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Works: Lessons and Learning
, May 1994

Magic as a Martial Art
Lessons and Learning essay
Conversation with Eugene Burger
Sleights and Scripts

"He who heeds the voice of his own heart, rather than the cries of the marketplace, who has the courage to teach and propagate what his own heart has taught him, will always be original. Honesty is the source of genius, and man would be more inventive if he were more moral." – Ludwig Borne

Essay: Lessons and Learning

A man takes an extended trip to visit China for the first time. After his first two weeks, he thinks to himself, "This is quite wonderful. I could write a book!"

After three months, he thinks, "This is really so interesting. I could write, well, part of a book."

After a year, he thinks, "I can't write anything - here's too much!"

When I was about 14 or 15, 1 taught several people how to swim. My first student was a boy of about IO or 11 who, while attractive and otherwise athletic, was deathly afraid of the water. This caused him a great deal of discomfort and social unease during the summer months. Being an excellent swimmer myself, I offered to teach him to swim. Although I had loved swimming as long as I could remember, was competent in many styles, dove from high boards at the age of 10 and had in fact earned my Advanced Scuba certification at 12, I intuitively grasped the fact that what my young friend needed was not a methodical, information-laden regimen, but rather a simple, direct, no-frills approach that would not intimidate him. And so I spent a good chunk of the initial lesson getting him to forget about his fear and simply dunk his head fully under the water, demonstrating to him that not only was he capable of doing this, but that in fact he could repeat the process continually without drowning. (This idea had, in fact, been used on me by a camp counselor when I was about five, and still deathly afraid of getting my face wet. I recall that we repeatedly played Ring-Around-the-Rose in the pool, dunking beneath the surface while holding hands on the final "All fall down!" I spared my adolescent friend the singing and choreography, however.) Having established that much, the rest was easy. I taught him to float via the traditional "dead man's float," which of course requires relaxation above all. I demonstrated to him how merely tensing his muscles, and/or lifting his head, was enough to promptly sink him. In the next lesson he held on to the edge of the pool and scissors-kicked his feet; in the same lesson we added breathing, with him turning his head from side to down and back again in order to breathe in the manner in which crawl stroke breathing is done. At this point I could cut him loose to swim at the surface, kicking and breathing without a stroke for short distances. And in the third lesson we added the actual stroke, i.e., the arms. It had taken less than a week, and he was a swimmer. The next week he was diving off the side of the pool, and not long after that the diving board. it was amazing, and wonderful; it was logical, and simple. Not exactly easy, although it may have seemed so. But simple, indeed. And this approach continued to work effectively for every student thereafter.

In my early twenties, I tried to teach magic a couple of times. I thought back to my experience of teaching swimming, and gained confidence from it; after all, I knew so much more about magic than I had ever known about swimming. I spent time researching in my library, and putting together material, planning a syllabus that I hoped would serve me for many students to come.

My failure was a complete one.

I couldn't quite discern the precise reason, but I had to be honest: my approach was not working. It seemed that I was making the very mistake that I had consciously set out to avoid in my swimming instruction: I was overloading my students with information that was not merely intimidating, but was distracting. It was preventing them from getting to the real heart of the matter; the most fundamental and important issues and skills.

But what, in fact, were those?

I didn't know. And try as I might, I could not make my way through the fog of information that filled my head to reach those important and fundamental principles. I could not get out from under that cloud of accumulated knowledge and expertise in order to make the choices that were necessary before I could even hope to begin to teach someone about magic.

I knew there was a problem. To some extent, I could identify its specifics. I didn't have a clue as to a solution. And so I gave up any further thoughts of teaching. Well, actually, I continued to think about it from time to time. But I refused to try and teach again, for a long time to come.

Until, as happened often to me - between 1980 and 1985, I came upon a few words of Eugene Burger's that transformed my thinking. For the life of me I have never been able to locate the exact passage again - and neither has Eugene - so perhaps I imagined the whole thing. But something he wrote led me to the sudden realization that no two students can be taught entirely the same way.

Of course! Every student is different! I had tried to standardize a format, a curricula, a syllabus that would serve every student. But magic is ever so complex and subtle and varied. No two students would excel or falter, be enticed or repelled, in precisely the same manner. Indeed, magic was not swimming! To get someone to overcome a single irrational fear, and then to learn a few simple mechanical skills, could indeed be taught quickly in a set pattern. But a course of instruction in magic would need to be ever so more ... fluid.

Since that time I have had a wide variety of students - beginners and professionals, short and long term-most quite wonderful. I have not merely been lucky - that is part of it - but I have been demanding of potential candidates. I teach primarily that I might learn, and for the pleasure that comes of that learning. And hence I must choose those who can teach me something - and I have not been disappointed. Many have become intimate, important friends, and most have become effective, original performers of magic. I suppose they too have not been disappointed. Two of my current students, in fact, commute to New York City from out of state; one from Washington D.C., the other from Boston. It is a flattering phenomenon.

