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Lessons in Magic and Life:
A Firsthand Account

by Chris Ivanovich Ragaisis

I recently came across the following question in an on-line magic discussion group:
>What do people think of magic lessons? Are they worth it or do they
>kill your creativity and make you a copy of your teacher?

You may as well ask, are books or videos worth it? And while I have different answers to each of these, for the present let's address the question of lessons.

Let's draw an analogy:

You want to learn to play the violin. You have three choices: (1) read a book and give it a shot, (2) buy a video and give it a shot, or (3) find a teacher and give it a shot. I'm willing to bet that almost anyone would opt for choice number 3.

Of course you get a teacher! This person guides you on your way, suggests the appropriate study materials (including books and perhaps videos), tests you to make sure that you have learned the lessons, and specifically tailors the lessons to meet your individual needs and requirements. The teacher will also work out your weak points, and teach you a host of other things that you might not think are germane to the process at the moment but will be invaluable down the road, including the history of the subject, movement, diction, current trends, discussions, points of contention, and more.

But all of this assumes that you have found a good teacher.

When you're starting to learn (and often further down the road as well), one of the problems with books and videos is that you probably don't know enough about the subject to objectively judge which way you should proceed to master the material. I've seen people who think that their double-lift looks as good as Dingle's. They honestly think that. They can't see the great disservice that they do to magic and themselves by not having an expert give an informed opinion.

In my case, I started out apprenticed to a magician for a summer. He taught me two tricks - one of which I performed for groups of 200-300 a few times a day on stage, and another was a card trick that I could use in close-up situations. Both of these relied on sleight of hand.

After that summer, I continued to read books, watched a couple of videos (the Tannen's "Stars of Magic" video series was then brand new) and started performing a lot. About five years later I was the house magician at three different night clubs, did restaurant work, and a host of corporate and private parties.

So 12 years after I started down this road, I decided to take lessons. After all, I was experienced, pretty good, and just needed a little professional honing to really get on track.

I contacted Jamy Ian Swiss. He made me audition.

After a pretty grueling 40 minutes of my best material (and I had another 30 minutes to do yet), he asked me to take a break so we could go over a few things.

Jamy: "You have a pleasant way about you. But everything that you've done was junk."

He then proceeded to explain his statement, and to support it by way of demonstrating alternatives. I was, to say the least, heartbroken.

So we started a course of study that lasted for two years. We covered essential sleight of hand with coins, cards, and small objects. We discussed history, theory, misdirection, how to move, how to breathe, how to stand, how to sit, and how to speak. We covered creating your own material, how to write jokes, what humor was and its uses, the timing in presentation, and the approaches of magic's greats to all of these issues.

So what makes lessons from Jamy worth taking?

I have to say that it's a combination of three things.

First, Jamy is as accomplished a magician as you could hope to meet. He has expert knowledge and facility in close up with cards, coins, or anything you can put in his hands. His knowledge of stage and platform magic is right on par, as well. I never found a magical concept that was not only knowledgeable enough to teach, but able to perfectly demonstrate.

Second, Jamy is not only a great magician with years of experience, but he understands how to teach. He is able to impart this, clearly and distinctly, to his students.

Third, Jamy has a plan. You don't just learn moves and tricks. If that's all you care about, buy a video. If you want to be able to handle the inside work, you need the lessons. Jamy has developed a logical, pedagogical approach to the teaching of magic. Sure, you learn sleights, and effects that use them, but there is so much more. He teaches the craft of magic - sleight of hand, manipulation, timing, and misdirection. He teaches the basic stagecraft we need in order to effectively perform - how to stand, how to move on stage, how to write (and, in my case, how to write comedy complete with timing and punch), and how to entertain the audience with magic without insulting it. But, and people tend to forget this, he teaches you how to actually learn magic - how to read a magic book so you can pick out the important aspects of an effect (or even what makes a good effect for you and your style), how to watch a magic video, how to break an effect into it's component parts in order to make it all come together as one natural, cohesive piece, how to practice, and how to rehearse. And he also teaches you the history of the art and craft, in order to tie everything together; you'll have no idea of where you are going if you don't know where you came from. He will work with you on your performance character, so that not only do you come across as a unique entity in the world of magic, but you will develop a basis upon which you can determine which effects are right for you, and help you in the creation of something that you could never get by working alone: a whole that is far greater than the sum of it's parts.

Magic is more than money to Jamy. It's an art for which he has a great deal of love and respect. He's able to show this, and help you to see it, too. There is real inspiration to be found there.

Maybe the cap on all of this is that when I took lessons, there was a goal - I wanted to go out there and work. After two years of lessons I came to a point where Jamy told me that while he could spend lots of time showing me more moves and effects, the lessons were at an end. I now had what was necessary to go and work out the rest of what I needed to grow as a magician on my own. In fact, it was imperative that this would be my next step. He was able to see that his job was done before I could. And so he sent me on my way - although, four years later, there isn't a move I learn, a routine I do, or a magic effect that I see that I don't hear Jamy still guiding me along the path to learn the magic. Those lessons can never be over, and Jamy is still my guide.

And so, after all this, we return to that initial question: Are lessons worth it?

If you want to be professional - in your approach, your performance and your follow-through - how can you not consider a professional instructor?

Show me a book, or video, or even a collection of books and videos that does what these lessons did for me.

And oh, by the way, think about how long you'd study the violin, practicing every day and then integrating rehearsals with your practice, before you'd be ready to solo for a paying audience.

And don't you dare go out and charge an audience if you've given your magic even one minute less.

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