The Tarot School was born on February 1, 1995 and, just as with a human being, its development and growth has been an exciting and constantly evolving process. Many people have asked us if there is a Tarot School in their area, or have considered creating something similar and asked our advice in getting started. By sharing the story of the school so far, we hope to give you an idea of what raising “our baby” has been like.
In the Beginning…
Back in the 20th Century (the Winter of 1994 to be exact), we were hanging out with our friends Irene Kendall and Lelia Dickenson at The Open Center, a wholistic learning center in SoHo. Although the four of us are very different, we all share one thing—a love of tarot.
On this particular evening, we were discussing how although we knew of occasional one-day or weekend workshops on tarot, and even a 6-week introductory course or two, there was nowhere to study tarot in New York City on a continuing basis. No place where one could study the cards in-depth. If you went to a class, there was only enough time to spend a few minutes on each card. After that, except for a few good books, you were on your own. (The tarot community as we know it now didn’t exist at the time.)
“Wouldn’t it be great if there were someplace we could meet to study tarot every week,” asked Irene; “someplace where we could take time with the cards?”
Not being content to just talk, we made plans to change this sorry state of affairs, and a couple of months later, The Tarot School opened its doors.
The two of us made the commitment to lead a weekly 3-hour class at the Source of Life Center in midtown, and Lelia and Irene agreed to come as often as they could to help out. We put out a flyer at the Source of Life, bought an ad in a local New Age newspaper, and waited for a flood of students.
At first, there were only two or three students each week. The truth is, there were a couple of times when nobody came at all. But optimism, patience and perseverance eventually paid off, and The Tarot School grew in surprising ways.
Twenty-three years later, weekly classes are still going strong. Our students love being able to spend a full two hours or more discussing a card and then having the chance to practice and exchange readings. Numerous lasting friendships have been formed in class as well. We’re proud of the many students who have earned a Tarot School Degree; they have become confident and competent professional readers, whether or not they read for the public.
Developing a Teaching Style
From the beginning, we made the decision to teach a mixed-level class. Just because someone is first starting their studies, we reasoned, doesn’t mean they’re not intelligent enough to follow classes that would be of interest to more experienced students. Everyone starts at the deep end of the pool, and nobody’s drowned yet.
Every year we vary our approach to the cards. (We take a full year to cover the entire deck.) This keeps our own interest level up, as well as the interest of those students who continue to take classes for several years. Students come and go throughout the year, but there is usually a core group who attend most of the time. This core group shifts every once in awhile, and one thing we’ve noticed is that each group has its own preferred way of learning. Some enjoy practical classes with experiential techniques, while others would rather have every last bit of information we can give them to put in their notebooks. We try to keep the material balanced while remaining sensitive to the changing needs of our student body.
Arcanum magazine was a labor of love which we started in 1996 and published for a little over two years. Although the publication included tarot content, it was more of a contemporary journal of occult writing and thought, and included a whole range of magical topics.
As with other large projects we occasionally undertake, we had no idea what life-consuming effort it would take to put together and print a graphically intensive publication, cultivate a stable of writers, sell advertising, deal with distributors and fulfill subscriptions. And we published Arcanum every two months!
As hard as it was to give up, there came a point where we had to decide whether we were going to devote our energies to developing new programs for The Tarot School, or to keeping the magazine going. Eventually, Ruth Ann got the message in a meditation to drop it. This has definitely turned out for the best; we have been able to deepen and expand our work considerably, and keep the focus exclusively on tarot.
Be There or Be Square
While visiting a Manhattan metaphysical shop in 1997, we picked up a brochure for an upcoming event that we just couldn’t miss. The International Tarot Society (a group we’d never heard of before) was hosting a World Tarot Congress that October in Chicago, Illinois. Over twenty authors and teachers would be presenting workshops—every one of them about tarot!
People from all over the world attended what was essentially the birth of the modern tarot community. We met, and began long-term relationships with, colleagues and students alike. These connections have led to ventures we could never have foreseen at the time. Networking at tarot conferences and events is one of the strongest pieces of advice we can offer anyone who is interested in developing a public tarot career. The contacts you’ll make at these events are invaluable—and they are a tremendous amount of fun!
