Letting Your Magic Grow

Our contributor this month is long-time Magic & Mystery School student James Ember. Performing in the upper Midwest as “James the Magician,” in this Museletter he makes an interesting and mouth-watering comparison between his two passions – cooking and magic.

I have devoted large amounts of time to two areas in my life – learning and performing magic, and the art of cooking. I have been performing magic professionally since 1986, specifically in southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois. I work for a variety of clients, but focus on performing for family audiences. I also began working in commercial kitchens, primarily pizzerias, in 1998. I have learned a lot about leading teams, training staff, and making dough (both kinds).  
As we are approaching the cap of another calendar year, I have been doing a lot of reflecting on my magic, and recently, on how it relates to cooking – specifically, baking sourdough bread. The similarities between making sourdough bread and creating magic can be quite remarkable. The highest quality of magic, and of bread, takes time.  
I have been working on my sourdough recipes for sandwich bread and pizza dough. Slow rising doughs have two primary ways to rise. One is to use an active dry yeast, and the other slower way, is to use the yeast that occurs naturally in the air. If you are using activated yeast you can make a dough in about 3-4 hours from start to finish.

The process of making sourdough takes much longer. When you are making a sourdough, you are using the yeast that occurs naturally in the air, and it takes a minimum of two weeks to create your mother (initial starter). After you make your mother starter, you can continue to feed this forever. Some starters are thousands of years old! Why on earth do I take the time to make sourdough instead of using dry active yeast? For one, the heavily yeasted dough was messing with my guts, and more importantly, it’s delicious!
Magic is seductive. We get into magic because we want to know a secret. This is a highly marketable addiction, and for years people in our industry have been swooned by the advertisements of miracles we can perform. If the desire to learn a secret or put a routine instantly into your show is like that fast acting yeast, then the good stuff, the sourdough of magic, is the time that you have taken honing your routines for years – even decades.  
No magic is tastier than the magic that you know so well that the work you put into it lets you know exactly where to take a beat, or perhaps changing just one word of your script makes it that much more effective.  
Here is one example from my own show. I perform an Invisible Deck routine that is themed around parallel universes. After honing in on the script and performing it for about a decade, it was time to make a small tweak. I found it is better if the audience member names an odd numbered card, so the script evolved into this. “Please just think of any card in the deck. Don’t make it easy on me. Don’t think of the Ace of Spades or the royalty. Think of some odd card in the deck.” In this instance, the way I say it can feel like I am saying “odd” as in “random,” as opposed to an odd number. But over 70% of the time they name an odd card, making my technical job much easier.  This little change has made my Invisible Deck routine a delicious sourdough!

Just as in the first two weeks of making your sourdough starter, you don’t see a lot of action happening – you just see a lump of flour and water. But then, as if by magic, it comes to life! This directly relates to a new manipulation move or sleight of hand that seems to be incredibly difficult, to the point where you may give it up. But then, over time, it just starts to happen, and after enough time and practice, it becomes second nature. 
Just as a starter needs to be fed regularly, we need to feed our magic with education, inspiration, and practice. Some of our routines may be shelved for long periods of time, but we can take them off of the shelf and feed them with our time and energy, after which we may surprise ourselves with how they have grown. When you are working on your magic, remember the slow process of creating a sourdough culture, and allow the slow process of letting your magic grow, and create something truly magical!

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