The Greatest Teacher

Yesterday I was going through some old files, searching for any more material Suzanne might have sent me, when I found the remains of a project begun several years ago. Written in conjunction with another magician, the project was to be a work on the essentials of doing magic successfully. What I found interesting was how much of what I was writing then mirrors what I’ve been saying on this blog — some of the things I said just yesterday could’ve come whole cloth from the piece. Anyway, as I have nothing else to post today, here’s the first chapter of that work titled “The Greatest Teacher.”

Magicians tend to idolize teachers of the art. The main reason this is so can be attributed to the fact that the vast majority of magicians are obsessed with how tricks are done rather than how to do them — that is, how to best perform them. As most of the material taught deals with how tricks are done, anyone who is able to clearly communicate the workings of a trick, the methods, is held in the highest esteem, is lauded as a great teacher. It is not unusual for prolific creators and purveyors of methods to obtain iconic stature; they become veritable demi-gods in the magic universe, their names employed with near religious reverence by legions of hyper loyal acolytes.

One of magic’s dirty little secrets is that some of its most vaunted creators and teachers were, at best, mediocre performers. True, they developed approaches and techniques of considerable value — along with a great number of monstrosities, if truth be told — but if they’d been required to earn their sustenance by performing for real world audiences, as opposed to other magicians, most would have surely starved. Many possessed only a rudimentary sense of showmanship…and some none at all.

We point this out not to diminish the accomplishments of these individuals, but to work from a base of truth. The simple fact is that of the legendary teachers in magic, past and present, only a handful were competent performers and only a very few ever touched upon the knowledge that will make you a better magician. This is easily evidenced by the fact that names that any magician would recognize, and whose words are quoted as gospel, are completely unknown to the public at large. Conversely, performers with names that laymen would recognize are often cited in the magic world as bad magicians! Think about that for a moment: Those who succeed in fulfilling the primary objective of the magician, to entertain with magic, are quite often looked down upon. True, most didn’t produce books aimed at other magicians, so aren’t praised as great teachers. Why? Maybe because they were too busy actually performing magic for the real world instead of a lot of other magicians who hoped only to discover a clever new move.

The real problem with this state of affairs is that the new magician, wishing to learn more about his art, is directed to the teachings of these masters and is quickly consumed with the methodologies that constitute the greater part of their work. Any advice that they uncover on how to do magic is often erroneous or untested. They are led to believe that those they most admire, those public performers who probably sparked their initial interest in the art, are not good magicians — never mind their success! Soon they are totally consumed with the methods of magic and are eagerly directing others in the same direction. Thus the cycle repeats itself ad nauseam with only a very few ever breaking free to discover the important truths.

Magic is a performing art. Yet some of its best known “experts” could not perform. At least ninety percent of all the available information pertaining to the art of magic deals with the techniques of deception — and that’s a conservative estimate. Ironically, even though magic is a performing art, the performance of magic, in the magic world, is often viewed as of incidental or no importance at all.

If we work from the position that the greatest part of that taught about magic is concerned solely with the technical, and that magic’s greatest teachers often were poor performers, where do we turn to learn how to perform?

When it comes to learning how to do magic, as opposed to how it works, there is no greater teacher than an audience.

Your audiences can teach you more about how to do magic than any book you’ll ever read, video you’ll ever watch, or lecture you’ll ever attend. If you’ll listen to what they’re saying. Most magicians can’t or won’t.

Ever had the experience of watching a bad magician perform? Ever ask yourself why that bad magician didn’t seem aware that no one was laughing at his jokes — some might’ve even been groaning — or why at the conclusion of his performance the best he elicited was a polite smattering of applause? Was he even aware that the audience existed at all?

Probably not. Many magicians seem so involved in either the mechanics of what they’re trying to do or are so unsure of themselves or are so convinced that what they’re doing is good, that they completely ignore the responses the audience gives them. Upon the completion of a performance, if they somehow noticed that the audience was less than enthralled, they will console themselves with the lie that they just had a bad audience.

That is the biggest lie you can ever tell yourself, and if you take nothing else from this work please read the next two lines carefully and apply them to your magic: There are no bad audiences, only bad performers. The audience is always right.

That’s not to say that there aren’t audiences that are more difficult to work for than others. A group of drunken men at a bachelor party would be a much tougher crowd to entertain with magic than a group at a church social. However, it is from those really tough audiences that one can learn the most, because their positive reactions will be genuine — they’re a lot less likely to give you good reactions just to be polite. Max Malini, one of the greatest close up entertainers ever, honed his showmanship by busking in saloons as a young magician. Imagine how difficult it would be to walk into a tavern and perform magic powerful enough to engender the crowd to cough up money when you passed the hat. Tough audiences can teach you priceless lessons about what works and what doesn’t.

If you’re doing something and the audience is not responding favorably, there’s a problem with what you’re doing. It’s that simple. Again, the audience is always right. Therefore, the first step is becoming aware that the audience exists. Remember, the whole point of doing magic is to entertain — not yourself, but an audience! Far from being some abstract part of the equation, they are the most integral part! Without them you’re not an entertainer and you can’t truly be a magician. Doesn’t it make sense to treat them with the importance they deserve?

Next, you must focus on what the audience’s reactions are saying. In order to do that you’ll have to know what you’re doing so well that you can concentrate on the audience and not your props, the secret move, that great gag, etc. We’ll cover this in more detail later, but for now suffice it to say you must know your material so well that you don’t have to think about what you’re doing while you’re doing it.

Finally, you must apply the lessons the audience is teaching you. It does little good to focus on the audience’s message if you’re not going to use it to make your magic better. This is where many magicians run into trouble. They are so in love with a certain trick or move that they continue to use it even when the audience is telling them that it’s not good. The fact is, it doesn’t matter what you like. If you can’t find a way to make them like it then it should be eliminated. They will tell you the truth if you will listen.

In conclusion, the greatest teacher a performer can ever have is his audience. If you will use that knowledge to your advantage, you’ll be light years ahead of most magicians. Listen to what they’re saying and apply it. They are the best teacher because they are never wrong.

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