The 1997 World Tarot Congress was the first of many tarot conferences to be presented by the ITS and other groups and individuals. We’ve had the privilege to teach at a number of them, and ultimately began producing tarot events of our own. But that’s another story…
There was a time when we had the “bright” idea to create and sell a line of t-shirts with tarot cards on them. We thought the public would love to wear some of the fabulous art that can be found in tarot decks, and that we could add a profitable income stream to our business. We had contacts with owners of metaphysical stores who were already selling issues of Arcanum, and we knew a guy who was willing to produce the t-shirts in small quantities. We obtained the necessary licensing agreements for a large set of images, set up a separate bookkeeping procedure to handle fees and royalties, found a vendor of quality shirts, and designed the necessary sell-sheets and order forms. Then we spent a lot of time running around taking and filling orders—all in person. Because they knew us, the shop owners bought them.
There were two major problems with this venture. The first was that the public (for whatever reason) did not buy them, and we probably spent more money than we made. But more importantly, we discovered that an even bigger problem was that in order to be successful at selling t-shirts, we needed to learn about, and be in, the t-shirt business. Our purpose is to teach tarot, not sell clothing, and we had lost sight of that.
Over the years, it’s been very tempting to get into all kinds of side ventures but our experience has taught us that many of them are just another version of “T-Shirts.” The trick has been to recognize when that’s the case and not waste our time, money and energy on anything that is not integral to our purpose.
One of the features of Arcanum magazine was a regular column on card study called “Notes from The Tarot School.” This column began as a series of notes we prepared for some of our classes on the Major Arcana. When we decided to reach out to students who didn’t live close enough to attend our live classes, we began the long process of expanding on these notes to create a correspondence course.
We wanted the course to include the complete symbolism of the visual imagery in the Rider-Waite-Smith deck, and discovered that this material was scattered all over the available literature in bits and pieces. Many months of research, thinking, integrating, writing, and typesetting went into the preparation process. In 1998 the Tarot School Correspondence Course was launched. It has since been enjoyed by Tarot enthusiasts all over the globe, and we went from being local teachers to an “international company.”
We’ll let you in on a little secret. The course was only half-finished when those first lessons were mailed. We fully expected that we’d be able to complete writing it in the next six months, but it wound up taking much longer than we’d planned. So we wrote an interim review lesson at the mid-point in the course, and created the concept of the one-month “hiatus” between the later lessons. Originally, we thought we’d remove the hiatus periods once the course was completed, but we got so much feedback from people thanking us for giving them these breaks, we decided to leave them in. So now you know the real reason why you’ll receive the 15 lessons over a period of 18 months!
At the same time that we were working on the course (while still teaching), it became apparent that we needed an internet presence. Ruth Ann taught herself basic HTML in order to design it, and the initial process took about six months. Admittedly, the code was pretty primitive, but at least it worked. TarotSchool.com was originally designed in 1998 and has grown to be quite extensive. The design has changed since those early days and new content is being added all the time.
As part of our internet presence, we decided to publish a weekly email newsletter beginning in October, 1998. Called “Tarot Tips,” it started out as (and was supposed to remain) a very short weekly tip of a paragraph or two on a practical reading technique. It didn’t stay that way for long. The tips got longer, and many additional resources were added as well. Eventually, time constraints made it impossible to keep up the weekly schedule, and we switched to publishing monthly.
The newsletter formed the basis for our first book, Tarot Tips: 78 Practical Techniques for Enhancing Your Tarot Reading Skills. Published by Llewellyn in 2003, the book was part of their Special Topics in Tarot series. It sold well until it finally went out of print in 2018.
