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Learning Magic / Learning in General
10.29.10

 

Several years ago, I started taking magic lessons as a result of proximity. After moving to Los Angeles, I searched for "best of los angeles" knowing that numerous websites often have compilations of great things to do within a city. Somewhat uniquely, a magic class with Mark Wilson at the Magic Castle appeared.
 
I know who Mark Wilson is. When I was a kid, intrigued by the idea of learning magic, I bought his book. Unfortunately, I never read it but obviously always remembered this potential hobby that I never developed. Upon hearing of his class, I was quite enthused at the possibility of learning from a giant. I would later learn that the Magic Castle had named Mark one of the top 10 magicians of the 20th century -- a list that included Harry Houdini and Lance Burton.
 
Eventually, I was able to take class with Mark and his wife Nani as well as take, frankly, every single magic class the Castle offers. (Magic I -> IV plus a course called "School for Scoundrels" that teaches scams like the 3 card monte, among other tricks.)
 
I still study magic, now under the tutelage of a magician named Shoot Ogawa. Shoot's resume is quite long -- among other awards, he's won magician of the year 4 times from the Magic Castle (twice in close-up and twice in parlour). He's frankly one of my favorite magicians to watch -- both in terms of pure technical skill and entertainment value.
 
I'm strictly a hobbyist. I perform magic for fun -- yet I train with one of the best magicians in the world. Why? 
 
I enjoy studying under Shoot because I find learning under someone that I think is really good at his craft and at teaching to be incredibly helpful. Let me list out 3 things that may seem terribly obvious in retrospect, but certainly wasn't so for me.
 
1. Details
 
Once you start to learn magic, it's not terribly difficult to master a new trick. Assuming you have a strong technical foundation, each new trick is some compilation of previous techniques strung together. It's more artful than what I make it sound -- but in terms of purely performing the trick, most tricks have some similarity to other tricks.
 
Shoot said something which I found very instructive. He said that magicians are often lazy in terms of working on their craft because the magic is so powerful. My interpretation of this is that magic tricks can be overwhelmingly well designed -- to the extent that most every layperson might be amazed and fooled -- certainly the first time seeing a trick. However, because of this, the magician then starts to believe that he/she was the one that brought the trick to life rather than using the trick itself for a baseline. Consequently, all the added aspects of creating a great performance -- from what's said to how it's conveyed to how the trick is setup, etc. -- is often glossed over.
 
Today, we reviewed a trick that I've performed many times in the past -- a trick I call "prediction card." It's probably one of my strongest tricks in terms of audience reaction. However, I started to think of all the little gaps where maybe what I was saying wasn't quite strong enough or maybe I wasn't connecting with the audience as well as I could've. For example, adjustments in what I say if I'm performing the trick for a couple of a group of strangers. Or adjustments in what I say based on how the spectator responds to a set of instructions. But it's this continual refinement that's what's necessary -- I think -- for this trick to elevate itself. I think my performance is good right now. However, I've seen Shoot and others of his caliber perform -- and there's a sizable gap between my performance and theirs. He thinks it's these details that I need to work on to close that gap.
 
2. Depth of Practice
 
I don't practice enough. I should clarify this. I practice. I work on the trick until I remember it. Then I practice it on my friends. Then I perform it at the Castle. Over time, I refine my technique and bring back problems to Shoot. However, when practicing or preparing, I'm only practicing or preparing technically. I realized today that I spend very little time practicing on the art / entertainment side. I don't spend enough time imagining the audience. Trying to determine what I could say -- or more importantly, all the different options based on how the audience might react. With a fair amount of casual performance under my belt, I'm starting to be able to imagine what an audience member might do or say. I need to more fully prepare myself for these situations and then road test it.
 
3. Technical Skill vs. Performance
 
It's funny, we never learn self-working tricks. It's something that I'm glad about because I want a very strong technical foundation of magic so that I obviously have a broad base of knowledge and also to be able to do progressively more difficult tricks over time. However, we learned a self-working trick today and I'm quite grateful for it. It's a very powerful trick that, frankly, is almost indistinguishable from many other tricks I do. In other words, while this one requires far less technical skill, I doubt most audience members will realize that. So why is this trick so valuable? Because the key to the trick is the performance -- and that's something that I want to build. The other week, Shoot coached me on one of my tricks exclusively on body language. In fact, he demonstrated the trick completely non-verbally to show what I could improve and give me a sense of what the audience could be feeling. For this trick, from my patter to my body language to my overall performance -- that's the real key to making it something special for the audience.
 
I think one of the powerful things, thematically, about some of these lessons is that they're applicable everywhere. Getting the details right. It takes a lot of work to do something well. And doing something well is different than performing it well and entertaining others while doing it. They're seeming basic lessons that people remember but for me, at least, they're good reminders to always get all the nuts and bolts right and the bigger stuff will take care of itself.

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