One of the most important guiding principles behind my approach to teaching is the subject of goals. It's hard to achieve anything in life without defining one's goals. Goals need to be flexible, subject to review and revision, but in travelling pathways where the road markers may be few and far between, a goal, like the navigator's North Star, can provide a consistent reference point. Hobbyists may be interested in magic for many reasons: collecting books, collecting tricks, collecting moves, collecting methods. Occasionally, the somewhat passive activity of collecting is avoided in place of the more active pursuit of invention and creation, perhaps of tricks, moves, and/or methods. I have pursued some of these aspects of magic myself from time to time. But above all, I am interested in performance, and it is my personal belief-my prejudice, if you will - that this is the highest calling any self-styled magician can pursue. That may seem unfair; I do not mean it to be in the case of those who consider themselves clearly to be, primarily, historians, chroniclers, inventors or collectors. I have enormous respect and regard for all such serious experts. But I am often disturbed by the fact that so many hobbyists seem to me to be perpetually confused about these matters. I encounter many who claim to be magicians but, without any actual specialty, are actually merely magicians. Now I hasten to point out that there is certainly nothing in the slightest wrong with being a fan; I am and have been a fan with regard to many areas of human endeavor. But what troubles me is the confusion that so often seems to prevail. If you have a drawer full of the latest pocket and packet tricks at home, that does not mean that what you do has much to do with what I do. It does not mean that our goals and concerns are at all similar. In the abstract this would seem to be self-evident. In practice it seems to be incomprehensible to so many hobbyists. Especially the ones who, even as the audience is in the midst of their final applause, and you are stepping out of the spotlight, bathed in sweat, are asking you if that handling of Card Warp is your own. . .

It may appear that I have digressed, but in fact, that kind of confusion is precisely what I hope my students will avoid, which is one reason I restrict their exposure to other magic hobbyists and shops as much as possible. I would, if possible, like to teach the Top Change or palming while these things can still seem relatively easy - without the risk of contamination by the fears and prejudices and bad habits of others. But above all my goal for my students, and hence my students' goal, must be to become a performer of magic. All those other pursuits I mentioned previously are perfectly acceptable forms of human behavior only not for my students. If you wish to collect videotapes or packet tricks or any other such ephemera feel free, but not on my time. Not even if you pay me; you couldn't pay me enough.

And so, when a prospective student comes my way, we spend some time talking about these goals. If the student has limited exposure to contemporary conjuring performance, I may perform a sampling of magic of different styles and types of effects. I may also show a variety of magic on videotape - performance only, without explanation - by performers with striking and widely divergent styles. What I want to get out of this meeting is a sense of the student's innate tastes, exclusive of my influence. Is he captivated by effects with a mental flavor? Does she respond more to dramatic or comedic work? Do feats of skill garner an especially strong response? I know that it won't be long before, whether I like it or not, I risk imprinting my style of magic on the student as a standard. In an attempt to minimize such a skewed perspective, I wish to demonstrate immediately that magic can be effectively performed in a variety of styles other than my own. I want my student to have perspective, and the opportunity to become their own person-as-magician, just as they have already become their own self.

Most of my students have some background and experience with magic, varying from a handful of years to a lifetime. Although I have accepted a few beginners, I take particular pleasure in taking on students with at least some degree of experience. In general, the more years they have spent in magic, the less productive they have been. They rarely, if ever, can perform much of anything. If they can, they have never written a script. If they have, it probably wasn't original. In short, they have been raised by magic shops and magic clubs. They are in for a surprise. They are about to find out what they have never done.

But the good news - the great news, in fact - is that they are also about to find out what and how much they know, but didn't know they knew. You see, the wonderful thing about these students is that every time they hung around the magic shop or club, or bought yet another trick that they would try a few times and then dump into the drawer, they actually did learn something. They probably haven't been able to make much use of it, but they have gained some knowledge. Well, perhaps that is too generous a use of the. word "knowledge," but what they have done is continually added to a random hodgepodge of accumulated facts without an accompanying theoretical base. That theoretical framework, with the emphasis upon performance, is precisely what they are going to get from me. And that in turn will give them useful access to a wealth of previously useless, yet accumulated, knowledge.

And so, in the case of these students, I take a cue from Eugene Burger's book Secrets and Mysteries. I ask that, after purchasing a notebook (or a computer!) in which they will be recording ideas, scripts and other notes, the first thing they do is prepare three lists, with a spare copy for me. The first list consists oft hat trick or those tricks that the person can actually and completely, right at that moment, perform for someone other than themselves. The trick or tricks that, if presented with the opportunity to perform, they actually use at this time. It's usually a pretty small list. And, as you might guess, it's going to get smaller before it gets bigger.

