FAQ for beginning magicians, by Jon A. Hand
Michael Ammar thought the following article by Jon A. Hand would be of value to the many people who are just getting started in Magic. We publish this article with permission from Mr. Hand and thank him for writing it.
A. What is magic? Magic is a theatrical entertainment, whether done close-up or for huge audiences, that features the “violation of the laws of nature.” It is NOT Satanic, or witchcraft! A magician is an actor playing the role of a wizard, performing the “impossible.” Just as audience members suspend their sense of reality to view a play or movie, they suspend belief in reality to watch the magician’s “miracles.” Magic is a very old entertainment; archeologists have visual proof of magicians in ancient Egypt, Asia and the Far East, and throughout the European Renaissance. Modern magic began in the 1800’s with Frenchman Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin, often called the “Father of Modern Magic,” and continues to this day.
B. Why do I want to study magic? If you only have an idle curiosity, desiring to know “how it is done,” then do not bother reading any further! You will destroy your own enjoyment of a very entertaining art, and probably ruin such enjoyment for all of your friends by showing off your knowledge. However, if you want to perform magic yourself, you have come to the right place! Magic is a lifelong hobby that can cost very little, yet it gives much to the participants. Performance skills build one’s self-confidence in front of people AND can make one popular in a circle of friends. People of all ages study and perform magic as a hobby; I started at age 8 in 1960, and I am still going strong! People of all walks of life participate in magic; I know bankers, engineers, musicians, artists, scientists, mathematicians, salesmen, and bartenders, to name a few, who use magic to “break the ice” at social functions or in crucial meetings. Most of them do magic because they love it, and because it makes them memorable among the ranks of their peers. Going professional as a magician is also possible, just as it is in the performing arts of music, acting, and dance. The obstacles to be overcome can be daunting, but the serious student can make a career in magic with desire, hard work in preparation, and some talent mixed with creativity.
C. How can I learn to do magic? Magic, also called conjuring or legerdemain, can be learned three ways: Study with an accomplished magician—Musicians, actors, and dancers, all of whom are “real-time” performers, generally study with experienced professionals in their respective fields. Given the opportunity to do so, fledgling magicians would be wise to do likewise. However, most practicing professionals rarely have the time to tutor students, which makes this option seldom obtainable. Once you know some magic and can perform it acceptably, you can join a local, regional, or national magic society or club, where others happily share ideas and techniques, but pure beginners are often lost in such settings.
Study from magic books—All of the world’s great knowledge, on ANY SUBJECT, is contained in books. The breadth and depth of knowledge in magic is best obtained from books. Thousands of magic books are available on a myriad of subjects. Some guidance is necessary to help the beginner choose appropriate books, but this monograph is here to help you with those choices. Most, if not all, of the world’s great magicians started with books, and this is still the way to begin.
Video instruction from professionals on videotape or DVD—Video is a viable method of instruction, but only a very limited number of magical subjects are available in this new teaching tool. Most video instruction assumes that the magic student has some prior knowledge of magic, which means that these videos are not ideally suited for the pure beginner. Additionally, the beginner tends to slavishly copy the presentation and routining of the video, totally ignoring personal creativity and individuality. What if all actors emulated Harrison Ford, or Jimmy Stewart? Acting would then be dull, indeed, but actors inject themselves into their presentations, and magicians should do the same. Quality of both the videography and the teaching vary widely from one video to another, and one cannot preview the video to see if its contents are suitable for him or her. The cost-per-trick ratio of video is much higher than for books, making video an expensive way to learn. The new DVD format is much better suited for teaching and learning than videocassette, because the DVD user can more easily call up sections for study, and repeat them as necessary without risk of damaging the media. Although the offerings are growing substantially, video remains a small-but-welcome addition to learning magic from books.
D. What books are best for beginners? This topic is hotly debated among magicians, both professional and knowledgeable amateurs. Some of the great books of yesteryear are no longer in print, and modern tastes have deserted some of the old tricks and florid writing style.