The Secret Language of Tarot
We've found that books are like potato chips — you can't write just one! The Secret Language of Tarot, which was published in 2008, actually wrote itself. It's composed of the notes of a year-long curriculum that we originally called Imagery & Intuition — an in-depth exploration of many of the primary visual images in the Rider-Waite-Smith deck. Holly Volly graciously allowed us access to scans of her rare Pamela-A deck, one of the very first printings of this iconic tarot deck, and Ruth Ann manipulated the images to make the symbols POP! You'll find these same symbols, such as crowns, moons, mountains, paths, stars, pools and more, in many other decks as well. The good folks at Weiser Books loved the manuscript and gave the book its catchy new title.
Hold the Phone!
Shortly after we began publishing our Tarot Tips newsletter, we learned of a relatively new technology called the telebridge that was being used extensively in the Personal Coaching industry. It allowed 30, 50, or even 100 people to call into a central phone number and participate in a conference call which they called a “teleclass.” Although the conference call wasn’t a new idea, telebridge technology made the calls much easier and more affordable than they had been. Here was a new way that we could teach people outside of New York.
Teaching over the telephone required a new set of skills, so we took a series of courses in Teleclass Leader Training. Armed with these new techniques, we began offering Tarot Teleclasses in January, 1999.
As with our live classes, the content and format of our teleclasses and telecourses has varied over the years. We’ve used them to present material that doesn’t fit into the format of our weekly divination skills class. All the teleclasses are recorded, which enables us to continue to offer them to the public while we develop new courses.
We discovered that phone classes are focused and intimate, and our teleclass students have formed a remarkably bonded group energy.
Our Karmic Surprise
Wald and I met on the Summer Solstice in 1994 and quickly discovered a mutual love of tarot. When we exchanged our first readings, however, we made a momentous discovery that would pave the way for some of our most creative work. We found that we each had a special way of reading personality that was almost identical. Since then, we have worked together to explore and expand on this method, and we’re still making new discoveries about it. To this day, neither of us have ever met anyone else who reads in this way—unless they’ve learned it from us.
The Elemental Array, the Court Card Personality Array, the Hidden Face, Birth Cards, the Couples Mandala, and the Personal Tree constitute a set of techniques we’re continually developing which we call “Tarot Psychology.” This has become one of the most important aspects of our work. It does not, as one might assume, combine tarot with traditional schools of psychology. Rather it describes a unique way of discovering and understanding ourselves as magical beings.
Staying creative is pivotal in maintaining any long-term venture. Our ongoing work with Tarot Psychology has kept us fresh and interested in what we do.
Tarot instruction can easily become repetitive. Tarot instruction can easily become repetitive.
When our students began to stay with us longer and longer, we started to look for ways to deepen their knowledge and keep them interested. Thus, the concept of Tarot School Intensives was born.
What distinguishes intensives from our other classes is the length. An intensive is a full-day or weekend learning experience of either 8 or 16 hours. We have found this to be the minimum amount of time needed to introduce a special tarot technique or parallel discipline in enough depth. The intensive is meant to open a new area of study to our students, or take them much deeper into a topic we’ve only been able to touch on in shorter classes.
On the Record
At The Tarot School, the thing we love most is a great class. We’ve had a lot of them, and over the years many of these classes and courses have been recorded. In this way, our students never had to miss a class even when they couldn’t physically attend, and tarot lovers too far away to come to live classes or teleclasses could enjoy them from any distance in time or space.
In this way, the Tarot School Audio Course Series was born, and over time, slowly but surely has grown into an extensive collection. It captures on cd and mp3 files the best of our continuous experiments to teach tarot at the highest level we can personally reach. To maintain the intensity and depth of instruction over the years, we ourselves constantly learn, think, and experiment. Classes have evolved into courses, individual techniques have been integrated into practicums, and courses and practicums together have become full, rich studies.
At the beginning, when all these things were taking shape, we had the idea of recording classes so the information they contained wouldn’t be lost. Our students loved the idea and began to acquire the recordings, creating personal libraries of tarot instruction. Card study classes were joined by others on reading technique and special classes in Tarot Psychology, Qabalah, Past Lives and more. Together, they eventually became an integrated series of audio courses that may already be the most extensive single source of card knowledge and technique in tarot today.
