The Evolution of Learning Magic

Magic has evolved through the passage of time. It started with the mentor-student relationship where coveted secrets were passed on from one person to another. Self-written manuscripts, the development of book binding and then printing allowed knowledge to be shared through books which was the main mass medium to learn magic in the 19th & 20th century. At the end of the 20th century, videos in the form of VHS tapes and then DVDs brought mass visual medium to the teaching of magic. The 21st century has seen the rise of the Internet and its various form of social media as the new generation of magic teaching.

I find it somewhat amusing that each generation seems to look down on the previous one and vice versa. Subsequent generations look back at older mediums as antiquated and previous generations look at newer mediums as inadequate, superficial and not all-encompassing.

I am lucky enough to develop my magic knowledge over a period of times that has spanned the different “learning generations”. When I first got into magic, books were the medium to learn magic. VHS video tapes were really just getting popular. This was naturally pre-DVD/ pre-Internet/ pre-Blaine. I did not have a single mentor who was instrumental in my fundamentals in magic, but I had a number who helped me tremendously to grow in my formative years in serious magic.

Of course, my learning of magic never stopped. I embrace the new mediums of today and have learnt much from them but still acquire much of my knowledge from books. I also learn a lot from watching magicians (good and bad) as well as talking to them and sharing ideas.

My personal first preference to learn magic is definitely books. Because books require the reader to read, understand, interpret, visualize and then force you to “figure” out what something should look like. This path makes your interpretation of the handling and effect idiosyncratic, creating a unique version of the same thing. Many times, a brand new effect or technique handling is created because the reader interpreted it differently than the author intended.

To me, magic is a thinking art both for the performer and the audience. The performer has to think and understand what the effect is, then think and understand why & how certain techniques or methods are used. The magician then has to think how to communicate the effect to the audience;  in the best possible way to be succinct, entertaining and maximizing the magical effect or impact of the act.

The audience thinks when watching magic because magic is an intellectual art. The very nature of magic goes against what the human mind sees as natural so it take thinking to process the “unnatural” magic effect presented by the magician which results in the “amazement” or “astonishment” effect the audience feels.

Visual mediums like DVDs and YouTube tend to eliminate this “thinking learing phase” of magic to a large extent because when the video instruction shows a certain method to do something, it eliminates interpretation from the learner. Because, he/ she sees it as it is meant to be, there is little room for interpretation. As a result, the mind also subsequently picks up on certain idiosyncratic performance bits as part of the learning process. This is the reason you see many magicians look and sound the same when they are performing an effect learnt from a video. The mind will not naturally differentiate between technical applications and performance traits or “bits of business”.

Books require the reader to learn technical applications then think about how he/ she needs to present the effect. DVDs tend to teach the viewer to memorize moves or to get to point A to point B with a series of technical moves. But the why is not easily taught through video and subsequently internalized by the viewer.

Magic utilizes psychological and technical methods to create an illusion in the minds of the audience. Every move, every prop, every word, every action, every pause, every gesture is calculated and motivated. It is an elaborate orchestra of dexterity, custom-designed apparatus, verbal & visual misdirection to create a magical effect. So, great thought must be put into understanding why and how the above come together to create magic.

If you are learning magic by memorizing moves and scripts, you will be able to do a magic trick for a specific performing environment but you will not be a magician. You will not know how to adapt, change and modify your magic to replicate the magic effect if your environment changes slightly.

The nature of learning from books trains your mind to understand the essence of the effect.

Having said that, DVDs are excellent from learning technical skills like sleights or specific technical moves. I agree, it is easier to learn a Zarrow Shuffle from a video than from a book. It will also be faster. technical fundamentals are generally not open to as much subjective interpretation as compared to performance routines.

With new media like YouTube, students of magic can have an access to more performance material than ever before, without cost or even leaving their rooms. The exposure to multiple styles of magic is staggering and unparalleled.

As you grow in magic, you will also need new levels of books, DVDs and people to learn from. It has nothing to do with the fact that you are turning your back on past “teachers” but it is just the natural process of growing. If you are studying for a Master’s degree, would you be referencing your “O-Level” textbooks? Of course not.

As with anything in life, the key is balance. I suggest all students of magic, young & old, pre-video/ post blaine/ pre Copperfield etc, be open to all forms of learning and indulge in different mediums. It is the integrated approach to learning that will make you a more complete student and a thinking magician.

Consider this, the top professionals of our current day are students of magic who started with books or mentors and embrace all the other new mediums as they are introduced. So, why wouldn’t you?


About J C Sum

International Headline Entertainer, Content Creator and Investor
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