Fortunately, more recent writers have rescued the crucial concepts and produced modern books that contain the best of the old and the punch of the new. Although many of these books are also falling out-of-print, most of them can be found on the used market. Try Internet used book sites such as Bibliofind.com or Powells.com for out-of-print books. Magic books fall into two types, “mass market” and “insider market.” Mass market books can be found in major bookstores or web stores such as Barnes and Noble, Books-a-Million, Amazon, and mall bookstores. Many such books are written for the juvenile market, but some excellent books for learning fine magic, listed later in this monograph, are in the mass market.
Insider books are written by professionals for other professionals and advanced amateurs. These books are hard to find on the open market. Major sources include Magic Inc. in Chicago (email:email@example.com), Louis Tannen Magic (on-line catalog) and the Conjuror Magic Shop on this website. Additionally, there are hundreds of magic shops on-line if one does a web search for magic stores.
The following are superb books for beginners. Most explore all aspects of magic, so they are great introductions to the whole art. More importantly, these books teach showmanship, not just tricks. These are not cheesy kids’ magic books; these are the real thing.
Learn Magic, Henry Hay—Slow but not boring, this book teaches twenty good lessons in magic and builds essential showmanship skills at the same time. Although out-of-print, the book is available in both hardback and paperback copies in the used marketplace.
Amateur Magician’s Handbook, Henry Hay—Photographically illustrated and lovingly written by a lifelong professional magician, this is the most thorough and in-depth introduction to the whole art of magic currently available in a single volume. Essential concepts in magic with cards, coins, silks, rope, balls, and mentalism are all taught, and excellent tricks using all of the concepts abound. In addition, Hay (Barrows Mussey) has sections on routining a magic show, performing for children, working close-up, and working on stage. The book is heavy on sleight-of-hand (see explanation in section E. below), and so requires serious study and practice. However, the practice is fun, and swift gains in ability are encouraging. The 1982 edition is the best; fortunately, the publisher has reprinted the 1982 edition in a 1996 edition, so the book is easy to find. If you want only one book to unlock the secrets of magic for you, this is the one.
Complete Course in Magic, Mark Wilson—This large format hardbound book is wide in scope, and probably is the most lavishly illustrated magic book in print today. Sleights, preparation, methods, and techniques are taught in a step-by-step manner, with thousands of line drawings. The book teaches basic routines with coins, cards, silks, ropes, billiard balls, cups & balls, mentalism, and includes a large section of homemade apparatus magic (see section E. below). Much of the magic is easier to perform than in Hay’s Handbook, but ease of execution can be a boon for the beginning performer, who can then put more energy into presentation and showmanship (see section F. below). Wilson and Hay, taken together, will teach one more magic than one can perform in a lifetime!
Magic Digest, George B. Anderson—This out-of-print, large format paperback teaches extremely effective magic using simple methods. There is material here that is too good for the experienced magician to ignore but within the capabilities of beginners. Although not as wide in scope as the preceding two volumes, this book contains high quality material that is easy to do, and Anderson details several routined acts of tricks.
The Amazing Book of Magic and Card Tricks, Jon Tremaine—In large page format (available in a single book, or as two separate books), a famed British magician teaches better magic for beginners with clear instructions and hundreds of color photographs. Emphasis is on easy sleight-of-hand and simple props, but the effects are often powerful.
The Magic Book, Harry Lorayne—Once again in print after a long absence, this popular book teaches good material with cards, coins, and other common objects. Lorayne is an excellent teacher in print, and versions of many magic classics are taught here.
Secrets of Alkazar, Allan Kronzek—This out-of-print book is a great introduction to magic for beginners age 12 and up, but it is so well written that the adult beginner will learn more here than in a good many other magic books. The emphasis on presentation, including multiple suggestions of alternative ideas to invent one’s own presentations, makes this a book that more intermediate magicians should read, too. In addition, the list of Fifteen Methods of Card Selection ought to be required reading for any magician. This far-underrated book deserves to be read by anyone who wants to be a serious magic student.
Pure Magic, Henry Gross—This book, out-of-print but available on the used market in both paperback and hardback editions, is a strong introduction to sleight-of-hand magic (see section E. below). Photographically illustrated and beautifully routined, this book contains magic which can be done anywhere, using only the hands and small props carried in the pockets. The book blends well with the bulk of Amateur Magician’s Handbook and Complete Course in Magic.
