Michael Lauck is a columnist for iTricks. His work appears Mondays. All opinions expressed in this review are his own and not necessarily those of iTricks. Review items were purchased, not provided.

Tarbell: Every Trick In The Book: Penguin Magic, $9.95 per episode (currently available for $5 each) or $19.95/month subscription, weekly instant download by Dan Harlan covering a single chapter of The Tarbell Course In Magic, available directly from Penguin Magic.

?Recommended

The lowdown: A great supplement to the Tarbell Course in Magic books that does suffer from the limitations of the download format.

Harlan Tarbell’s Tarbell Course in Magic is probably the most famous and influential magic course ever offered. It was originally released as a correspondence course in the late 1920s and was later re-edited and expanded for release as a series of books. All types of magic and mentalism were covered in the pages of the course, from stage effects to math magic. The course is well illustrated but can still be confusing, especially for beginners. Despite the fine descriptions of moves and effects, virtually every student of Tarbell eventually wishes at some point that there was more information on the material offered. There are study guides and commentaries but (at least to my knowledge) no one has ever taken on the task of making video showing literally every move and effect in the entire series of books.

At least, no one has done it until now. Dan Harlan has set out to literally record every move, every trick covered in Tarbell with the new downloadable video series Tarbell: Every Trick In The Book. Penguin Magic is releasing a new episode, covering a chapter, each Friday at noon. List price is $9.95, but subscriptions are available for $19.95 a month. At time of writing, episodes for chapters three, four and five are still available at the special price of $5 and the first episode (which covers the first two, all text, chapters on history and the benefits of magic) is free. So far, each episode runs approximately 55 minutes long (except for the first, which is just shy of 40). Given the fact that there are over 100 chapters in the eight volumes, this will be a monumental task even if the goal is just to produce a video on each chapter. Actually demonstrating each move and effect makes it all the more difficult. Harlan goes even further by claiming that he will modernize the outdated effects and improve on (or at least break down and analyze) the clunkers, and there are a few, found in the course.

Obviously, Tarbell: Every Trick In The Book is not for everyone. However, there should be a pretty wide appeal for a guided journey through the entire series or even through just certain topics, such as coin or card sleights. The question is, of course, how successful is this new Tarbell/Harlan course as a learning aid? Short answer: so far, so good; it is worth the money but there are some definite drawbacks. For the long answer keep reading!

First I should probably say that I was excited to read about Dan Harlan’s attempt to teach The Tarbell Course In Magic when I saw it in one of the mass-emailings from Penguin Magic. I stopped performing several years ago because I was progressively losing my fine motor skills due to joint inflammation. I was told it was a combination of arthritis and damage accumulated from years of traditional full contact martial arts training. I could still write, but I could no longer draw or perform sleight of hand. Worse yet, ankle and knee problems kept me from moving easily in general and other health issues compounded my woes. Luckily, after years of misdiagnosis, I was finally revealed not to have several health issues but a single disease that was affecting me in multiple ways. After just a few months I am already in much better condition and ready to return to performing, painting and maybe even fighting! (Don’t tell my wife about that last part…) The problem is that the last decade or so of declining participation in all of these activities has atrophied my skills. I want to jump back into everything at once, which I know is a bad idea, so I am looking for a few good, organized programs to help me regain my lost abilities. From the ad, Tarbell: Every Trick In The Book seemed like it could be the perfect thing to help me study sleight of hand again. So I headed over to Penguin and downloaded the first free lesson (which they refer to as 1 and 2 because it addresses the first two chapters) as well as picking up the lesson on the third chapter for $5. I have since downloaded the lesson on Chapter Four and started a subscription with the one on Chapter Five.

The first episode, which runs 39:31, features Dan Harlan chatting with IBM President Shawn Farquhar about his motivations and intentions for the project, as well as discussing many of the points made in the first two chapters of the course. Although there is some solid information presented, it really is not representative of the other three released episodes. Even if you are not interested in the rest of the series, you may want to visit Penguin to download this free episode to hear Dan and Shawn’s thoughts on topics such as practicing magic.

The magic lessons truly begin with the third lesson. It features Dan demonstrating all of the sleights explained in the third chapter. He is in what looks like someone’s magic themed office or study, working at a small table. It is a perfectly adequate setting, properly lit and shot fairly well. Although it is basically a single camera shoot there are close ups when necessary. It becomes evident very quickly that this series is designed to be used in conjunction with the actual Tarbell books. I will not say that you could not learn the clips, palms and vanishes presented solely from Dan Harlan’s video, but there is an expectation that you have read Harlan Tarbell’s text as Dan comments directly on the instructions given in the book.

