Weakness Is Strength

A look at your personal style as a performer, as defined by your strengths, weakness, and limitations. Magicians generally tend to be all happy-go-lucky razzle-dazzle, but being yourself means bringing both the best and worst of yourself to the stage.

Suggestions for further watching and listening:

If you'd like to hear my favourite musical artist, John Hartford I recommend starting with his album "Aereo-Plain." https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL2sh1eP4JA_O-HkoIOrRiiGJTzjPd4W-l

Alan Watts speaking about Wu Wei, the principle of not forcing. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZzaUGhhnlQ8&t=635s

Jazz pianist Kenny Werner speaks about "Effortless Mastery" https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pAZOamxuw5w


John Hartford, as himself

Episode Transcription

John Hartford was a banjo player, and one of the most famous songwriters you’ve never heard of. Outside of his devoted fanbase, of which I count myself, he is a one hit wonder, but what a hit!

Despite breaking all the conventional rules of a pop song; long, rambling, and notably lacking any chorus, his tune made the career of Glenn Campbell, and was soon recorded by Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Aretha Franklin, and Elvis Presley.

The song was “Gentle On My Mind” and its commercial success allowed John Hartford to spend the rest of life doing whatever he darn well pleased. What pleased him most was making music.

He’s known for his charm, humour, and quirkiness effortlessly flowing along with virtuosic skill on the banjo and fiddle. His style is instantly recognizable, which he explains with an observation that is as wise as it is brief;

Style is based on limitations.

These words have long resonated with me, and helped me on the path to find my own voice, and sing my own song.

I’m Ryan Pilling and this is Theory & Thoughts for Magicians.

In this episode I aim to put on my best performance by bringing my weakness to the stage.

One of the greatest hits of Chinese philosophy is the idea of yin and yang.

Symbolized with a circle divided in half to create two teardrops, one white, one black, wrapped around each other in perfect balance. It represents two types of energy, darkness and light, which exist in all things. Notably, each half of the circle includes a contrasting dot such that the darkness contains a bit of light, and the light surrounds a seed of darkness.

It represents a way of describing the world with nuance. Nothing is absolute. Everything has elements of both yin and yang.

The biggest thing for me is understanding the connection between your personal weakness and strengths. Not only that you can’t have one without the other, but that they are two ends of the same stick, or… should I say wand, the most magical of sticks.

I got started in magic, with serious dedication, when I was thirteen. It was my grade seven drama class where I performed my first magic trick for strangers, outside my house. In this same class I was introduced to improvised theatre, which also became a serious pursuit in my life.

For the next decade I would be studying magic books while training and performing with an improv troupe on a weekly basis. This blended cocktail has defined my performance style. Two things which, at face value, don’t particularly go together.

Magic is all about detail, removing flaws through repetition, perfection. You can understand how that might clash with the wild and crazy energy of making it all up as you go along.

The yin of magic, with the yang of improv. The balance of these two energies has influenced the style of my performances more than anything else.

In magic we are taught to practice, practice, and practice some more to remove all uncertainty. The way to have confidence on stage, the books tell us, is to repeat skills until every detail becomes unconscious actions.

In improv we are taught to enter the stage empty of thought, with no pre-conceived ideas. Confidence comes from becoming comfortable having nothing planned.

Preparedness, so it appears, is a strength in magic, and a weakness in improv.

And yet, the opposite is also true.

Being a fully prepared magician may lead to delivering robotic performances, while attempting to improvise without training and sharpened instincts would be a train wreck.

In me the two are one.

My greatest strength as a performer; a willingness to take risks on stage without fear, is also my greatest weakness as a magician.

Ah yes, darkness and light, in all things there are.

One particularly unhealthy pattern of thought is comparing yourself to others.

I wish I could do the spread pass as well as Charlie Frye! I wish I had palms of steel like Curtis Kam! I wish I could tell stories as well as Eugene Burger!

We best see strength in others, and weakness in ourselves. Their strengths are amplified, while our own weaknesses loom largest in our minds. It’s a deadly one-two punch of negative thinking.

I find it helpful to consider a sort of Newtonian law of philosophy. For every strength there is an equal and opposite weakness.

Perhaps you might recognize one of these stereotypical examples:

A card magician who is a sleight of hand expert, but struggles be entertaining.

A comedy magician who has good jokes, with bad magic. (or vice versa)

Or how about somebody who has new, original ideas, but their act lacks polish. (umm, hello!)

These are not independent pros and cons. The weakness is a direct result of the strength. Two ends of the same stick.

The key is to see your weakness not as something needing to be fixed, or avoided, but as the inevitable consequence of your strength.

My act lacks polish because I’m trying new ideas. If I wanted a polished act, I’d have to ignore new inspirations.

I often give myself a hard time for not being able to complete tasks on a schedule. However, many of my greatest accomplishments have been created in a burst of creativity while I was supposed to be doing something else. My non-linear thinking is both darkness and light.