Stein and Day Handbook of Magic (UK title: The Complete Magician, and recently reprinted in that title), Marvin Kaye—This book is a quality introduction to magic as stagecraft. Although much less inclusive than Hay or Wilson, the book goes well with either, emphasizing showmanship, routining, and basic stage deportment for magicians.
E. What are the branches of magic? Should I specialize in a branch? Magic can be roughly divided into categories, briefly described below.
Sleight-of-hand magic: Using small props (cards, coins, paper money, sponge balls, cups, matches, paper clips, etc.) and requiring skill from the magician, sleight-of-hand is the closest thing to real magic for audiences. Although sleight-of-hand is fun to do and easier than one might think, it is, however, just difficult enough to discourage the idly curious from learning it. Although some highly specialized sleights, known as manipulation, can be done onstage, sleight-of-hand is generally close-up magic, which makes it all the more astounding because it takes place “right under the spectator’s nose.” Also, one builds some showmanship skills while learning the sleights.
Apparatus magic: Using larger, “gimmicked” props to help the magician do his job, apparatus magic requires time and patience to set up and tear down, and much money to purchase or building skills to make. Too many amateurs “spend the money and skip the rehearsal” laments Hay, and Kaye concurs. It also requires good planning and excellent showmanship, or it is deadly DULL! You might expand into it later, but I would not advise starting here first.
Mental Magic: Pretending to use “the power of the mind,” mentalism predicts the future, reads minds, moves objects through mental power, and makes messages magically appear on blank surfaces. This branch of magic, as intriguing as it may sound, is probably the most difficult one for the beginner. There is little for the audience to view, the effects require much careful buildup from the performer to be effective, and tricks move slowly, requiring sharp showmanship and stage presence to perform. One good mental trick in a regular magic show makes fine contrast to the bulk of the performance, however.
Escape Magic: Undoubtedly the most dangerous and physically demanding of the branches, escape magic is the liberation of the magician from restraints such as ropes, chains, handcuffs, strait jackets, and boxes. Like mentalism, escape magic requires steady buildup, slow climaxes, and much showmanship/stage presence. Again, one good escape trick in a regular magic show is effective contrast.
Illusion Magic: Employing large, heavy, and expensive apparatus requiring much rehearsal, storage space, and (paid) assistant(s), illusion magic has all of the problems of apparatus magic mixed with the problems of mentalism and escape magic. In a real stage show, one good closing illusion can “top off” the performance. Forget illusion magic until you work your way up to the “paid stage performer” class.
The books recommended in section D. above are heavy on sleight-of-hand, because sleight magic is both effective and inexpensive, and it helps the beginner to gain showmanship. Sample all types of magic in Hay or Wilson before even thinking about specialization.
F. How do I practice? How do I improve? Practice a short time daily, as if you were a beginning musician or dancer. If possible, set aside the same time every day, which will help build consistency. Start with short periods, and expand as your patience and interest develop.
Select a very few tricks that interest you and learn them well. Read and digest the instructions fully, step by step. Get your fingers to do what you want them to do until the movement feels natural. SPEED IS NOT AN ISSUE; gentleness and smoothness are much more important. Practice in front of a mirror after you have mastered a move, looking for bad angles or revealing movements. Audiences will look where you look, so learn to control your eyes so that you are not looking at your hands during crucial moments. Often just looking the audience members squarely in the face and speaking directly to them will draw all eyes to your face and away from your hands for the moment necessary for the secret movement.
Work up “patter,” talk that accompanies the trick. One need not write it out or memorize it, but it should sound and feel “like you,” not like a lecturer or a magician you admire. Your patter, or presentation, can lift a simple puzzle into a miracle in your audience’s eyes, so put much thought into what you say and why you say it. It is possible to present a single trick in many different ways with a little creative thinking about your patter content, so try to make a trick uniquely your own through your presentation. Create a storyline, or frame the trick in pseudo-scientific air, or set up an atmosphere of mystery, or engage your audience in humorous byplay, as examples. In short, the easiest trick can be a masterpiece if you breathe life into it with an interesting presentation. Put as much effort into perfecting your presentation as you do into learning the actions of performing a trick, and you will create a real sense of wonder in your audiences when you capture their imaginations as well as dazzle their eyes.
