The Three is a substantial number. Think of a trio, threesome, triad, troika, triangle, triumvirate, trilogy, triptych, trefoil, three-piece, triplets, God, Jesus, and the Holy Ghost, third-party and many more. The Three has its roots in many facets of life: nature, religion, art, music, mathematics, design, psychology, esoteric, science, history. A short excursion to Google will present you with a lot of research work (and patter or presentation themes).
Many insist there is a deeper esoteric meaning to the Three, but I don’t want to lead into a philosophical, psychological or historical discussion here. I am interested in the practical value of the Three. Just some thoughts to stimulate your curiosity.
In ITM (Irish Traditional Music) it is common to combine three tunes (reels or jigs, for example) into a set. Combined that way, the short single pieces result in a dance-set of the right length. It is not called an ‘act’, but a ‘set’.
In magic, an act — or a routine — comprises three parts: the opening, the middle and the end. The same holds for many routines theatre. Three provokes a balanced feeling for the spectators.
Mike Skinner, Charlie Miller, Dai Vernon (and some other well-known authorities) always advised to practise tricks in groups of three. Excellent advice because you exercise how to fuse the tricks into a routine.
The Three makes it easy for us to create and structure an act. We can fill each part with suitable tricks and get an ‘act’. Later, it is no problem to fill in additional material, but the base of the routine are these three components.
Or, we expand this system and use the other members of the Family of Three: the Five, the Seven and the Nine. A smart way to get even more variety into the structure, but still stick to the rules of the Three.
If you adapt the enlarged version, you could, for instance, build an act out of seven individual effects. And you could even space these effects:
1 — [2-3-4] — [5-6] — 7
[1-2] — 3 — [4-5-6] — 7
[1-2-3] — 4 — 5 — [6-7]
All these are combinations that result in a structure that feels rounded out. You can knit smaller effects together into groups of three, and keep the bigger effects as single units, so they will stand out more. The possibilities are endless, but the system remains the same. This works with all numbers of the Family of Three, and acts created after this scheme will look and feel better. The spectators feel the underlying number system. The number of effects or phases just feels right.
When we do sleights like the False Transfer, the Three is there as well: first, we show the object, then we place it into the hand, and then, we show that it has vanished. One-Two-Three. Easy to feel, follow and understand. Like the feeling of a waltz.
Three Objects in a Routine
When doing the Cups and Balls, we have been using three cups with the routine for centuries. There is a reason for it: the number feels ‘right’, and it feels natural for the spectators to follow the routine (as long as it is not over-loaded with similar-looking sequences).
If you take two cups, the impression of the routine, changes. A two-cup routine is much more challenging for the onlooker (and magician). There are only two fix points, and — as Tommy Wonder pointed out — therefore a straight line if you connect these two points. The routine becomes (or feels) denser.
Probably better to limit the visible objects involved in a routine to three.
This is what scientists have to say:
“Short-term memory acts as a kind of ‘scratch-pad’ for temporary recall of the information which is being processed at any point in time and has been referred to as ‘the brain’s Post-it note’. We can think of it as the ability to remember and process information at the same time. It holds a small amount of data (typically around seven items or even less) in mind in an active, readily available state for a short period (usually from 10 to 15 seconds, or sometimes up to a minute).”
To make it easier for the spectators to follow and appreciate the effect, it is advisable to keep the number of visual props minimal. If the maximum amount is seven, then using three objects seems fine. Remember that the audible addition — patter — has to be counted in as yet another matter to be processed.
A Triple Transposition
Not only the amount of props used is essential but also the amount of effects that happen in a routine. For instance, I have a routine which derives from a Claude Chandler idea. It is a complex transposition of three objects: a chosen card, a bill, and matches from a matchbook. A Himber Wallet is involved. The effect is: the bill is shown inside the wallet, and the matchbook is on the table (the spectators could see beforehand that the matches are inside).
A card is chosen and held at the fingertips by the performer. Now for the’ triple-transposition’: the card changes into the bill. The performer looks into the wallet, only to discover the matches inside! Then he reaches for the matchbook, opens it and inside is the selected card in a folded condition — a transposition of three objects that feels strange and results in complete bewilderment.
Although such an elaborated and complicated effect will not produce massive reactions (my experiences showed me that), it is fine for obscuring the secret workings of the effect. The spectators cannot figure out the method because there is so much going on effect-wise.
The 3 Second Levitation
Even with floatation or levitation effects, this holds to a certain point. When witnessing a levitation, the spectators’ thoughts will run in this sequence, all in steps of one second: the first step — surprise (the object is in midair), the second step — recovery from the shock, the third step — the search for a solution to the mystery starts.
In performance, it would be best to stop the levitation after that three seconds, to prevent the spectators from discovering the method for the miracle. Think of the countless performances where a rose is dangling in the air for an eternity, and you will have to admit there is some truth to it.
The Man with the Three Lives
Being an obedient person, I try my best to make the Mighty Three a fixed part of my life. Every time something new wants to enter my life, and there is a danger that the number three is adding up to more, I examine whether this new addition is necessary or worthwhile. If it is better than what I already have, I might replace it. If what I have is better, I don’t add the new thing to my life — over and above that a good plan to practise minimalism, and reduce the never-ending search for perfectionism (which cannot be achieved)!
When I learn something new, I limit the input to three pieces of information per learning unit. The reason is: there is no progress with more information than I can swallow in one session. Keeping it to a maximum of three is more than enough.
I always practice three tricks together as a unit.
I practice reels and jigs in sets of three on my Irish button box.
When working out new material, I check the structure of a routine, so that there is an opening, a middle and an end. This enhances my overview and gives me an increased opportunity to think about the magic in that routine.
I have three units of each critical tool or gimmick, which I use professionally.
For any effect I do professionally, I have three different methods. This assures I can do the tricks in lots of different environments. Also, different methods are practical for repeat performances for the same audience.
For each important technique which I use in my magic, I have three ways to execute them. I have three card-forces, three false-shuffles, three coin-vanishes, three shuttle-passes, three handlings of the thumb-tip, and so forth. I can do all of them pretty well, and I don’t strive to learn every move on this planet. Just the three methods I selected for each purpose is what I am working on.
I own three necessary electronic devices: laptop, tablet, and smartphone. I have three backups and three cloud storage places. I couldn’t manage more.
I try hard to optimise the folder structure on my computers, so I can reach any destination with a maximum of three clicks.
I break more complex task (or magic routine, for that sake) into three parts, and then work on each piece separately. Dividing a task into thirds is much more motivating than splitting it in half. A third is done more quickly, and with less strain, than doing half of it. The motivation is higher after two-thirds, and the last third seems to fly by in no time — no comparison to the halves-concept. And again — the detailed overview I get is preferable.
On any day, I try to deal with a maximum of three tasks — turning away from being hyper-productive, optimising-yourself mania, and the to-do lists craze. Experience has shown that three is the maximum amount I can handle. Less is better.
I hope you enjoyed my excursion and think about (three?) things in your life where the Mystical Three is present. And I hope these thoughts will help you in changing and improving the magic you already do for the better.
Less is better. But three times is better than less.
Here is excellent advice Seth Godin gave:
When you’re feeling stuck with your project, grab three index cards.
On each card, write an element of the project that, if you invested time and money, would change for the better.
If those three things happened, if those three elements improved, what would happen to your project?
Okay, now that you’ve got all three — what are you going to do about it?