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The Magic Cafe Forum Index » » The April 2004 entrée: Wesley James » » On Practice » » TOPIC IS LOCKED (2 Likes) Printer Friendly Version

Wesley James
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Hazlet, New Jersey
372 Posts

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On Practice (excerpted from Make Me Care)

Perhaps the best individual to write about practice would be the individual who is not a naturally gift technician or performer. It is can be difficult to identify who such individuals are, since the ideal person's work is as good or better than the most naturally gifted, simply harder fought to acquire. Moreover, to make the determination, you'd have to know the process the individual went through in reaching their vaunted level of excellence. Part of that evaluation requires that you determine which performers have reached the level to which one should aspire. Even that is no simple task. Early in ones development one lacks the knowledge to make proper judgements. This need not be a significant problem but it may exact a price in wasted effort. One can learn the basics from individuals who have competence in the basics, even if those individuals could never have achieved the level to which one might ultimately aspire.

Learning the basics is requiem for all but it is not the same process for all. The first opportunity most of us will have to develop good practice habits comes in learning the basics. We may not yet know the optimal pedagogical approach for learning technical skills but we do have a body of evidence that informs us of viable ways that have proven themselves by producing the best we have today. These approaches have not, to the best of my knowledge, been applied to magic but they could and, I believe, should be. We can turn to the field of piano playing, a principally study in hand dexterity at its basic level for a model. Since we lack such a tutorial text, we acquire or basic skills on a catch as catch can basis. Lamentably, unless and until such a process is developed, we must assume that the basics will be learned by all those who aspire to higher levels of proficiency.

Striving for levels above the basics almost surely requires a role model. Ideally, such individual will be have achieved skills at the level to which you aspire. Once having narrowed the field to those who have attained the level to which you aspire, you next want to determine that reaching that level was not an objectively easy process for them. Making that determination isn't easy for a number of reasons. Easy is an extremely subjective term. Almost every concert pianist has put in multiple hours of practice on a daily basis for years to reach performance level. That's not limited to an elite few but all who aspire to that level of performance. While all who so aspire pay the price of uncounted hours of practice, only a small percentage ever get good enough to "concertize." Assuming you aspire to that level of competence, which is not the highest level of excellence, you'll want a model who has achieved that level.

In magic we have no requisite proficiency demands, no, more or less objective, standard of proficiency. This makes the determination of who in the magical ranks have reached a level worthy of setting as a goal a difficult proposition. Most of the upper echelon performers I've known have had a period of exposure to one or more others of high level ability. There are many who are excellent performers that have never approached technical competency and many who are notably technically proficient who have scarcely reached presentational competence. This is true of other performance arts as well. Liberace was far from the level of technical competence of piano competition competitors but was one heck of a showman. While I doubt most would recognize their names, there are those who have been technically masterful pianists but uninspiring performers for a variety of reasons. One need not find both traits in one individual but a person who personifies your goals in each area may be essential and can surely help you know where you stand on the path.

Some level of introspective honesty is important in choosing your goal models. Not everyone can be a Tom Mullica, a Cardini or an Al Flosso, as a performer. Not everyone can be a Steve Forte, Walter Cummings or Channing Pollack as a technician. Not everyone should want to strive for any of those individuals form of accomplishment. One may be extremely talented but a short, chubby, bald guy will have a very hard time developing Channing Pollack-like grace. It is equally difficult to imagine a guy who looks like Guy Hollingworth performing in the style of Al Flosso. I suspect that some performers limit their potential for success through failure to recognize the hand nature has dealt them. I will avoid judging whether such failures are based on fear or success, poor self-esteem or other psychological issues.

Presuming one has found viable models, one cannot cavalierly assume they can teach what they have developed. Some arrived at their level without a plan, without awareness of how they did it, without insight into the process they used. Some individuals were so blessed with natural talent that they never practiced, analyzed or paid a price for the level they have achieved. This is hard to accept but child prodigies are a demonstration of the level to which natural gifts can elevate some. That so few prodigies are able to convert their gifts to the levels expected is testament to the fragility of such gifts. It is also argument for learning from those who have fought for their skills the hard way. Psychological issues aside, Salieri would probably have been a better teacher than Mozart.

