Hands shake when you do Card Tricks? 9 ways to defeat Stage Fright
When an actor’s hands shake from nervousness it mostly goes unnoticed. After all – an actor’s hands aren’t usually a focal point of the scene. When card magicians get too nervous, and start to shake – the cards shake! Now, the audience can’t enjoy the show. They can experience worry, concern or discomfort, but not magic.
As a young entertainer, I endured this experience all the time. I never shared my fear of shaking with anyone who could help because I sincerely believed my ‘condition’ was a clear indication that I ‘didn’t have the stuff’ of a real magician. After all, I had watched some of the best magicians in the world, and they never trembled.
It took me many years of performance, and hundreds of shaky shows before I began to discover specific attitudes and steps I could take to decrease my shakes, and eventually, have them disappear altogether. So if you have shaking hands, stage fright, or suffer from ‘performance terror’ – which I feel is a more accurate description of the experience – this post will be very helpful.
As we get going, remember that shaky hands are ultimately a sign that you love magic and want very passionately to be successful. As a magic teacher, that’s the greatest indication I know of that you have what it takes to succeed.
Tip #1: Correctly identify the problem.
Some people go onstage without getting nervous – often, these folks are terrible magicians! It’s totally normal, and even healthy, to get nervous before you perform. But it’s very easy to misdiagnose stage fright as your core problem. I know from experience with my online students that many of you reading this post believe you have a problem with ‘performance terror’. But if you take a closer look, you may realize that the true issue is you are not yet prepared to perform.
Are you using sleights you can do deceptively? Are your sleights covered in the routine by strong, reliable misdirection? Do you know exactly what you’re going to say, word for word during the trick?
If your answer wasn’t a solid yes to all three questions, you don’t have stage fright. You’ve got common sense! Some part of you, deep down, knows you’re not ready to perform and it’s not going to go well. #SurvivalInstinct
No matter what you’ve heard from your friendly magic dealer – magic is hard! Preparation is the most effective way to minimize your fear – and settle down those shaking hands.
Tip #2 Use the Iceberg Principle.
In performance, allow the lion’s share of your skill to remain below the surface, and favor techniques at the easier end of your range. By including only sleights you can nail every time when the pressure is on, you cut down on the risk of failing, and so, the fear of failing. For most magicians, this means favoring ‘easier to learn’ sleights in performance.
In addition, this approach allows you to use more of your energy to connect with your audience directly. Staying present keeps you in better control of both your mind, and your body.
Tip #3: Don’t open with new, or scary, material.
When I first started giving talks to magicians after the publication of my book, The Paper Engine, everyone wanted to see my invisible sleight – The Gravity Half Pass. The Gravity Half Pass is a wonderful move, but with all those magicians waiting to see this “invisible sleight”, I was terrified. I wanted to blow folks away, and figured the ideal approach would be to open my set with tricks featuring my famous sleight.
But opening with the star of the show proved a real problem: I got scared and shaky, and inevitably at least kind of botched the first few tricks. The Gravity Half Pass wasn’t creating the effect I had hoped it would.
Months later I clued in, and started opening the show with Search and Destroy, a powerful effect that doesn’t use any difficult sleight of hand. As discussed in the ‘Iceberg Principle’ above, it allowed me to connect with the audience on a human level – and in so doing, get comfortable. By the time I got to the half pass stuff, I was relaxed and happy, and the material got great reactions. Over time, I got so confident in my material and my ability to connect with audiences, I was able to start performing the half pass tricks at the beginning of the talk as I’d originally intended.
As the famous Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron says, the key is to Start Where You Are, then make decisions based on that awareness. Be kind to yourself, and lighten the load until it isn’t too heavy. That’s the only way to build your muscles whether in the gym, before a 500 person audience, or doing a trick for your family on thanksgiving.
The Revolution is another simple, powerful effect I opened with for years, not only because of it’s strength, but because it allowed me to get comfortable in front of an audience. Then, I could perform more challenging magic with confidence! See it now.
Tip #4: Create a pre-show ritual that serves you.
For about ten years, I performed regularly in Los Angeles at the world renowned nightclub, the Magic Castle. I was surrounded, in many cases, by performers who’d been professionals for 30 plus years. These men and women could seemingly hang out at the bar with friends, meet new agents, book gigs on the phone, then hear their music starting and run on stage to deliver the perfect show.
My first years working at the club, I tried to be a good host to my guest between shows, but I often felt disconnected and unprepared when it came time to go on stage. Max Maven, one of the greatest mentalists and card workers of all time, gave me advice that has stuck with me to this day: give yourself the space YOU need to do a good show. Whether you’re working with new material, or you’re inexperienced, or your dog just died, the pre-show time is yours and you should use it to help ensure the delivery of a great show. If you need to sit quietly, sit quietly. If you need to run your lines – run your lines. If you need to use the bathroom, use the bathroom. How you feel will change as your material and confidence develop. By respecting how you feel now, you’ll get a lot further, faster, than you will by behaving how you think ‘you should’.