I can fight it, beat myself down, try to hide my weakness, or I can lean into it, and show up with my whole self, as I am, both yin and yang.

In order to be at my best, I must accept myself at my worst.

The highest praise you could give a magician is that their performance seems effortless.

We know how much effort truly goes into making magic, but it is our ultimate goal to make it invisible. To hide the method and highlight the effect. The second the audience senses a struggle, such as a hand which gets hung up in a pocket, the magic spell may be broken.

In John Fisher’s book on Cardini, he quotes the long-time British theatre critic Kenneth Tynan on how he discerned the top stage performers;

I began to form an increasing admiration for those who can do very difficult complex things with effortless precision and grace, without any overt expression of energy. Who, without striving, could bring off a miraculous achievement which was hard-edged, perfect, lucid. So I began to wonder what all those performers I really loved had in common, and what they had in common was the ability to project their personality without strain, with complete lucidity, without sweating, without fervour, without evangelistic zeal, and I began to look for this not only in actors, but in all forms of human behaviour from conversation to ice skating.

While John Fisher was making this point in regards to Cardini, other examples of miraculous achievements without strain come to mind for me; Rene Levand, Dani DaOrtiz, and, while there may be considerably more sweat and fervour, David Williamson is still effortlessly entertaining.

Returning to the world of Taoist philosophy, what he speaks of is known as wu wei. It is a way of being, which translates to “without force.” As Alan Watts puts it, it is “the art of sailing, rather than rowing.” It’s going with the flow, man.

To appear effortless there must be an absence of effort. Yet, when I take to the stage I feel a compulsion to try to amplify my strengths, and try to diminish my weaknesses. I feel the tension in my body as I’m trying to walk naturally without spilling the hidden glass of water. I feel the shortness of breath as I try to speak loud enough for everyone to hear.

I’m eager to please, and I really, really hope you like this routine I’ve been working on, and I need this to be a perfect show because it’s on video, and I want to impress my magician friends.

I’m trying to do my best performance, and yet my best performance will come when I stop trying.

This is not an invitation to be lazy and hope things will work themselves out. The art of doing nothing is, in fact, a lifelong pursuit.

Jazz pianist Kenny Werner, a professor of effortless mastery, calls on his students to “Study with complete devotion, perform with complete detachment.”

When I was in Toastmasters I would have to create and present a new speech every couple weeks. The manual teaches you to write your speech, rehearse it, time yourself, edit, and practice over multiple days so you can present with polished confidence. While it works for some, maybe even most people, this entire process falls into my weakness category. I had to figure out a new strategy.

Rather than working on a prepared speech, I worked on myself. I became the person who is able to present this talk effortlessly. I researched to gain an understanding of the topic, soaked my mind in it, then picked out what I felt was most important, and how it connected to my personal experience. I was able to stand-up and speak off-the-cuff and from the heart, and wrap it up before the red light came on.

As a magician I aim to do the same thing. To be a person who can naturally stand before an audience and bring them along on an entertaining adventure. Not because of my preparation, but because of my presence. While I think deeply about what I wish to say, I don’t perform from a written script. I often bring rough-draft routines in front of audiences to see how it goes. My process aligns with my own strengths. I choose material to suit my improvisational style. I’ve put in many years of training and practice to be able to do it the way I do.

At the same time weakness determines which roads I travel, or which I avoid. I can’t pull off some great tricks which are too meticulous to survive my chaos. I may want to emulate the success of others, like Tommy Wonder, but it drives me straight into the thorny brambles of my limitations. Rather, I take the path of least resistance, the path requiring the least effort.

My route is likely not suited for you. Perhaps your own path to effortless action begins with a memorized script, which then frees your mind to be in the moment. There is no right way, or wrong way. We all travel our own way.

There are many roads to the same destination.

The journey is long. It requires many, many performances to explore and learn our own limitations. Each time you make some progress. As you go you will shed the baggage which weighs you down. You will lose the fear of being seen. You will step out from behind your props and become the magic yourself.

You will transform from the magician you think you should be, to revealing the magician you truly are.

It will be difficult, and then, suddenly, it will be effortless.

Thank you for listening to Theory and Thoughts for Magicians.

The style in which this podcast is presented is very much the product of my own limitations. Most magic podcasts are long conversations and interviews with well known magicians, but I’m shy, so I’d rather not have to invite guests. Plus, I prefer to skip the small talk and get straight to the point. The easiest path for me resulted in creating something a little different.

Creating a new episode is far from effortless. Perhaps I’m trying too hard. Perhaps someday I’ll find a natural flow. Still, I hope it all sounds like smooth sailing on your side of the speaker.

Speaking of effortless, it’s very easy to subscribe to my weekly newsletter. You just need to be yourself, and a new email from me arrives every Tuesday. Sign up at www. MagicTipsAndTricks.com. Some weeks are more tips, some weeks are more tricks, but it all balances out in the end to help you grow as a magician, bit by bit.

This is the way.

Published: April 23, 2022

Access: Public


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