, Practice and Presentation by John Carney
Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii November, 2009)
John Carney, widely regarded as one of the world's finest sleight-of-hand artists truly a magician's magician in the best possible sense is also one of its finest writers and teachers. That word "teacher" is bandied about rather loosely in the magic community, but what does it really mean? The best teachers are not those who generate endless volumes of DVDs, encouraging viewers to back up and view a move repeatedly or in slow motion. That is not really teaching it's demonstrating. But real teachers develop their own special expertise in the very act or manner of teaching; real teachers contribute new ways of communicating techniques and ideas so that they are better acquired and understood by students. The best teachers develop their own original didactic techniques and methods, refining them for the benefit of students. There are very, very few such true teachers in magic; Roberto Giobbi is one of the best examples, and his committed instructional skills can be seen in the pages of his masterwork, the Card College series. It is not just his choice of sleights and tricks, or the caliber of his descriptions, that have made for the success of Card College, but rather the deeper educational and instructive nature of the work that has made it the world's most popular conjuring teaching texts.
John Carney's instructional work in recent years his superb Book of Secrets and his distinctive teaching DVDs reflect a similar commitment to instructional excellence. He is a deeply thoughtful, sophisticated, and humane teacher, one who is unmistakably committed to trying to give the student something lasting, useful, powerful. And this voice the voice of a caring and passionate teacher can be heard loud and clear throughout the pages of this marvelous new monograph, Magic By Design.
Mr. Carney has written an instructional guide to the student magician and it doesn't much matter what level that student is at. Beginners will have more to learn here than veterans, to be sure, but even an experienced pro will find useful reminders about good habits that perhaps have gone bad, and guidance toward taking a fresh view of things, and how to best get to work on that new piece you've been thinking about for too long. In essence, the author has gathered many if not most of the countless questions he has received over the years as a performer, author, and lecturer and addressed them in succinct and elegant, yet eminently practical, fashion.
The book consists primarily of three main chapters: Study & Critique; Practice & Technique; and Presentation and Routining. As I have addressed in some other recent reviews, this is a book not so much of theory but rather of craft albeit it is also partly and invaluably about art as well, and its nature. "The difference between the artist and the hack is largely in the number of aesthetic decisions made," Mr. Carney explains in the chapter of Study & Critique. He has much to say about such differences, and about how one goes about becoming an artist rather than a hack. In magic we have far too many of the latter, and every new example of the former makes it better for us all.
Mr. Carney speaks clearly and honestly about his own goals in magic, and provides examples of a set of "ideals" he tries to apply to much of his work. A sincere study of this one list and Mr. Carney is a committed maker of lists (a habit we share) could potentially have a profound impact on your work. Here's just one of the seven ideals he offers as personal examples:
"I want to be responsible for the result. I don't want to just push buttons or dance around some props. I don't want to recite others' words or use their presentations. I want to do work I am proud of. I want to contribute with my thinking."
Take that to heart, do the demanding and challenging work it requires, and you won't be a hack. "What makes [hack magic] 'hack' is that it is essentially thoughtless," Mr. Carney explains.
In the next section, concerning Practice & Technique, the teacher begins by categorizing the four stages of practice: thoughtful practice; mechanical practice; rehearsal; experience and refinement. He then examines these elements in practical detail.
In Presentation and Routining he addresses the subject of what an effect is. Recently, I watched a young professional magician perform some close-up magic by way of an audition. Two of the routines he performed were over-laden with procedure and depended on indirect effects and fuzzy, forgettable outcomes. At 22 years of age, already working as a full-time magician, he was convinced that because these tricks garnered reactions of a sort and because one of them was "original" he had little if anything left to learn or improve. But so far, he has little idea what actually comprises an effect. Remarkably, many magicians suffer from the same lack of insight and understanding. Mr. Carney offers that, "If you can't explain the effect or phenomenon clearly in a short phrase or sentence, it is not likely to make a significant impact upon a spectator." A significant, lasting impact is much more than a sudden laugh or gasp; sudden laugh and gasp inducers can also be purchased at the joke counter. But what if anything will the spectator remember the next day? Next week? What about in a year, or 10 years?
"It is not the spectator's job to suspend his disbelief; it is the magician's job to create an atmosphere where this is effortless," Mr. Carney elaborates. "The thoughtful conjuror does this by clarifying his effects and eliminating elements that conflict with the impression he wishes to create." That is why clarity matters. That's why understanding what an effect is, matters. Countless magicians and mentalists today seem to have forgotten what an effect really is if they ever knew in the first place.
In his discussion of character and style, Mr. Carney provides an in-depth and confessional discourse on his now well-known stage character of Mr. Mysto. Few of us will ever create a character as distinct and different from our own as this one, but the lessons Mr. Carney has learned, from his deep study of his own work, in turn present useful insights for students. I have touched on only a tiny sampling of the many ideas Mr. Carney addresses in his cogent and focused style. This really is a manual for learning, and while elements of this advice have doubtless been tackled by various authors in a variety of works over the years, I cannot think of any work as concise as this that addresses so many points, so thoroughly and effectively and packaged in a design, by the inimitable Michael Albright, as tasteful and elegant as the contents within. If you are a student of magic and as Mr. Carney points out, Vernon was a student throughout his entire life you need this book. Read it and reread it, use it as a guide, commit to some of its counsel, do some of the practical homework assignments offered after each section and the small asking price will pay inconceivably large dividends.