Tip #5: Write a presentation.
Most of my students have to be dragged kicking and screaming to write down a specific script (called a presentation) for even a single trick. So while I know it’s likely to be the last thing you want to do, dear reader, I can say without hesitation that scripting your work will do more to help you get your nerves (and shakes) under control, than just about any other thing I can tell you.
Sure, as you’re learning, a script can make you sound a bit rehearsed and not so spontaneous. That spontaneity (called acting!) can be developed over time. But if you don’t know exactly what to say and which lines, questions and jokes you’ll use to cover your secret moves, of course you’ll be terrified! Moreover, you won’t be connecting with the audience because you’ll be so busy thinking about what to say (and after all that effort you put in choosing tip-of-the-iceberg sleights, you don’t want your presentation to disconnect you from the audience, right?)!
As you get more clarity on the specifics of your magic, your fear will begin to recede.
Crossing The Cut – This classic force is one of the easiest to perform on a technical level. At the same time, this simple sleight allows you to master the art of the gaze, and how to shift the audiences focus from focal point to focal point of the effect – and in the process, cover one of magic’s most misunderstood, truly deceptive sleights.
Tip #6: Make real eye contact.
Eye contact can be easy to fake. We all know the old trick of looking at the back of the room so each person will think you’re looking at somebody behind them. And it’s easy enough to do a general sweep of the room that seems like eye contact but is really just glancing over a blur of faces. When you’re nervous, it can feel as though you don’t have time to take a moment and really see who you’re performing for.
Failing to meet the gaze of your spectators, far from giving you more space to focus on your act, only adds to the feeling of being trapped in your head. Throughout any performance, try to make specific, connected eye contact with as many spectators as possible – especially those you address directly. Almost immediately, you’ll discover that this practice will keep you grounded and present, which will calm your nerves and steady your hands.
Tip #7: Learn to spot The Critic and kick him off stage.
John Manlove, one of my incredible acting teachers in the theater department at Towson University, used to call this common phenomenon ‘having The Critic onstage’. Constructive self-criticism is a very important component in developing our magic, but under no circumstances should we indulge in the practice during the show! Until we learn to compartmentalise and stay in the moment, The Critic can seriously trip us up. It’s hard to focus when there’s a critique of everything we say and do running in our heads, and it makes focusing on and responding to our audience nearly impossible.
The first step to working with The Critic is to recognize him (YOU), when he starts playing his tricks. Acknowledge the criticism beginning, then tell The Critic that when the time is right, and you’re not working, he will have your undivided attention and can tell you anything he wants. Then, take a breath, (or make eye contact with another human being), and focus on what you’re doing at that very moment – delivering a magical experience for your audience.
Recording your formal performances is another great way to work with The Critic. When something comes up during the show that gets The Critic going, you’ll be able to move on more easily because you’ll know you’ve got a ‘game tape’ to go over later.
Tip #8: Start where you are.
Look at your nerves as your awareness, and your fear as your power of discernment. The awareness tells you what’s possible, and the discernment shows you the gap between where you are and where you aspire to be. The awareness (nerves), and discernment (fear), are necessary if you’re ever going to become a great magician. However, if you want to move from where you are to where you want to be, you have to start walking – and you can’t start walking from any other place than where you are right now. You have to start as a bad magician, do the magic you can do, have it accepted or rejected, and be willing to learn from those experiences.
Whenever I meet a magician with the courage to expose his imperfection before an audience – to be bad, and learn from the experience – it makes me smile, because I know (as all real magicians know), that it’s only a matter of time before a good, or great, magician will emerge. If that means the only tricks you can do right now without shaking so badly you drop the cards are self working tricks, do those tricks proudly! I’ve assigned this homework to many students and in every case the results have been transformative. Whenever you have the courage to recognize where you are, and start right there, transformation becomes not just possible, but inevitable.
Start Where You Are
This brief video tutorial shows you an example of how sleights can be mastered in stages. When we start where we are – and embrace our current stage of development, we integrate the lessons before us – and progress more smoothly than we ever could imagine!
Tip #9: Set the right intention.
Our final piece of advice comes from Juan Tamariz (paraphrased), who told me this years ago – and changed my magic forever: “Whenever I get scared”, he said, “I keep in mind that my purpose is to give a gift to the audience with all my heart – to help them experience magic. If I fail, I believe it’s honorable to fail in the service of that goal.”
Why is it YOU do magic? Look deep inside, and if your answer is far, far different than Tamariz’s, you may need to give that some thought and make a change. If however, you’ve set an honorable, giving intention for your audience, remembering it can help reduce your fear and strengthen your magic. Just try giving this intention a few moments of focus before you hit the stage next time – the results feel just like real magic.