Originally published in Genii Magazine
How shall I learn to be a magician?
This appears to be an exceedingly important question, but one that is seldom deeply explored in our time when the marketing and selling of magic seems to dominate so much of our thinking about magic. Yet, it is a basic question and needs to be addressed by anyone who is seriously interested in our magical art.
When I was young, I learned about magic from books and from watching magicians perform, live or on television. Looking back, I think I learned as much about magic from watching other magicians as I did from the books. Books taught me about tricks and methods, but observation taught me other things that proved to be much more important for my own development as a magician. Observing other magicians raised questions for me about how I might present my own magic.
Observing rude and obnoxious performers, for example, raised questions in my mind about whether that was the kind of person I wanted to play when I took the stage as the performer. In truth, much of this observation seemed essentially negative: I was discovering what I didn't want to be. Looking back on it, that discovery, when carried over into action, was a great treasure.
So how shall you learn to be a magician? Four answers seem obvious. First, you might begin reading books about magic. In the past two hundred years, books have been very important in passing on magical knowledge to succeeding generations and so it seems rather sad that so many have lost -- and are losing -- the love of reading.
Second, you might begin watching instructional magic video tapes. Frankly, I think that videos are wonderful in two specific ways: on the one hand, they are the archival records of performers that we can enjoy long after they are dead and, on the other, magic videos are very helpful in learning particular sleights. Imagine that you wanted to learn a Shuttle Pass with coins. I suspect that you could read David Roth's excellent book and still have difficulty understanding the timing of this sleight. The timing of the move, however, is something that you can see on his video tape -- and that, indeed, is a wonderful aid for the serious student. For learning complete magic tricks or routines, unfortunately, video tape learning tends to produce monkey-performers who simply imitate what they have seen and heard. It gets pretty uncreative and dull.
Third, if you want to learn to be a magician you might seek some personal instruction from a magician you abilities you respect. Actually, this is probably the oldest method for the transmission of magical knowledge, extending far back into time before written records.
Fourth, you can watch other magicians (live or on television) and try to figure out what they are doing and then steal their tricks and routines. This path, however popular it might be, isn't as simple as one might suppose: I'm afraid those who follow it inevitably face hassles and problems and -- and perhaps even general "bad karma" in life.
Is there a fifth way to learn to be a magician? I think it is truly fascinating that many involved with magic seem to believe that there is. This fifth way is to go onto the Internet and try to learn magic from others in cyberspace. I know quite a few magicians who spend really long periods of time on the Internet, visiting magic web sites and chat groups. If we asked them what they think they are doing, I imagine they would tell us that they are learning to be magicians.
But are they? That's the question I would like to ask you to consider.
Please understand, I have no doubt that the cyberspace student of magic is indeed learning about magic. These people are quite obviously gathering information, data and knowledge. But are they really learning to be magicians? I can, for example, read dozens of books about driving a car, and collect hundreds of opinions about it, but does this knowledge-in-the-head make me a driver? Reading the books and gathering opinions about driving a car may be very important when I first get behind the wheel and turn the key in the ignition. I may, in fact, have been utterly lost if I had not read the books (or watched the video tapes). Yet, "knowledge about" something -- whether driving a car or a simple card trick -- is not direct knowledge. And it is direct knowledge that is needed if one wishes to be a driver or a magician. Knowledge-in-the-head is never enough.
Unfortunately, the path of trying to learn to be a magician on the Internet really is a path filled with brambles and thistles. The would-be cyberspace learner of magic faces real perils. First of all, with whom are you talking -- and what do these people really know from direct experience and not simply from their thoughts about 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, who lacks prior knowledge, to wade through all the ideas and suggestions that are offered and decide which are truly of value.
This difficulty leads us to another: many of the ideas and suggestions that people (who, admittedly, want to be helpful) give on the Internet to the would-be learner really are dumb and stupid.
A few examples will explain my point. One Internet questioner, on a magic board, asked, "How should I vanish a card." Suggestions that were truly meant to be helpful rolled in: a Card Box, a Himber Wallet, a Devil's Handkerchief. No one, it seemed, thought it necessary to ask the questioner some further questions before jumping in with their suggestions -- questions such as, What is the effect you are trying to achieve? How old are you? What is your present skill level? And perhaps even why are you looking to anonymous people to answer your magic questions? And the list goes on.
On another chat group, a questioner posed the following question on Wednesday: "I have a show on Friday night in three parts: precognition, clairvoyance and telekinesis. Can anyone suggest a precognition effect?" In the dozen responses that I read, each of which suggested concrete tricks for the questioner, no one told him the truth: namely, if this is his goal, he was an idiot and, further, he doesn't have a show! -- though he does seem to have a dream of one! No one bothered to tell him that two days are certainly not enough time to put a mentalism piece together and make it entertaining for a real audience. People were kind and wanted to help this questioner but no one addressed a fundamental issue: an intelligent student of magic does not ask anonymous individuals for new material on Wednesday to be performed on Friday. And intelligent magicians don't encourage such thoughtless behavior in other magicians by suggesting tricks that they might "perform."
The bottom line for me is this: I think attempting to learn to be a magician on the Internet is filled with perils. Of course, we are gaining knowledge, information, ideas, theories, 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, it is a glut of information and little more.
Do you want to learn to be a magician? Honestly? Come closer. I want to whisper something in your ear: As opposed to learning about magic, learning to be a magician begins when we close the book, turn off the video player, turn off the computer and take out our mirrors and cards or coins or whatever -- and begin the real work!
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