This week Ben Earl joins Jonah to discuss practice, sleight of hand, and approaching magic as an art. Alongside being a skilled sleight of hand artist, Ben is also an author and founder of Studio52.
Ben’s interest in magic started when he stumbled across Expert Card Technique at his local library. The book was his glimpse into an underground subculture that he knew he needed to learn more about. However, in his twelve year old mind, sleight of hand was illegal, so he dropped the book out of the window. He didn’t want the librarian to take the book away from him or send him to jail because he was considering taking the book out.
Ben devoured the book, never connecting that the moves he was learning were for magic tricks until he saw David Blaine on TV doing moves he recognized. After showing his friends a few moves and finding a magic shop, he was addicted to the art form.
Magic as an Art
Magic has been a constant in Ben’s life as the art keeps him intellectually and creatively stimulated like nothing else. He can take a coin and make it appear or disappear with this intuitive understanding that he is just playing with bigger ideas. Methods and concepts are just tools he can use to communicate ideas and understand his own approach to the world.
There is an inherent duality to magic. At times, Ben feels that he’s just performing card tricks whereas other times he recognizes he can reshape someone’s understanding of the world. Just by understanding that magic, like any other art form, has an inherent, absurd duality to it, Ben is able to step aside from one aspect of magic to focus on ones that intrigue him.
This is why he doesn’t call himself a magician per se but a creative artist; he is constantly creating, and writing, and thinking about magic, but he is only a magician in the eyes of a layperson who can only describe what he just showed them as magic. By calling himself a creative artist, he doesn’t feel like he’s attaching himself to a restrictive or reductive title.
Magic is fascinating because it isn’t real. The art form revolves around simulating the impossible with the shared understanding that what is being done isn’t real. However, like in a film, we suspend our disbelief long enough to experience something beyond our understanding of the world.
With this being said, it can be difficult to bring your own meaning into the art form. For Ben, meaning comes from moving towards the things he likes; when something feels right, he does more of it. Overtime, he discovers things that have meaning to him and what drives him to what he’s connected to. Problem solving and creating aesthetically pleasing solutions appeal to Ben which drives his magic creation process.
Approaching Sleight of Hand
Sleight of hand, supposedly, is using deceptive means to achieve a certain result, yet magicians often regard good sleight of hand artists as ones where we can “see” the moves happening; you perceive in their performance that a move has happened. In Ben’s opinion, good sleight of hand is when the sleight is so perfectly choreographed into the routine that you can’t tell when or how it happened; you missed the move like you were supposed to.
To achieve good sleight of hand, you have to put into perspective what you want sleight of hand to be for the spectator. An ace cutting routine is inherently a demonstration of your skill, while controlling a card or performing a pass shouldn’t even be smelt by the spectators. With that being said, magicians are still trying to determine how to separate the performance aspect of sleight of hand from the deceptive nature of the practice.
When you’re practicing sleight of hand, you are building habits and muscle memory that will eventually make a move an extension of your body. However, if you practice slouched over your desk, staring at your cards, and disregarding the other factors inherent in performance, that is how you will perform for other people. Ben recommends practicing moves in environments that stimulate social situations as to grow comfortable with compensating for environmental restrictions.
Discovering your Path
Magic is an overwhelming art form with various avenues to explore. You, unfortunately, can’t do all the moves and tricks. Rather than trying to cover up your magic gaps, Ben recommends embracing them as a part of who you are. The difficult part is finding the right path for you and what you want to explore in magic. Writing, teaching, performing. These are just some of the paths in magic people can explore, and they may not all be for you, but just enjoy the process of discovering what is magic to you.
However, be aware that you’re being trained to be a consumer. Magic is a small community, and there is material constantly being released. With everyone buying and reading the same material, Ben sees people approaching magic with the same influences; they are all talking and developing the same material, rather than exploring different territory. By not reading the latest book or playing with the latest gimmick, Ben is able to control his influences and approach magic with a more objective viewpoint.
The Shift is the magic book Ben always wanted to publish — everything he loves about magic is embodied by this book. From effects to technique to theory, Ben breaks down each of these aspects of magic into detailed sections, giving his thoughts and insight into how he approaches these foundations of magic.
The font, the layout, the images. Every minute detail of the book was carefully considered, Ben explains. Even the title, The Shift, was chosen as the book is meant to represent a shift in thinking and the reader’s approach to magic.
What do you like about modern magic? What don’t you like?
For Ben, the level of access to magic is both a pro and a con. Because incoming magicians don’t have to experience the difficult journey of seeking out information, they lose a valuable aspect of the discovery process. However, magic is seeing a rise in skill and connectivity among the community.
Take Home Point
Ben reminds the listeners to take joy in what they do.