When I perform my shows, I come out after the performance to meet & greet my audience. There are always five or six people, usually youngsters, who ask “How can I learn to be a magician”? Although this is a secretive art, I actually recommend some good places to start. Learning magic is seldom addressed in this age of marketing where the sale of magic tricks seems to dominate so much of today’s scene. I addressed some of this selling in an earlier blog called Learning Magic, but I want to go deeper today.
While pursuing my marketing degree at USC I took a course called Orgazational Behavior 302. I had a brilliant instructor for it named Stan Weingart. He laid out a system that would collect information, evaluate project performance, and compare this to goals and plans for a company and its departments. The better your monitoring and evaluation system, the more effective and competitive your business could become. I found this a very pragmatic approach to the learning magic. I started learning magic from books, hanging out at my local magic store, Hollywood Magic, and watching other magicians. In hindsight, I think I learned just as much from watching other magicians as I did from reading books. Sure the books taught me tricks and methods, but the observation taught me more intimate things that proved to be very important in my development as a stage magician. The careful observation of magicians like Ron Porter, Loren Michaels, Ray Pierce, Levent, and Lou Lancaster brought into question how I would present my own magic later.
Watching highly technical performers like Earl Nelson, Jonathan Neal or “salesy” performers like Scott Tokar forced me to ponder, “Is this how I want to come across when I take the stage”? I also watched comedy magicians like Mark Hendirckson and considered self deprecating humor. Would this suit my persona? In truth much of this observation seemed essentially negative. I was figuring out what I didn’t want to or could not be and storing it as fodder for my mill.
Magicians have been learning magic for centuries; since the time of Merlin. It’s mentor and apprentice. These eager souls felt a calling and would seek professional instruction from a magician whose abilities were great. This is the oldest method for transmission of magical knowledge and is still practiced today. Finding a mentor is invaluable.
Then there are books. This is where you’re going to find the greatest body of knowledge. It’s the way this last generation has passed its teaching on to this generation, my generation. Another benefit of reading books is that reading tends to cause you to think more outside the box, as your imagination runs freely into wondering how the author might have done the trick. It makes you proactive in your approach. But I’m reminded of a sad but true adage, “The best way to keep a secret is to put it in a book.”
We are fortunate to have thousands of magic videos nowadays. Looking at trade journals like Magic and Gennii magazine, you’ll see that a new one is released every week. Soon these will trump the number of books available to the student. The good ones make mastering the technical side of magic easier and faster. I remember when instructional magic videos first came out. They were available in VHS and Beta. Even then I chose books because the video tapes were limited in what they taught, and they were quite expensive ($60 apiece)! Today that price resistance is gone and they offer advantages. They are especially useful for learning particular sleights. If you want to learn the “diagonal palm shift,” I suspect you could read Erdanase’s Expert At the Card Table and still have difficulty understanding the timing of this sleight. But you can clearly see the timing and more on volume 7 of Dai Vernon’s Revelations DVD. No doubt, this is a wonderful aid for the student. However, for learning complete effects or routines videos are limited. Also, video learning encourages one to clone the person he or she is watching.
You could watch other magicians, guess at what they are doing, and later lift their tricks and/or routines. I have met countless teenagers, for example, who frequent Youtube, downloading anything that catches their fancy and trying to copy what they see. This is a disturbing trend among young magicians developing. Such is life in this information age. But as popular as this might be, it isn’t as easy as one might suppose. There’s the problem of “acquisition overload.” When you’re just burning through videos, you’re not taking the time to master anything. You’ll also encounter hassles and problems later on.
While the internet has become a great arena to for learning, it’s interesting that a student of music would never expect the result of proficiency at the violin from YouTube videos, but some students of magic would. In fact, I know personally a great many magicians who spend really long periods of time on the internet visiting forums and downloading videos. If we asked them what they think they are doing, I imagine they would answer, “We’re learning to be magicians.” But are they?
No doubt they are learning about magic, gathering information, data and knowledge, but are they really learning to be magicians? I could read dozens of books about swimming and collect dozens of opinions about it. Does this knowledge make me a swimmer? No. Reading the books and gathering the opinions about swimming may be important when I first splash into the water and dive in. I could have even been utterly confused had I not read the books or watched the videos. However, knowledge about something, whether learning to swim, drive a car or execute a simple card trick is not direct knowledge. And direct knowledge is what is needed to be a swimmer, driver or an illusionist.
Also the internet is a great big mask. With whom are you chatting? What do these people really know from direct experience and not from their thoughts, and thoughts about thoughts about magic? Since many on the internet choose not to use their real names, I suspect it is very difficult for the would-be learner, lacking in prior knowledge, to wade through all the ideas and suggestions that are offered and decide which are truly of value. Many of the ideas and suggestions that people (who admittedly want to be helpful) give on the internet to the would-be learner are quaint, blind, and often are a recipe for failure. Here are a few examples: One internet learner on Magic Café forum asks, “How should I vanish a coin?” Suggestions that are truly meant to be helpful piled in. “Coin pull, Raven, back palm, French Drop.” No one thought it necessary to ask the inquirer more before jumping in with suggestions. Maybe they should ask questions like, “What is the effect you are trying to achieve?” “What is your age?” “What is your present skill level?” “Why are you looking to anonymous people to answer your magical questions?” It’s like unemployment checks in the U.S. Asking online is certainly easier than working. These people want it fast and they want it free! Attempting to learn to be a magician from the internet is pitted with problems. Of course we are gaining knowledge, information, ideas, theories and data on the internet. But it all comes without a “User’s Guide.” It is knowledge without practical wisdom, without priorities, without a value system in place to tell me what is important and what isn’t.
Real astonishment involves a delicate surgical strike on the psyche of the viewer, and that is a highly complex, constantly changing battleground. Video learning often ignores technique, economy of delivery, clarity of effect, environmental conditions, audience frame of mind, context, sound, lighting, staging, character development, choreography, or costuming. Sorry, you just can’t learn all this from consuming lots of Youtube Videos. You probably can’t even learn it from books. As opposed to learning about magic, learning to BE a magician begins when you close the book, turn off the video player, power down the computer, and take out your props and begin the real journey.