Want to Improve Manual Dexterity? It’s Magic!

Harvey Rachlin • CommentaryMarch 2023 • March 13, 2023

What do music and magic have in common?

Both are entertaining and require skillful use of fingers, hands, wrists, and arms (okay, wind instrument musicians use their mouths, too, but we’ll dispense with balloon tricks in this article). It’s important for musicians to stay in shape as playing an instrument is a physical endeavor. Musicians limber up by playing musical exercises but conditioning for musicians should not be a part-time endeavor and it’s important for them to always stay in shape—meaning away from their instruments, too. 

Musicians work out like other people doing aerobic and anaerobic exercises which are vital for a healthy body, but since musician’s hands are tools of their trade exercising the fingers-to-arms area of the body could help promote better musicianship. There are many exercises musicians can do away from their instruments to build up finger, wrist, hand, and arm muscle as well as to stretch their hands and fingers. Why not accomplish this by learning, practicing, and doing sleight-of-hand magic tricks and flourishes. You may think this is a stretch (no pun intended), and if so, then just file this column under “quirky articles” (we’ve all seen those kinds of articles, right?). But doing flourishes and sleight-of-hand magic can bring health benefits to the musician and great enjoyment to others. 

So why not have a little fun as you improve your manual dexterity?  Additionally, as magic is performed with smoothness and grace, the eloquence of magic performance may even translate and seep into your musical performances. 

Here are some well-known flourishes and magic tricks I believe can strengthen one’s fingers, wrists, hands, and arms. Mastering them, like mastering the playing of compositions, takes practice (that’s another thing music and magic have in common!). These are just a few examples of legerdemain that can have strengthening and stretching benefits and if this kind of exercise appeals to musicians they are encouraged to seek out other (and more challenging) exercises. Remember, these exercises are not offered as substitutes for warming up at your instrument, but as fun exercises that can be done away from it. Because actual demonstrations are usually the best way to see how things are done, interested musicians are encouraged to go to YouTube where numerous videos of sleight-of-hand magic tricks and flourishes are available for watching. 

And now, without further ado, following are a handful of flourishes and sleights I have practiced over the years which I believe are not only challenging and entertaining but are good exercises that aid in the strengthening and coordination of the hand-finger-wrist-arm areas:

Fanning cards. This is a nice flourish that can strengthen the thumb and wrist muscles as well as stretch the hand. Hold up about a third to a half deck of cards in your right hand as follows:  Place your four fingers on the back of the cards and your thumb on the opposite front side at the bottom. Pressing down with the thumb move it to the opposite direction and spread out the cards in a fan. Fan the cards as far as you can and aim to have the cards spread evenly. You may feel a little pressure in your wrist as you do this. Fanning the cards over and over will strengthen the muscles. This effect works best with a new or fresh deck; it is hard to fan old or sticky cards.  

Rolling a coin over knuckles. This is another flourish that strengthens the fingers and aids in having greater control over each individual finger and perhaps even in coordinating them to synchronize together. Make a fist with your strong hand and hold it straight up. Place a quarter between your thumb and your index finger so that about half the quarter is projecting up.  Then push the quarter with your thumb over the top of your index finger so it lays flat on it. The edge of the quarter will extend beyond the index finger. Lift the next finger and then press down on the edge of the quarter to roll it over that finger (remember the hand remains clenched). Then do the same for the next finger. Practice this over and over until you can roll a quarter smoothly and quickly over your knuckles. 

Making a card inserted into the deck come to the top. This trick has the effect of strengthening the pinky. Hold a deck of cards face down in the left hand and ask someone to pick any card as you spread them out. Tell the person to look at the card and memorize it. Then with about half the deck face down in one hand, ask the person to place the chosen card on top of those cards. Place on top of that pile the remaining cards you are holding in your other hand, but as the cards come down place the top of the pinky of the hand holding the cards at the bottom right corner on top of them. Show the whole pack of cards to your audience with your pinky inserted which they will not see. Then in a quick motion lift the pinky so all the cards above it rise under the cupped right hand and as that happens pull the bottom cards over and on top of the top half and riffle them as you do this. This should be done quickly and in one sweeping motion, so it just looks like you are riffing all the cards at once. The chosen card is now on top of the deck. You can tap its back and show it (as if it rose to the top from somewhere in the middle) or you can do a double lift (picking up the top two cards) and ask if the card being shown is the chosen card. The person will say no. You then place the two cards (but what the spectator thinks is one card) back on top of the deck, tap the top card and lift it. And presto, it’s the chosen card!  This effect will take practice to execute smoothly but if done right not only will it result in a fooled audience but a stronger pinky.  

Making a coin disappear. This simple sleight of making a coin disappear will strengthen your first two fingers and wrist.  Hold a quarter between the tips of the first and second fingers of the right hand (if you are righty) with most of the quarter sticking out (do this opposite if you are lefty). Move your right hand toward your left like you are going to place the quarter in the palm of your left hand. As you go quickly secret the quarter in the crotch of your thumb and first finger, then extend the first two fingers as if they are still holding the quarter and slide them into the palm of your left hand and close the fingers as if they are holding the coin. Then turn over your left hand, tap the back of it and then turn it around and slowly open it to show it to be empty. To the viewer it will look like the quarter disappeared. You can drop the quarter in your pocket to get rid of it (as you misdirect your viewers away from that area) or reach to a spectator’s ear and as you get there reach for the quarter from your thumb crotch with your first two fingers and act as if you are pulling the quarter out of the person’s ear. This should be practiced over and over with the coin being placed in the left hand to get the movements down smoothly before actually secreting the coin.

There are many more advanced sleights which not only produce amazing illusions, but which are great exercises for the aforementioned body areas. But at the risk of repeating myself just once more, the point of all this is to offer a fun and entertaining way for musicians to exercise these areas away from their instrument so that these body parts will be strengthened when musicians play their instruments. With these flourishes and sleights, you’ll be twisting, gyrating, contorting, and bending your fingers, wrists, hands and arms, all good exercises that can promote flexibility and better musicianship. 

Improving your manual dexterity can be done without your instrument – it’s magic! 


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