I mentioned previously how certain fundamentals of learning only take place ‘in the field’. Learning in the classroom only ever takes the student halfway. The other half comes from ‘trying out the tricks live, failing or succeeding, logging how and why the failures and successes happened, and keeping on until the failures represent nothing more than minor, unforeseeable glitches which even an expert magician will likely face.’
How do I get more experience?
This ties in with a common question, which is how to gain experience in performing. Many amateurs simply do not perform other than intermittently for family. One might also ask what this experience consists of, what one does with it and so on. These questions have many answers. For magicians who avoid performing because they lack confidence but at the same time want to somehow start, it might help to look at the situation in an alternative way.
Imagine a self-improvement programme available to up-and-coming magicians which will answer many of the questions they have about performing magic. This programme not only will not cost any money (aside from transport costs) but may even pay for your time. I think you will agree that this would be a win-win scenario and something you should enrol yourself into as soon as possible. The programme is available worldwide throughout the year. The aim of the programme is to learn about and improve your magic in the most direct way possible. Knowledge gleaned from this programme may include:
- The real secrets of timing and misdirection
- How to overcome fears of performing
- How to perform for drunks
- What works for walk-around magic and what doesn’t
- Having a coherent approach to your magic
- To display skill or not
- How to make the magic happen to them, not you
- How to build rapport with your opening trick
- Who to approach first at an event
- How many tricks in your working repertoire
- What kind of props to use in different circumstances
- Which tricks ‘work’ every time
- Which tricks fit our personality
- How to avoid embarrassing people when performing
Rather than something we keep avoiding, we have a way of looking at the performing situation in a more positive light, in a way which clearly benefits us. To enrol in this programme simply look out for the following performing opportunities:
Usually referred to these days as open-mic nights, these normally involve just turning up on the night. Get there early and speak to the host to slot yourself into the programme. Beware that one or two musicians may try and hog the limelight playing their latest albums in full, so try to get on stage before them. Amateur nights also sometimes take the form of talent shows, but the non-talent show format is best for those starting out. Some are very small events indeed, the only people watching being the other performers!
Your sister-in-law has invited you to her 30th birthday at TGI Friday’s next week. Go along and do some magic. The great thing about these sorts of events is that, although they will be less nerve-wracking than paid gigs, the reactions from your sister-in-law’s work colleagues and friends will be 100% authentic. And you can start and stop whenever you want.
People in care homes – not just old folk but the young and middle-aged who require care – are usually more than happy for some entertainment. It brings them out of their everyday routine and gives them something to think and talk about afterwards. You might be performing at large tables with residents sitting around or in a parlour setting for a larger group. Care homes sometimes have summer garden parties for their residents, so you could offer to do walk-around magic if formal shows are not your thing.
While I don’t want to say I’ve mastered ‘Be Honest, What Is It?’, I performed for maybe 50 people and nobody caught me.
– Joe at Afrika Burn festival
When you charge for an event (i.e. work professionally) there is pressure to ‘deliver the goods’. If you are new to performing then this pressure plus the challenges of the event itself may be too much for you. A less stressful route is to work charity events. Because you can offer to work free, people expect less from you and there’s less pressure. You can even bill yourself as a magician-in-training. You can get work at charity events via your local magic club, through agencies, or simply through social networks: if people know you do magic, sooner or later you will be presented with a gig. Such gigs are professional in all but name, so treat them as such.
Take a deck of cards along to a cultural festival or themed camp, and in between acts or events you will have a captive audience of hundreds or more to try out your walk-around magic. These need not be just music festivals, but food festivals, arts or any number of other events. Note that we do not need to book ourselves in as an official ‘fringe event’; we don’t have a pitch, nor are we busking for money or drawing large crowds. We’re simply attending the festival as a guest and having fun trying out our card tricks on fellow guests. Just locate the chill-out area and get to work.
Yes, the magic club meeting is in many ways a soft option for those who wish to gain experience and feedback and yet don’t feel ready to face the outside world. This really is a halfway house between performing for family and performing in a professional environment (which includes unpaid gigs such as those mentioned here). Be aware that magicians do not react like lay people: they know exactly what you mean by ‘touch a card’, ‘cut the deck’, ‘deal the cards while spelling your name’, they know how to mime holding an invisible card for you, and so on – many lay people don’t, and so the performances can be somewhat artificial. Nonetheless, magic-group meetings can provide invaluable feedback on technical and other aspects.
If your boss knows you do magic, you may well get roped in to doing some at the staff party. Just say yes and give it a go. It may be dark, loud, and full of drunks. But if you only do magic for an hour or less, you will get some excellent opportunities to try out some of your material and learn the real secrets of performing.
Anyone who practises for twenty years with a deck of cards before he decides to cheat or perform, will never be ready to do either.