Beyond a certain level, practice is not the factor that determines excellence. Beyond talent and physical skills, applied intelligence is the difference between good and great. Despite that, process awareness is not essential to greatness. The greatest of pianists might not be able to tell you why they play a piece the way they do. The famous story of the session between Vladamir Horowitz and Art Tatum demonstrates an aspect of this apparent conflict.

Vladimir Horowitz was so awed by Tatum's wizardry that it brought him to tears. Fittingly, his strongest support comes from one of his early influences, Fats Waller. One time in 1938 Tatum dropped in to hear Waller play at a club. By way of introduction Waller told the audience, "I just play the piano, but God is in the house tonight."

Tatum and Vladimir Horowitz were good pals. As Horowitz himself made it clear in the Jan. 8, 1978 issue of the New York Times Magazine. Horowitz, in search of a new encore piece, had chosen Vincent Youman's "Tea for Two." Months and months of work produced a virtuoso showpiece so knotty that it took Horowitz several months more to prepare and learn it for performance. Always the conscientious artist, he wanted first to have the opinions of those whom he respected before taking the transcription to the public; of course he asked Tatum, whose 1933 recording of the piece was considered extraordinary.

Up in his apartment, Horowitz sat himself at the piano and began to pay "Tea for Two" for his Jazz counterpart. Thunder and lightening, hail and brimstone, Horowitz finished the piece and looks up immediately at Tatum with an eager set of eyes.

"What do you think?" asks the Russian.

"Very good. I enjoyed it." came the answer. Tatum continued: "Would you like to hear my version of 'Tea for Two'?"

"Certainly I would. Go ahead."

Tatum launched into the piece that has always been one of his specialties. Horowitz' mouth dropped when he heard what played. As the Jazzman finished, Horowitz , so awed by Tatum's wizardry it brought him to tears, responded, "My God! That was fantastic! Where did you get that transcription? You must give it to me!"

"Transcription?" answers Tatum, "That was no transcription. I was just improvising!" All Horowitz's could comment was, "How do you DO that?"

Horowitz continued to play "Tea for Two" for his own pleasure but he has never played it in public.

Oscar Peterson once stopped playing the piano for two months after hearing Tatum; Les Paul gave up playing piano altogether and switched to guitar. No less a talent than Oscar Peterson remembers that after first hearing Tatum, "I gave up the piano for two solid months, and I had crying fits at night." And Les Paul remarked that after hearing Tatum for the first time, he quit piano completely and began playing guitar. Art Tatum defined the limits of the possible in jazz piano. Gunther Schuller called Tatum's playing "a marvel of perfection.... His deep-in-the-keys full piano sonority, the tone and touch control in pyrotechnical passages...are miracles of performance." Whitney Balliett wrote "no pianist has ever hit notes more beautifully. Each one--no matter how fast the tempo--was light and complete and resonant, like the letters on a finely printed page." His famous runs have been compared to the arc left against the night sky by a Fourth-of-July sparkler. And to have heard him play, one musician said, "was as awe-inspiring as to have seen the Grand Canyon or Halley's Comet."

While Tatum had some childhood training in both piano and violin and was blessed with perfect pitch, no amount of training or practice could produce his extraordinary ability to conceive or create on the keyboard the harmonies or chord progressions that wove there way through Tatum's work. Neither could he have explained how he created those sounds. Nevertheless, Oscar Peterson, who many considered Tatum's successor after Tutum passed in 1956, at age 47, acknowledged that his style came from Fats Waller. Tatum once said, "Fats, that's where I come out of and, man, that's quite a place to come from."

My point in this side excursion is simply that while training and practice are an essential part of the development of any artist, providing the technical foundations on which even the greats build, there is a point beyond which talent, practice and the skill that grow from those foundations are transcended by artistry. When the language of skill meets the inspiration of creativity the result can be artistic genius. That cannot be taught but it is the goal to which we should all aspire, the model we must keep in our hearts whenever we practice, rehearse, create or perform.
John McDonald
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Manchester, England, UK
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I must say that once again Mr. James that your writing is so clear and thought provoking that it has prompted me to think deeply again! How blessed we are to have a magician as articulate as you and one as catholic in his taste. Your approach here is not either/or but both/and. You hav a truly synergistic approach to magic that enables beginner to advanced technician to create art. All that is required is the desire to crete and perform miracles. I have been reading all your posts with great interest and will be sorry when your week is up. Thank you for the time you have given to each and every post. You, Mr. James have taken great care and respect over each post which can be judged by the length of your replies.

