A (very) brief history of learning magic.
Once upon a time, learning magic took a lot of effort. Well, pre-internet, learning anything took a lot of effort, but to learn magic had that extra layer of difficulty, due to the whole secrecy thing. Magic literature is rich with stories of magicians travelling miles and spending considerable amounts of time and money to track down those who would share a move, sleight or approach. Even when more magic books became available, they were expensive and to learn from them took considerable effort and dedication. As well as the ability to perform magic, to learn magic through the available literature was a skill in itself!
Things become easier with the arrival of magic videos. We could now see how the sleight or move was supposed to look, or the timing of a critical moment of the routine. But for some, easier didn’t necessarily mean better, and camps began to form. Many magicians were, and some still are, against learning magic from video. They claim that, among other issues, we may learn not only the moves but the flow, character, timing and flaws of those teaching. This could (and has) lead to poor imitations of not only classic routines, but the magicians who created them. More on this later.
Until relatively recently, making a video took rather a lot of money and time. The equipment needed to film and edit was expensive. Then, of course, there were the audiences that many companies drafted in, which became endearingly familiar but raised the bar of what was expected. Often, the filming of the magic video was an event, as was it’s release.
With great power…
Now, as we all know, things are very, very different. The process of shooting, editing and selling magic on video is easy. What’s more, we can have this material seconds after purchase so we can start learning immediately. And there’s so much of it, but unfortunately, quantity doesn’t equate to quality because there’s nothing stopping anyone from creating an online magic tutorial on film or in writing. Though there are some excellent self-published magic books out there, they can be hard to find. Many are charging a considerable sum for PDF that looks like it’s been thrown together in ten minutes. Often because it has.
So learning magic is now more accessible. However, while an abundance in downloadable or physical books and video has increased the volume of materials available it has, for many, become overwhelming. On my own Card Magic Course, people often struggle with knowing where to start (on which I provide guidance). So with hundreds of magic downloads, it’s hardly surprising that the mountain seems too high to climb.
So when faced with learning materials that will take more years to get through than you have left, what’s the best way to start?
If you’re just starting out learning magic, or like me, you’ll never stop, here’s a little comparison to help you get going.
For a while, many magicians thought that learning magic from books would be a thing of the past. Some claim that it is. But on my YouTube channel, I’ve realised that every time I create a video about a magic book or even talk about the books on my shelves, people get interested. This, along with the publication of some stunning magic books and the fact that they are selling out, tells me that books are still going strong and will continue to.
There’s just something about opening and sitting with a book. Much of it is about aesthetics; the look and feel (and smell?) of a tome. However, for me, it’s also about the depth and quality of the experience. There is a ritual to sitting with a book, cards in hand, that I find enormously appealing. It puts me into a different, meditative flow state. It creates focused energy that is different from viewing a video. It can’t necessarily be called a ‘better’ state because it’s incomparable. It’s just a very different, slower activity. Because of this, the material that I learn from magic books does tend to stick more. It seems that there is a correlation between time invested and retention of information. Who would have thought!
There are, of course, limitations to this approach to learning. Books take time, and sometimes there isn’t an abundance of it. When I was learning magic years ago, I was a street performer, so I had time on my hands. Now I have kids, admin and general boring grown-up stuff that means that sometimes finding the space, and peace, for this kind of deep magic learning is a challenge.
Additionally, it can be hard to know which routine or move to focus on in a magic book, as there are often so many. For example, whilst working through any of the Roy Walton classic books, great as they are, one soon realises that there is no summary of the effect of the routine before the method begins. So reading through the whole routine first, to get a clear idea of the effect is required. This can be a skill in itself, and one that is, importantly, improved through practice.
Of course, none of the above is relevant if the book isn’t well-written.
A deeper, more meditative experience for some.
The material may stick due to the time taken.
More detail with hand positioning and expectations if well-written.
The abundance of material.
Books are pretty and feel nice.
The time investment needed.
Reading magic can be a separate skill, again more time investment needed.
Sometimes difficulty in visualising the final effect, or how the move would look like to a spectator.
Badly written books can be frustrating and difficult to decipher.
From some magicians, video still gets a bad rap. Yes books are lovely and for me just a bit more ‘magical’, but that’s because those of us who feel that way tend to love books anyway, regardless of whether they’re magic books or not.
Taught well, video can be a powerful learning tool. And this is the key. As a magic book needs to be very carefully written, a magic video has to be taught appropriately. Teaching magic (or of course anything) is a skill and not an easy thing to do well. The teacher should be engaging, relaxed and, in my opinion, entertaining to create a connection with the student. There also has to be an ability to empathise with the learner. So many people I’ve seen teach, seem to forget how difficult learning magic can be for the complete beginner. It takes time, repetition and patience. I think this is where the adage ‘less is more’ can sometimes be inaccurate. You don’t want to create meaningless filler, but to repeat and get into detail too much is better than not enough. We learners can always move on once we understand the concepts, but if the content isn’t there, we’re left guessing. Sometimes this can spark creativity, but often it creates frustration and exasperation, followed by wanting to throw ones computer out of the window.