And it’s not just instruction, not just lecture. Every recording enfolds you in the experience of learning, in the warmth and spontaneity of presence in a live and lively class. It’s a wonderful way to learn.
Running The Tarot School is our full-time job, and there’s no way either one of us could do it alone. We each have different talents, and all our individual skills are constantly called into play. Teamwork is the key ingredient in everything we do, and it helps tremendously that we enjoy each other’s company enough to be together 24/7.
Some of our live class students probably think that our job consists entirely of showing up once a week to teach a 3-hour class (with a little extra time allotted to prepare the lesson.) That may have been true when we first started and both had day-jobs, but committing ourselves to The Tarot School full-time changed all that.
There are some things that the two of us do together, and we split the rest of our responsibilities according to our strengths and/or proclivities. Here’s a little peek behind-the-scenes:
Research and Development —
This is the one area that we share the most. We talk with each other all the time and use these discussions to plan events, new classes and courses, and to expand upon our ongoing creative work. We brainstorm, we play; at times we argue. But everything we accomplish results from this lively interchange.
Having someone to bounce ideas off of is not only useful for generating new ideas, but can be a helpful reality check for those times when your enthusiasm starts to get the better of you.
Wald does most of the talking in our classes but we teach almost all of them together. Our teaching venues include weekly classes in New York City, weekly teleclasses, occasional weekend intensives, personal telephone coaching sessions, and workshops at tarot conferences. Our books and Tarot Tips newsletter are additional forums for instruction.
We are both constantly reading; it’s how we learn, develop new material, and keep in touch with what’s happening in the tarot community. One of us reads books, the other reads a lot of stuff online, and we both read the cards for clients. These days, we like to do what we call “Tandem Tarot” readings, where the two of us read for a single querent. Since we each tend to see different things, this method makes the reading very full.
There are many things we do that require writing, and this is another area we share. Although some things end up as a collaboration, much of our writing is done separately. Writing projects include books, articles, correspondence course lessons, telecourse scripts and class notes, guided meditations, newsletters, promotional copy for our website, print advertising and brochures, liner notes for our audio courses, and general correspondence.
Running any business involves working with numbers. Wald handles numbers better so he gets to balance the checkbook, do the banking, and take care of our general accounting. He also keeps track of our class attendance records. Ruth Ann manages the online store. We both frequently calculate tarot birth card combinations for our students and reading clients as well.
This is another place where we have distinct talents and responsibilities. Ruth Ann is the resident techie and does everything that involves the computer: all layout and design, database management, email, typing (see Writing), and internet-based research. She is also our webmistress and does the digital mastering and sound editing of our audio courses. Wald handles in-house cd duplication, as well as AV equipment purchasing and set-up for our conferences.
It's not just us any more! —
As The Tarot School has grown, we've discovered that we just can't do it all ourselves. We've learned to reach out to the tarot community for help with many of our long-term projects. We're currently working with talented people in the areas of copywriting, marketing, transcription, audio, video, graphic design, and advanced coding.
We're always open to new ideas so if you have a special skill or service you think would be a good fit for The Tarot School, let us know. We'd be happy to talk with you!
Dinner and a Movie
We rarely get to take a week-long vacation from our busy work schedule, but we make sure to schedule in lots of “vacation” time in order to keep our sanity. We do this by eating out and/or going to the movies.
A movie is a great way to switch gears and give your brain a rest. Even though we’ll sometimes rent a movie or watch one on television, we prefer to see them on the big screen. It’s more exciting and mentally involving, and there aren’t the usual distractions of home such a ringing phone. We do much of our work from home, and going to the movie theatre gets us out of the house.
We take these 2–3 hour vacations at least once a week. If we can, we’ll see two movies—and sometimes even three! In the long run, it’s less expensive than going on a “real” vacation, and we get to stretch out the fun all year long.
This also gives us something to talk about besides tarot!
Degrees of Change
When you’ve put in the time and effort that in-depth study requires, it’s nice to have something to show for it. We grant students an internal degree for the equivalent of a year’s study in any of a number of our programs. But although a Tarot School degree does recognize students for their work and dedication, the philosophy behind our degree program goes beyond simple recognition.