Street performing – busking – is legal in most areas of London if you are ‘passively’ collecting money for your performances. Licenses and specific pitches are required to perform in certain places (see here for details). However if you just want to do street magic in the modern sense of informally doing tricks for passers-by then there’s nothing stopping you. This can be an excellent way to gain immediate experience, doing magic for random groups of tourists or people queuing for bars and clubs (be aware that people may be queuing on private property, where you may not be allowed to perform as the venue may not be licensed for entertainment).
Be prepared for knock-backs – it takes a certain resilience to use this form of approach. But thanks to YouTube and social media, people these days seem more amenable and open to the idea of close-up magic in general. If you mess up, it doesn’t matter as you will never see them again! Dress smart or at least be well-groomed, otherwise people may think you’re approaching them for money. Do not outstay your welcome. Don’t open with anything too hands-on other than, say, pick-a-card. (Many years ago I started an impromptu performance by reaching out to pluck money from somebody’s hair – they ran away.)
Those who volunteer for work at summer camps can have fun trying out their magic in between official events. You may even be called upon to teach some simple tricks to the kids (jumping rubber bands, the four burglars, crayon mentalism, bendy pen illusion, and so on – keep it at their level and don’t expose professional secrets).
The relaxed atmosphere of a summer holiday abroad can be conducive to performing a little close-up magic. Use short, visual effects that don’t require much interaction in case language is a barrier. Demonstration effects (say, ‘Twisting the Aces’) accompanied by a few local words can be useful here rather than interactive, pick-a-card tricks. It’s a great way of breaking the ice and you might earn yourself a round of ouzo. Be aware that in certain countries there are superstitions surrounding magic. (Professional magician Sav advises us that, if people are phased by the sight of magic, just smile and tell them it’s ‘fast hands, fast hands!’)
Like the summer camp approach, if you have signed up as a volunteer during your gap year for overseas aid work, you can use the experience as a springboard for your close-up magic.
If a friend or family member is getting married, offer to do 45 minutes of walk-around magic at their reception. Ensure your tricks are all in-the-hands and do not ‘load up’ with too many tricks. Just take a deck of cards and some coins, and have fun. Although you’re a guest, treat it like a professional gig.
[In Turkey] I performed magic on the streets, in buses, cafes and private homes. I don’t claim to be good at all but the following tricks were responsible for a great holiday. Classic Coin Transpo, Malini Egg Bag, Flash from Hand using cigarette and flash paper, Dirty Deal, Stretching Safety Pin and the Devano Rising Cards.
– Martin Breese
The Zen approach
Zen practitioners have a saying: ‘Whatever you focus on becomes your reality.’ If you are physically available and mentally open to the idea of performing, opportunities will come along and, in turn, lead to further opportunities. As Pat Page once said, say yes then work out the details later. Keep a lookout in your local press and community noticeboards for village fetes and fairs, street parties and carnivals, spread the word via Facebook and social media, and let it be known among your peers that you are available for performing.
Genii in a bottle
The paradox of writing about gaining experience is that much of what we learn from performing cannot by conveyed on the written page. If only experience could be bottled and sold over the net like holy water! Alas, almost by definition, the questions ‘How can I learn’, ‘What are we learning’ and so on cannot be answered in the terms in which the questions are asked. The answers belong in the realm of the ‘other 50% of learning’.
Much of what we learn is also personal. My own specific timing on the Top Change may only suit me, my mannerisms, my audiences, and so on. What I charge for an event may not be what you should charge. How I approach people will not be the same. Yes, there are general rules that apply to magic and there is plenty of advice to be given, and this is conveyed in books, videos, lectures and so on (I will cover some of this in future posts). But once again the paradox is that to really understand this advice one has to experience it live. Until then one’s knowledge is merely academic and second- or third-hand, and based on imagination or logic rather than perception and personal understanding.
Sign up now
If you are hesitant to enrol, do not look at this self-improvement programme as performing for the public, but treat it as your field studies and the spectators as your research assistants. Remain a little detached and write a post mortem as soon as possible after the event, giving each effect marks out of 10 for overall audience reactions, making additional comments on what went well and what didn’t. If an upcoming event – a staff party or anything else you have been engaged for – looms large, view it as a project with a before, during, and after. If it’s easier, find a fellow magician on a similar level to you and work as a team. Or take a friend as an assistant and photographer, and get some publicity pics. Write a blog or a forum post and share your experiences.
Like the patient in the old joke who took his bottle of strengthening pills back to the doctor because he couldn’t get the lid off, we need to break through the self-imposed paradox of ‘not having enough experience to perform’. Like the patient, the problem cannot be solved alone.
It is rocket science
It has been pointed out by people cleverer than me that space travel is only possible because of teamwork. One person by themselves could not reach the moon. Self-development not only should not be confused with the (misleading) concept of self-help, but absolutely requires the help of others. Lay spectators and fellow magicians are our team. Without them we can only remain potentialities, rocket craft sitting on launchpads, earthbound by technical issues.