|"Mistakes in a magician's practice mirror appear smaller than they really are." Jamy Ian Swiss
"You cannot substitute illusion for intelligence." Teller
The Aim and Responsibility of Teaching
A Conversation with Eugene Burger
Jamy Ian Swiss: Eugene, how long have you been giving private lessons?
Eugene Burger: Since the early 1980s.
JIS: Do you have a preference in students - beginner, intermediate, or advanced?
EB: I have worked with only a few beginners over the years. Mostly, I deal with magicians who have been involved with magic over some length of time and who have specific material on which they want to work. In this sense, I see what I do more as coaching than teaching magic from scratch.
JIS: I rarely accept absolute beginners. Teaching them is very demanding -and we don't really need any more magicians anyway! I have had my share of beginners, and they have indeed done well - but it has been difficult for the both of us. What do you look for in a student?
EB: I'm really only interested in students who themselves have a deep interest in learning - which is to say, growing and changing - and also who have a love for magic as an art.
JIS: I know that you do consulting and directing for professionals, and also give limited lessons to magicians visiting Chicago, but do you always have a few long-term students on hand? And, if you do, how long do they study with you?
EB: Since the student comes with a specific goal - working on a definite routine or putting together an act or a show - when the student sees that the goal has been achieved, the sessions are completed. I am a bit suspicious of the idea of long-term students. Fritz Perls, the founder of Gestalt therapy, humorously talked about the traditional therapist who finds six patients to support him for the rest of his life. That isn't what I'm looking for, since I believe the ultimate aim and responsibility of teaching is to make the teacher obsolete, to make the teacher unnecessary, to move beyond the teacher so that one learns to become one's own teacher. So I don't encourage students to study with me forever! When the student has gotten what he or she wants, it is time to move on. But, again, I only rarely deal with those who have little prior knowledge of magic. Mostly, I work with individuals who have specific material in mind.
JIS: How do you explain your style of teaching to a prospective student?
EB: I don't. I simply begin. Of course, it's basically problem-solving, because students begin by performing the material they bring to me, and I work with them to make it more powerful and effective. At first, they are usually very nervous indeed. I explain that if they can perform for me, they can perform for anybody!
JIS: I've often said precisely the same thing to my own students.
EB: I think most good teachers would indeed say that very thing. And in addition to performing for me, if possible I try to have the student record their performance on videotape. That way, during our session, the student can look at him or herself as they might watch a third person, more or less objectively.
JIS: What are your goals as a teacher?
EB: As I know you do in your teaching, I concentrate on
performance. The student has come to me because of a desire to become a better performer of magic, and so the aim of my teaching is to help facilitate this.
JIS: What are your lessons like?
EB: Well, sometimes the student isn't present physically! Often, individuals send me video recordings of their performances and I watch them three or four times and then a final time, pausing the tape and typing out my notes which I mail. In other words, my starting point in my sessions with a student is always the student's performance. And the question is always how that performance can be made stronger and more effective.
JIS: Did it take time to evolve your theory and approach to teaching?
EB: Absolutely! When I first began teaching magic in the early 1980s, I don't think I was very good at it. My teaching style, if one could call it that, was far too influenced by my previous experiences in church and university teaching. In those hallowed halls, the teacher talks and the student tries to remember what the teacher said. It is all quite verbal and conceptual. And the student can become too passive and accepting.
JIS: And teaching magic is quite different.
EB: Yes, teaching individuals to perform magic is more like teaching them to drive an automobile than like teaching a body of information or facts. This explains why some highly informed magical enthusiasts are really awful performers. They are like people who have read the manuals about automobile driving and who know what to do in their heads; it's just that they can't do it.
JIS: Well, in the final analysis, there is simply no substitute for the act and experience of performing. I help students to learn the best ways to prepare for that experience, but the process cannot be completed without an audience.
EB: Exactly! It is, of course, true that when we learn to drive an automobile we typically first get as much data as possible. Yet, after we've gathered this knowledge and digested it as best we can, then we then must sit behind the wheel of a real car, turn the key and put our head-knowledge into practice in the real world. So it is with a person who wants to learn magic. There is a great deal of head-knowledge to be gathered before performing any magical effect but, eventually, the would-be magician must get behind the wheel and begin performing. It is this process that the magical teacher seeks to assist and encourage. The teacher is there to observe what the student is doing and then to offer suggestions for the student to consider to increase the power of the performance. This, hopefully, does not mean that the student simply imitates the teacher (as is, unfortunately, common in so much magical teaching) but that, together, the student and the teacher work to uncover the student's own way.
JIS: It was that discovery that, I think, finally enabled me to become an effective teacher. Helping the student to find his or her own way is perhaps the greatest challenge for a teacher to meet. It certainly requires more than mere conjuring skills.
EB: At its best, I believe that the art of teaching magic means establishing a dialogue with the student around this common goal of creating a unique and more effective performance. Need I add that the teacher is not always an infallible guide in this? The teacher's ideas, like any ideas, must be tested and evaluated by the student. And in this process the student learns to become the teacher - and the aim and responsibility of teaching has been realized.
JIS: I think we have both come to enjoy the opportunity to learn from our students as much as the opportunity for them to learn from us. Thanks, Eugene.
Magic as a Martial Art
Lessons & Learning essay
Conversation with Eugene Burger (top of page)
Sleights and Scripts
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