Now, just to lighten the tone here, I feel I could wax lyrical about you all day. When it comes to practice. As pianists have scales to practice do you suggest that card men should also have their own scales? A double turnover, pass etc..)
Best wishes John
Wesley James
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Hazlet, New Jersey
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Many thanks for your words. I'm doing the best I can to address the issues the visitors to the Café' pose to me. It is heartening to read that some are finding some value in those answers. I'll try to preserve your judgement through the remainder of the week.

Turning to your question, I certainly think there would be value in what my good friend Noel Coughlin has sometimes referred to as a "daily dozen" for beginners, perhaps extending to mid-level technicians, though I doubt playing scales would do them much good (where the heck is that smiley face thingy). I confess that by the point when consideration of this issue arouse in my thinking I was well past the beginner level myself. Selfishly, I never bothered to explore precisely which techniques should be included in that daily regime. It would be easy to cavalierly reel off a list of standard sleights and offer it as useful to the beginners process but I would have no experiential basis on which to base such a recommendation. Instead, therefore, I will address the practice I employed during the years when I was performing professionally.

During the years of my professional career most of the work I did consisted of one of three types of performances: trade shows, night clubs and gambling lectures. The material I performed in each of these venues differed significantly from each other but the core routines didn't change markedly. Only once did I throw out a whole act and replace it. Thus, I was able to work on one effect or routine at a time and add it to my repertoire, incorporating it into the act for which it was developed without disrupting the other material in the act. This allowed me to maintain readiness to perform at the drop of a hat, so to speak, while continually expanding my working repertoire.

I think this was a wise choice for me as a working pro but I'd also recommend it for amateurs. I have seen many technically competent performers who go badly awry because they are constantly trying to change their material, leaving none of it performance ready when a performance opportunity presents itself. With that understanding, here's my daily practice process during my working years.

From a list of all the material in my repertoire, which fell into the three categories listed above and ran about 350 items, I'd rehearse two effects or routines (six total). I'd run through each routine completely in every detail as though I was performing it, three times. If any of the three revealed a glitch, I'd practice the technique or sequence isolated from the effect/routine until it smoothed out. Remember that the sequence had at one time been smooth or it wouldn't have been in my working repertoire. I'd then repeat the rehearsal of the piece three more times, paying particular attention to the problem area. When home, with access to video equipment, my rehearsals would be recorded for review. I was not always able to do this while on the road but, since I used a camera and large screen projector in my gambling lectures, it was sometimes possible. This process was iterative and continued until the piece was at performance level or it was struck from my active repertoire. I tried to never end a rehearsal session on a failed performance.

In addition to this rehearsal regime, I always had a list of sleights, effects and routines that were under development. Some remained on my list until ready, sometimes for years before they were used. Each of my nearly daily practice periods began with performing the top three items on the rotating list to determine how well it had held up since the last practice session. I was usually reasonably pleased with my retention. I would then begin to analyze what I thought was preventing the piece from improving further and how I could change it to address the impediment. I would devote no more than a half hour to each item, often, due to time constraints, far less. I don't believe protracted practice sessions are particular productive. I've had much better results from multiple short practice sessions.

When possible, in addition to my daily practice session I'd practice while on or waiting for my plane. This would sometimes add another hour or so of practice to my daily total but I would venture to estimate that I was able to maintain my repertoire and prepare new items for all the years with no more than ten hours of practice and rehearsal per week. That is far less than would be typical of a concert pianist, for example, but a good deal more than is typical for actors in a running play. It was sufficient for me. More or less might be necessary for others. Darwin Ortiz, I am told, practiced eight hours every night for many years. I never had that much discipline but neither do I think I'd have benefited from that much practice.

I hope that sheds some light on what I've done. Take what you can use and leave the rest.

Wesley James
Daniel Faith
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Inner circle
Neenah, Wisconsin
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"Beyond a certain level, practice is not the factor that determines excellence. Beyond talent and physical skills, applied intelligence is the difference between good and great".

I have never heard it put so well!
Daniel Faith
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