As we see it, there are three kinds of degree. The most familiar is the academic degree that is granted by educational institutions. The second type is the initiatory degree that is common to spiritual paths such as Wicca or Freemasonry. A Tarot School degree is meant to measure the degree of change a student experiences after a year’s worth of study. This degree of change is personal, and therefore different for everyone—but it’s tangible, and something we as teachers can vouch for.
Our degrees are cumulative. You can earn a Second Degree, for instance, by taking a year’s worth of Divination Skills classes plus 100 hours of teleclasses, or by doubling up on a single course of study. The correspondence course degree program is a longer process, and you'll receive a Third Degree upon completing it. The more degrees you have, the more change we’ve witnessed.
Heart to Heart
There’s a bit of common wisdom that says, “a strong business is built one relationship at a time.” We take that sentiment very seriously, and spend as much time as possible giving our students, colleagues, and customers our personal attention. As we grow, it becomes more difficult to do this consistently, but we do the best we can.
Wald spends a good part of each day on the phone, talking with our students and other tarot professionals. For people enrolled in our correspondence course degree program, he’ll spend many hours every month reviewing lesson submissions and conducting one-on-one coaching sessions.
We have found that personal contact and friendly conversation with our current and potential students and customers is far and away the most effective way to let people know what we’re doing at any given time. This also gives us a chance to find out what’s going on with them, address any problems they may have with an order, listen to their suggestions for future Tarot School projects, and in general, keep the channels of communication wide open.
It has become an important part of the way we do business to treat others with love and respect. We truly appreciate those who take an interest in our work, and have formed very special relationships with numerous students and colleagues as a result of taking a heart-centered approach.
At one of the conferences hosted by the American Tarot Association, we were encouraged to produce an event on the East Coast. Except for a small symposium held earlier in Boca Raton, Florida, all of the tarot conferences had been held in California and the Midwest. Our previous event-planning experience was limited to small intensives, workshops, and retreats, but we decided we were ready for the challenge. We began the 4-year planning process for the New York Tarot Festival.
All this time, our relationship had been growing stronger. Two years later, as the century turned, we became engaged.
So now we would be planning two events—the festival and our wedding! At some point, it occurred to us to combine them. This way, our colleagues who were flying in for the Tarot Festival could also attend the wedding. At first we thought we’d have a quiet ceremony in one of the hotel conference rooms, or maybe even sneak off to the park. But as time went on, our plans became more and more elaborate. Ultimately, we took up three sections of the Grand Ballroom and invited all the festival participants (more than 200 people), plus family and friends, to witness our vows.
Robert Moyer designed and created our elaborate wedding garb, as well as a magical setting for the ceremony—complete with hanging banners of the Four Aces, a beautiful altar, a grove of trees, and a black-and-white checkered floor! Lon Milo DuQuette and Mary K. Greer were our real-life Hierophant and High Priestess, and a group of family and friends rounded out the wedding party. The ceremony, which we wrote ourselves (in our spare time!), was filled with tarot symbolism and other personal spiritual references. Mince Pye put the icing on the cake with beautiful Renaissance music, and a good time was had by all.
The New York Tarot Festival itself, which was held during the weekend of June 21–23, 2002, was a whirlwind of classes taught by a dozen of the best tarot instructors around. We specifically requested that everyone present a hands-on workshop instead of a lecture, and the participants were delighted with the experience. There were rituals, parties, an evening in Manhattan, and a Merchants Faire for shopping.
Thinking back on it now, we can’t imagine how we managed all the details. We couldn’t have pulled it off at all without the help of Lelia and Irene (remember them?), and a dedicated crew of friends, family, and volunteers from the Tarot School student body. The financial risk was tremendous, and the anxiety level bordered on soul-shattering. But we were blessed, and with the help of a last-minute article in The Village Voice which resulted in a flurry of walk-in registrations, we just about broke even.