The great weakness of Tarbell: Every Trick In The Book also quickly becomes apparent with Lesson 3. In a little less than an hour, Dan Harlan presents well over 20 moves. It is fast paced, but because you also have the text, it does not seem like an overwhelming amount of information or as if any particular move is getting too little attention. The problem is that if you want to go back to re-examine how specific moves were presented for review there is no menu function. This, of course, is because it is a downloadable MP4 file and not a DVD. It is not a design flaw, merely a limitation of the format. However, that does not keep it from being frustrating when you are trying to find a move somewhere in the middle of the video! For most lessons this probably will not be a major inconvenience because many chapters of Tarbell only present four or five effects. However, for the chapters with many moves or effects, like this one or the one on silks which has something like 15 or 16 effects, an index would be convenient, even if only a PDF listing of effects and approximate times.

A secondary weakness of the instant download when compared to a DVD is that the downloads cannot, like a DVD, provide the viewer with a choice of angles. This is an underused feature in magic DVDs, but it can be quite helpful. There were several times during the third lesson that I found myself wishing that I could see the opposite angle. Perhaps there will be a future DVD release of the material. If there is, it would be worth considering for the menu alone but multiple angles would make it a far superior presentation to the current downloads. However, if Harlan keeps to the format of each lesson running almost an hour, there will be over 90 hours of video when the project is completed so a DVD release seems unlikely. All things considered, these are minor inconveniences and I feel that the material was presented in a reasonable manner and the overall lesson was well worth the money.

In the fourth lesson Dan starts to present tricks. Each trick is introduced with a text screen that also lists the page number so it can be quickly found in the book (this would have been a nice addition to the lower thirds announcing the title of each move in lesson three). Dan first performs the effect in a theatrical setting and then explains it either in the office set used in the previous lesson or in theater used for the performance. He presents updated versions of the four effects featured in Chapter Four and they are clearly explained. However, at the end of the lesson it again seems like it would be convenient to have a menu to quickly access specific explanations or performances in the future!

Dan Harlan does an excellent job presenting the material and has obviously put a great deal of thought and effort into Tarbell: Every Trick In The Book. I was familiar with some of Dan’s work, but I honestly do not think I had ever watched anything that features him teaching magic before this series. He is a very competent instructor. That sounds so mediocre but I give it as a very high compliment. What I mean is that Harlan is well versed at instructing; he is not performing while supposedly teaching magic. Although he is not boring, he has the sense to allow the material be the star. Far too many performers are actually a bit distracting when trying to teach because they are still trying to entertain. Dan is smart enough to teach, and only teach, and it makes the presentation of information much stronger.

If Tarbell: Every Trick In The Book actually presents the entire Tarbell series chapter by chapter then it is only at about the 5% mark, but it is a very solid product so far. I am extremely happy with it, despite the limitations of the instant download format. In fact, I even went ahead and subscribed starting with the fifth lesson. I am not sure how well it will hold my attention through the card material, but based on what I have seen so far I am willing to bet that I will be happy to have the videos to accompany the Tarbell books in case I ever take up cards. Even if you are not interested in the entire series (it honestly will be a fairly major investment for some, even as a subscription at the current rates it will be about $500 over two years), it may well be worth perusing Tarbell’s to see if there is a chapter or two that may interest you in the future.

  • Dana Law

    Michael.

    I always appreciate your essays on magic and magicians. Your solid writing and research is educational and interesting. I read every post.

    I’m also taking “Every trick in the book” and getting a lot out of it. I’m a year older than Disneyland and a 25 years full time a professional magician. I’ve always been aware of my deficits in the basics of our craft. Whatever limitations Dan’s course has it’s a monumental undertaking. He’s a brave man. As you said he is a good teacher. He’s covering a lot of ground and I’m truly learning a lot and correcting bad habits. I understand your concerns about the course but I think anyone with energy and interest can make up for them. I’m glad I subscribed.

    Thank you again for your fine work.

    Magically,
    Dana Law
    Amazing Dana the Magician
    San Diego

  • http://www.horizonmonster.com/ Michael Lauck

    Thank you for the kind words and I am very pleased with the course so far, too. I still think Dan Harlan is crazy for announcing it, but I am along for the ride!