Interview with magician Jamy Ian Swiss

Jamy Ian Swiss during a lecture

Michael Guerra: Like you, I have a great passion for sleight-of-hand magic; not only because of its sheer nature, but also for its ability to constantly challenge me technically. With so many moves, techniques and ideas out there, which ones do you feel are the most important to grasp and what should be mastered above all else?

Jamy Ian Swiss handling playing cardsJamy Ian Swiss: Well, let’s talk about card magic for starters. Even though I have a reputation as a “technician” of sorts, I don’t teach my students to emulate me in this regard, because it’s a personal and artistic choice, and it’s not necessary to do a huge quantity of sleights, or extremely advanced sleights, in order to do good magic. While it’s true that “method affects effect,” and my technique does therefore influence, expand, and even characterize my choice of material, nevertheless it’s not a necessity. I try to teach my students a very efficient approach to sleight-of-hand. I don’t teach “remedial” sleights, and we work until their execution of the sleights we do work on is exemplary, but it’s all within the reach of anyone who’s willing to invest a reasonable amount of focus and practice. After that, they can move on into more advanced areas or not, it’s up to the individual.

So, I teach the following items first, and in this order:

  1. overhand shuffle controls
  2. double undercut and variants
  3. strike or hit double-lift
  4. Vernon “Topping the Deck” top palm

That’s all for one trick, and depending on the student, it might take two months to cover all that, or more likely it might take six months, but it doesn’t matter. Once these techniques are mastered, they are useful for life. I still use them all myself.

And after that, a card fold, such as the one-handed fold or the Mercury Card Fold, both from “Expert Card Technique” by Hugard & Braue. With those six sleights, you can conquer the world—or, failing that, at least do great magic.

In my lecture manuscript, Theories, I describe something I call the “Sleight Study System,” which expands on this idea of approaching the study of technique efficiently. Nobody needs 40, or 20, or even five, double-lifts. Harry Riser says you should only use one. I use a few more than that, in special applications, but not many, and 98% of my work is done with just one. Sleights are tools, they are meaningless in and of themselves. Magicians ask me to show them the pass all the time, but when I ask them to show me their overhand shuffle controls, spread cull controls, and the side steal, they often can’t—so what’s the point of trying to learn a shift when you haven’t mastered the basics? It’s like trying to learn a single piece of classical music without learning to play a scale—you can’t ever achieve mastery this way, you’re simply doomed to mediocrity. Or they ask to learn the pass so they can show it off to other magicians—without even pretending interest in how to apply it. It’s a waste.

So you can apply my approach to other areas of sleight-of-hand as well. In coin magic, for example, you need two or three good vanishes—not necessarily a retention vanish, by the way—you need a switch or two, a shuttle pass or utility switch, the standard “loads” like the Vernon and L’Homme Masque loads, some other utility exchanges like Han Ping Chien and Gallo Pitch—and as far as the fundamentals go, you can stop right there for quite a while and work on developing a repertoire. As with card technique, of course you can go much, much further—but you don’t have to do in order to do capable and satisfying work. You can do Coin Across and Coins Through the Table.

Of course, once you move beyond cards into “object magic,” the demands are higher, because you don’t have the principle that is integral to so much card magic, what I call the “camouflage of depth” principle. When you insert a card in a pack, you can push it in so that only the white border remains outjogged, but everyone still knows exactly where that card is. But push it square—another eighth of an inch—and it’s “lost.” No one knows exactly where it is now, it’s only an approximate at best. This is the principle behind all card magic that uses the deck, from a double-lift to a shift. The handling of multiple cards—what Cliff Green called “multiplicity”—is all based on this.

But this principle is lost with any other object, except perhaps if you’re holding two coins as one, as Vernon did in his coins and champagne glass routine. But that’s an exception. So once you don’t have the deck to camouflage and conceal the cards for you, you have to do all the heavy work yourself. That requires the most demanding skill of sleight of hand, which is simulation. You have to learn to simulate an empty hand when you’re hiding something, or a full hand when you’re holding nothing but need to pretend otherwise. This is hard stuff indeed—the hardest! Much more difficult than any finger-flinging sleight. Of course, it’s also necessary when you’re palming cards, especially when you’re holding out for a time, which is when the real art of palming becomes most powerful.

So a vanish of a ball or a coin is really the most important thing you can learn on the road to mastering sleight-of-hand magic. And fundamental techniques that go with that, like classic palm. Fortunately, “Presto”—Earl Johnson—taught me to classic palm in both hands when I was still in my teens, and I’ll be forever grateful that I put the time in then. And if you learn to do these things close-up first, it will make you a far better stage performer later. John Carney is one perfect example that comes to mind. John Thompson, of course. It’s amazing to me that young magicians can’t wait to get a Thin Sawing or some other illusion before they’ve ever mastered the fundamentals of sleight of hand and misdirection that teach you how to really become a true conjuror.

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