We attempted an event of that size because we were innocent. We succeeded through hard work and grace. Our plans must have gone through at least a half-dozen incarnations before they were realized, and we re-negotiated the contract with the hotel four times. But when it was finally showtime, we knew what we wanted, and we knew what we were doing.
The Readers Studio
Shortly afterwards, the let-down hit. We were so used to working at a furious rate, our regular projects seemed almost boring by comparison. The community wanted us to do another event, and even though we had been swearing up, down and sideways that we would never do anything like that again, we were hooked!
We weren’t, however, hubristic enough to tempt the gods by planning another event of that magnitude. We decided to do something more intimate, yet we wanted it to be special—something that had never been done before.
After giving it a good deal of thought, we realized that what was missing from the tarot event calendar was a conference expressly designed for professional readers and teachers. The Readers Studio was originally created not only to serve the needs of more experienced tarotists, but to give instructors a rare opportunity to teach at their highest level.
The first Readers Studio was held in April, 2003. Attendance was capped at 78 seats and three top-notch teachers, Rachel Pollack, Mary Greer and Nina Lee Braden, presented in-depth practical workshops geared to raising everyone’s reading skills to the next level. The format was simpler than the festival’s but the feedback we received was very positive.
The Readers Studio became an annual event, open to tarot enthusiasts of all levels, and has grown over the years to become the largest tarot conference in the world (in spite of what we originally promised ourselves)! We've worked very hard to make each Readers Studio better than the last and it's our ongoing happy challenge to make that a continuing tradition.
A New Course Is Born
It takes 9 months (give or take) for a human baby to be born, and nearly two years for an elephant (!). The gestation period for our Birth Card Course was 6 years but we feel it was worth the wait. Actually, that's just the written expression of work we started in 1996 so comparatively, it wasn't that long after all. The study of Tarot Birth Cards began years before with Angeles Arrien and Mary K. Greer but we've taken it in an entirely different direction. (Even our method of calculating them is unique.) They are the primary pillar of our system of Tarot Psychology and have helped us understand ourselves and the important people in our lives in a way that nothing else has.
The Tarot Salon
Over the years, The Source of Life Center moved a few times and we always moved with them. In 2012 we were scheduled to move into a renovated location at the beginning of November. SuperStorm Sandy hit on October 29th and made a mess of everything! Even though the space was far from ready, the previous lease had run out and we had to move in. The energy in the space didn't feel good. Our students felt it too and stopped coming. It didn't take long before the tuition wasn't enough to cover our expenses of renting the space and commuting to the city. We left.
For awhile, we thought that was the end of our live classes. We considered holding them at our home in Queens but didn't think too many people would make the commute. (Being in midtown made it easy for folks to drop in after work.) But we missed teaching and decided to take a chance and see what happened.
Some of our students made the trip and a bunch more came from the local area. It was a wonderful, intimate experience — and much more cozy and comfortable than the conference room we were used to. We even served dinner afterwards so it was like having a party every Monday. We loved it! We'd probably still be doing that but …
Pivoting with the Pandemic
Covid-19 hit New York hard in March, 2020. We were scheduled to hold The Readers Studio a month later. Lockdown made that impossible. It was heartbreaking to cancel the event and we're not sure when we'll be able to hold it again. Wald caught the virus and almost died. Thanks to the love and healing support of the worldwide tarot community, he pulled through! We are forever grateful.
Obviously, we could no longer have groups of people in our home. (And as of this writing in 2022, we still don't.) Once again, we thought it was the end of our live classes. We joined the rest of the world and started holding them over Zoom. We were finally able to interact with students outside of New York City and it's been wonderful! We've already decided that even when we can host people at home again (fingers crossed), we'll still do the Zoom classes. It's actually a lot more work, but it's been extremely worthwhile.
Predicting the Future…
The evolution of The Tarot School has been organic, and we really can’t predict its future. We’ll keep teaching, of course, and we’d like to write more books. We’ll continue the programs we have in place, but new directions always come as a surprise. We look forward to discovering what those new directions will be, and to sharing the adventure of tarot with you!
— Ruth Ann & Wald Amberstone