The second list is of those tricks that the student is reasonably familiar with but is not really ready to perform. Perhaps he has spent a fair amount of time with a trick, but never gotten around to performing it. Perhaps he performed it at one time, but has not kept it fresh in his repertoire. Whatever the case, it is a trick that the student knows reasonably well and understands but does not feel ready to perform. This list is usually larger than the first.

The third list is in essence a "wish list," a list of those tricks that the student merely likes, and has perhaps thought at one time or another that he would like to do, but has never made the attempt. Perhaps he felt these tricks to be too demanding or difficult or time consuming, perhaps he merely never got around to it, or perhaps there's simply a trick that he never dreamed of attempting but that he has enjoyed seeing. This third list can often be a more accurate barometer of the student's tastes than the other two might be.

If nothing else, we have forced the student to make the attempt to think clearly about his magic, a concept that may indeed be new to him. But at least he has a notebook now, and he has written in it. It is a start.

At the first lesson, the student is required to perform as much of the first list for me as time will allow, just as if he was performing it for someone else, i.e., a "real person." I do not offer much comment here; I just want to see it all. This is an experience that can sometimes turn the student's world upside-down - and he may require a cup of strong tea or some such character bolstered before the session is out. Besides, the student is utterly terrified. But he may as well get accustomed to the idea of performing for me, because he's going to be doing a lot of that as time goes on. Because from beginning to end, this process will be about the student's development as a performer.

In case there is any confusion, let me attempt to clarify this concept of "performer" a bit further. A performer is one who can perform magic effectively. Not someone who can talk about it, describe it, think about it, or who confuses performance with demonstration. Demonstrating this week's latest over-the-counter novelty for the wife and kids is not performance. It's not even close.

Rather, a performer is someone who, having chosen his given magic trick carefully, has mastered every aspect of such a trick; he has dissected and analyzed and considered the effect and the method and the presentation, and has invested whatever time necessary to achieve full mastery of all these and other aspects of his trick. He has achieved perfect command of and proficiency in the technical requirements of handling the props and executing the sleights; he has chosen sleights that are of high standard and has achieved nothing less than perfect and professional mastery of them. Then he has given great thought and effort and time to creating and writing and editing and honing and polishing and re-writing and polishing again an original script. He has practiced the moves, learned the lines, and rehearsed the performance. And finally, when ready, and not a moment sooner - in the case of my students, when I say so! - he has begun the real work of performing this trick for people other than members of his household, and in doing so has continued to revamp and update and refine the technical and presentational aspects of his performance, based upon the feedback and response of his audiences, until, at last, he has achieved a presentation worthy of professional performance. That he may have no intention of ever performing professionally is quite beside the point -because money has nothing to do with the pursuit of excellence. (If you cannot provide your own plethora of examples from life in evidence of this premise then I fear my doing so would serve little useful purpose. I mean, really - just turn on the television for a moment ... )

Now what about "collecting" a repertoire of such performance pieces? Well, one only requires - especially as an amateur - a handful of such routines to achieve an effective and complete performance. In many cases one trick will suffice, and in most, three or four will certainly establish the sense that the audience has been privy to a complete program or, if you will, show. For the goal is simply this: that at the completion of such a show, the audience regard the performer as just that - a performer in every sense of the word. That they regard him simply as a magician, without caveat, excuse or apology. Simply: a magician. Better yet, perhaps the greatest magician they have ever seen or could imagine seeing. (Note that Robert-Hoyden said that a magician is an actor playing the part of a great magician!) That's right; a performance of (perhaps unexpectedly) professional caliber, and nothing less. That, ultimately, is the goal. And this goal will not be achieved by a huge repertoire of half-asset, incompetent, slovenly executed over-the-counter trash tricks. Rather, it requires very few tricks indeed. And so the "collecting" aspect is, in the end, up to the student. After the first three or four tricks, I don't care what he does concerning repertoire. It is entirely his choice; a function of time, and a reflection of his level of interest. In other words, it has, at that point, very little to do with me or anything I can control. If these goals - including the pursuit of excellence - are not congruent with the potential student's nature, then perhaps he would be better served by going to the magic store and purchasing some novelty. Then again, both he and the art of magic would probably be better served by his pursuit of some less demanding activity - although I cannot at the moment think of any field of human endeavor that cannot be well served by personal integrity, high standards, and the pursuit of excellence. Can you?

"At any given moment, you can learn." – Pablo Casals (at age 92)

Magic as a Martial Art
Lessons and Learning essay (top of page)
Conversation with Eugene Burger
Sleights and Scripts

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