Works: Lessons and Learning
|"The only things worth watching in this or any other world are those that identify and overcome the ordinary." Chuck Jones
"I guess the nicest thing that could happen to you is to enjoy the enmity of the incompetent." Bill Koehler
When I contributed a feature section to the June, 1987 issue of Genii, I provided much of the usual fare: a biography, an interview (ably conducted by Stephen Minch), an assortment of tricks and variety of photographs. I also provided a bit of the then not so usual, including a presentational script for a standard trick (Paul Harris' "Immaculate Connection") and an essay on presentation.
Since then, I have been pleased to see that essays have become more the norm, and tricks have taken a back seat in many issues featuring guest contributors. This time, I have decided to strike out yet a little further off the well-beaten path. There are no tricks in the pages to come.
And why should there be? As I say in my lecture, anyone who has been in magic more than five years already knows more tricks than we are ever going to do - well.
As my year-long series of "Shattering Illusions" essays draws to a close, it occurred to me that a feature issue could be used as an opportunity to devote the necessary space to a single theme, a subject that a lone essay could not adequately address. And so, welcome to the "Lessons and Learning" issue.
In fact, I have long considered writing an essay on the subject of teaching and learning magic. I have given regular private lessons since about 1986, and have served as a writer, director creative consultant and/or technical consultant to many magicians since the late 1970s, including Penn & Teller, Peter Samelson, and Jeff McBride. (I draw this connection because as a private instructor, I serve in all of these capacities at the same time.) Yet no single essay could begin to adequately confront the multitude of issues the subject raises. Indeed, even the pages that follow do not begin to reflect all I would like to say on the subject.
I quickly realized that there has been precious little, if anything, written in the literature of conjuring on the topic of teaching magic. And so I am abundantly aware that what follows is anything but the last word. Rather, I suspect it is little more than a prologue. But I hope that it is a worthy start that will lead to further intelligent discourse.
I have heard many tales from those who have sought magic lessons. Here in New York, Slydini was famous for his private instruction, and I have known many of his students. But since the time that Slydini brought supplicants to his mirrored lair, few magicians have become particularly known as teachers. Perhaps that is not quite true - certainly I have learned a great deal from many magicians - Johnny Thompson is one of the best teachers of magic one could ever hope to meet, as one example. But most of the discussion that drifts my way is stories of students who sign up with some self-styled instructor or another, only to be taken on a course that is littered mostly with the purchase of dealer tricks and self-working apparatus, with accompanying commentary that perhaps saves the students the effort of having to read the instructions for themselves. I once had a friend in Washington D.C. tell me of taking a magic class from a faintly well-known local magician. After several weeks of exploring gimmicked props, my acquaintance inquired as to when the class might learn some sleight of hand. To which his instructor responded, "Oh, I don't do sleight of hand; my hands are too small."
I hear many more accounts of experiences like this than I do of meaningful student/teacher encounters in conjuring. Yet I know that my own students have spoken highly of the productive impact that our lessons had upon their magic and indeed their lives, and I share that experience as well. Having challenging students around - students who are serious about learning, and who also have something to teach me, not only about magic but about themselves and about life - is an immensely rewarding and thought-provoking experience. For in magic, as in life, the process is the thing - and teaching is a process-oriented endeavor. When you find yourself having to explain concepts and sleights that you have long utilized or executed without always knowing precisely why or how, the need to communicate these elements becomes very demanding on your own abilities of objective inquiry. You are compelled to learn, if you are a teacher - if you are a person - of depth and integrity.
What you will find in the pages to come includes an essay by my friend and former student, Vic Sussman, which speaks in personal terms about his first-hand experience as a student and some of what he learned. Next you will find my final "Shattering Illusions" essay, entitled "Lessons and Learning." You will then discover a conversation between myself and one of the most experienced and thoughtful teachers of magic that I know - Eugene Burger. Although I have never taken a formal lesson from him (or from anyone else for that matter), he has certainly taught me a great deal over the years. I have, on occasion, sent my own students to him for consultation. It was logical for me to seek his perspective on this subject, and you and I are both fortunate that he has responded generously. There is more commentary to follow about some of the particulars of my teaching approach, and about some specific card sleights that I most often begin with.
Finally, the core of this special section is a series of presentational scripts for standard tricks, created and generously contributed by several of my students. I urge you to study them. While the occasional reader may, in fact, find that he or she can put these scripts, or portions of them, to actual use in his or her own performance that is beside the point. Rather I wish to illustrate by the inclusion of this material that magicians can and should create original scripts for their own performances that reflect their own unique personalities. I have met countless magicians who have spent their entire lives in magic and have never done this even once. And yet the examples here come from students who also had no prior experience; and yet both capable amateur and outright beginner alike have, with some guidance and encouragement from me, managed to do just that. Next time you say you can't write a presentation of your own, consider these examples. I say you can. But how hard are you willing to try?
So if you can indeed put some of the following pages into your act, feel free. But I caution you: what I provide here I provide foremost as example. As an example of what you can do, for yourself, as my students have done for themselves. It matters little if you actually know or use the tricks these scripts were created for. It matters greatly if you think about what these scripts accomplish, and consider attempting such achievements for yourself. And so, to make the most of this demonstration, I have in some cases included more than one script for the same trick. In this way you can see that there are wonderful opportunities awaiting you as an original creator and performer, if only you pry open the door to that path, and enter.
Jamy Ian Swiss
Introduction (top of page)
Magic as a Martial Art
Lessons and Learning essay
Conversation with Eugene Burger
Sleights and Scripts