So presuming we have a good teacher, who has considered their teaching approach, video can provide something that books can’t: an accurate representation of the move or sleight described. I’m not saying that a magic book can’t offer a detailed description of a magic trick, it can. But it just can’t give us the full visual picture. We have to either wait until we’ve learned the trick or watch it performed. On more than one occasion I have done both and realised that witnessing the latter has resulted in regretting the time taken with the former. Many of us, depending on learning preference, will find it so much easier to make a decision of what magic to learn based on what we see rather than what we read. Seeing something, either live or on TV, is the answer I most often hear when professional magicians are asked ‘how did you get into magic’. Seeing and witnessing inspire, the importance of which cannot be overestimated.
Oddly enough, the main issue often cited with video content is the one I have fewer problems with. The claim that learning magic from other magicians results in copying their mannerisms and routines. Whilst this can be true, it also happens with all art forms, and has little to do with the medium. I remember writing my first stand up routine with the voice of my favourite comedian, Bill Hicks, in my head. Like Bill’s, my material was political and subversive, two things that were pretty much the opposite of me. Unlike Bill’s it was crap. The point is that I still copied, not because I learned from Bill Hicks, though in a way I probably did, but because I had watched him and was inspired by him. Learners will always copy and plagiarise, and with time they will learn to find their voice, or not. This says more about the individual rather than the learning medium.
I love learning from video, but only if it entertains me and engages me. If not, I can barely stay awake. This is similar if I’m reading a poorly written book, but the vetting process seems to be a little more strict with books released by trusted publishers. Again, abundance can be an issue as well as a gift.
Provides an accurate and visual representation of the material.
Can be entertaining and engaging.
Can provide inspiration (again if done well).
Is quicker, more accessible for many.
Less time investment can mean less retention.
The teaching is sometimes ill-prepared and not engaging due to ease of production. It takes less to video than it does to write.
The opposite of the ‘pros’ if poorly done.
Other ways of learning, once you’re up and running.
I’m going to discuss this briefly here, as for most beginners, this may not be as relevant. With a few exceptions, many magicians begin to attend lectures once they have started to learn magic. But for those life-long learners such as myself, lectures can be a valuable source of inspiration, but a slightly less valuable source of learning the tricks or moves themselves. This is why so many get no further than watching the lecture. We see the trick, get inspired and realise that we then have to get to work. In my experience, not very many people learn how to perform the routine at the lecture, as it’s very difficult to retain the detail in real-time. They get only a demonstration of how the magic is done with, if the lecturer is a good one, some valuable theory. There will be future posts about this, as I feel that the established lecture process could be enhanced to improve learning and retention.
Like teaching on video, this can be an incredibly powerful tool if the relationship is right. You’ll find that most top-end magicians have had them. If you can afford it, I suggest getting a coach, even if it’s just to start you off and provide guidance. Being accountable to really help with motivation, but be aware that there are many people giving coaching who don’t have the skills or experience to do so. Additionally, be ruthless and don’t be afraid to quit and move on of it isn’t a good fit. No decent teacher or coach will take this personally, as sometimes it’s just a chemistry thing. Try to get a ten-minute chat with someone before committing.
Virtual Seminars and Masterclasses
Whilst personal coaching can be a very enriching learning experience, it doesn’t come within budget for many of us. The good news is that though a luxury, it’s definitely not essential. Virtual seminars bridge the gap between video and live teaching in a way that I have found deeply satisfying, especially through COVID-19. Though sometimes, due to numbers, you will not be able to interact directly with the teacher, this still provides a feeling of connection and group experience. The knowledge that you are all there now feels very different and more engaging than a recording. The good news is that you will usually receive a download of the event, or be granted access to it, which means you can process and sit with the details later on. Incidentally, on my Card Magic Course, I hold weekly sessions on different aspects of magic, or sometimes it’s just a general chat and Q and A. Because this is a members-only environment, we can interact directly as numbers are limited. Oh, and the sessions are added to the course for permanent viewing. Right, enough of the plug!
So which is best?
This is probably going to be a predictable answer, but neither. In my opinion, and experience as a professional magician and teacher, I have found very few exceptional magicians who don’t use both mediums. Saying that one is better than the other is like saying blue is better than green. They are different, but depending on the context and requirements, one will work for you more.
For the complete beginner, I suggest starting with the thing that got you interested in the first place and (card magic, coin magic or stage magic) and start learning in a way that you find enjoyable. You’ll soon know if you’re a video person or a book person, Importantly don’t judge your first experience as a general rule. The first magic book I bought was way too advanced, which put me off books for a while. This can also happen with video. This is why I provide advice and guidance on the course and why the library is so extensive. Different learners want different things!
Learning magic is a rich and rewarding experience, and your joy in doing so will be enhanced with an open mind. Try everything, experiment and play. Obviously, I would love for everyone to sign up to Card Magic Course. I’m biased because I made it. But if it meant that people chose that instead of other sources of learning, I would be worried. To become an expert magician, or even a decent one, we must learn from multiple sources. In this way, we become knowledgeable, rounded practitioners and will find it so much easier to find our own style and ‘voice’. Because of this, learning magic has been, and continues to be one of the most important aspects of my life, and I hope you will find the same.
Next, we’ll look at some recommended books for beginners.
Steve Faulkner is the creator of Card Magic Course, an online, extensive and ever-growing learning experience with over 400 video tutorials. You can also check out his YouTube magic review channel, Real Magic Review, for book and trick recommendations.