When you think you have a trick ready, do it several times in front of a mirror with the patter, or videotape it a few times, watching it critically. When you feel comfortable, perform it for a close friend or relative. If it fools AND entertains them, you are on your way.
Remember that a few tricks done superbly are far better than a dozen tricks done weakly. Perfect your magic a few tricks at a time, show them to a few friends at a time, and grow from the performing experience. It is far easier to find a new audience than to learn new tricks, so keep doing your few tricks for different people to build confidence and experience. The great British magician David Devant said that he knew only eight tricks well, and relied upon them.
Gradually add new tricks, learn them well, and run the circuit of your audiences again with the new material. Do not pester people to show your magic! If you do it well, word will spread, and friends will ask you to see it. Carry the necessary small items with you at all times to perform when you get the opportunity. Let your repertoire of quality magic grow slowly but surely.
Eventually you will be able to routine, or arrange a small show of tricks that you can exhibit as a group. Start with an easy but effective opener, put varying types of tricks next, and close with your most powerful effect (Hay, Kaye, Anderson, and Gross deal with routining in their books). Keep your small show under fifteen minutes, and always leave your audience wanting more.
G. What rules are necessary for integrity in magic? Keep all magical methods a secret from your audiences. Your friends, family, and small audiences will beg and cajole you to tell them “how you did it.” Do not tell them! Any trick which fools and entertains an audience is to be cherished and protected! Besides, audiences are disappointed when they learn secrets, and they disdain magic and you for the disappointment. One last thought: you spent hours mastering the skills and showmanship to perform the tricks, so do not give away the secrets of your hard work!
Show only those tricks that you can do perfectly. Preserve your reputation and magic’s tradition by performing only your perfected material.
Do not reveal another magician’s secrets, and do not criticize another magician’s performance. Learn what you can about showmanship and presentation by watching others perform. Support other magicians, and find something positive to say about anybody’s performance that you see.
Try to add something original to your presentation of your tricks. After you develop some knowledge and experience in magic, you will be able to combine concepts from different tricks and devise a “new” trick that nobody has seen previously. It is this open-ended, creative aspect of magic that makes the art so much fun for the performer.
H. What other books are good past the beginning stage? Although I will list several fine books below, this would be a good place for a gentle warning. It is far too easy to purchase dozens of magic books, read them from cover to cover, and still be unable to perform even a single trick well! Do not fall into this trap! See section F. above.
You can purchase specialty books on any type of magic discussed in section E. from the insider sources discussed earlier. Additionally, most good general magic books have a bibliography in the back, which will lead you to other books. A few other excellent books follow below.
Tarbell Course in Magic, Harlan Tarbell—This classic set of eight books covers every standard trick with care. Although the entire set of eight costs around $200.00 at this writing, the books will be a lifetime reference that you will use constantly if you do magic regularly. The books can also be bought separately as you can afford to do so, and run $20 to $30 each as of this writing, although most vendors will give you a 10% discount for purchasing the set as a whole. Despite the fact that the bulk of the course was written between the 1928 and 1960, most of the material is still in use in one form or another in the acts of professionals, which is a tribute to the writing, teaching, and material choices of the author. Many working professionals trace their entire act to this set of books, and many more credit this information with giving them their start in magic.
Modern Magic Manual, Jean Hugard—This standard British text, written by a well-regarded and prolific magician/author, describes in detail much classic close-up, platform, and stage magic that can be performed without expensive apparatus. It is an inexpensive supplement to the knowledge gained from Hay and Wilson in the basic books listed earlier, though it is short on illustrations. Magic styles run in cycles, and much of this material has not been seen by the general public since the demise of common touring shows in the 1950’s, so much “fresh” material is here waiting to be resurrected.
Cyclopedia of Magic, Henry Hay—This compilation is a gold mine of information on standard tricks, sleights, props, routines, apparatus, the history of magic, and biographies of famous magicians of the past. Although out-of-print, this is easy to find on the used market, either in the original hardbound or the Dover reprint.
Catalog of Magic, Marvin Kaye—This 1974 book reviews apparatus magic without revealing the secrets. The book is useful as a consumer guide if one is planning to purchase commercially manufactured apparatus magic. Kaye explains the ease or difficulty of 150 tricks (most still available today) and the amount of showmanship/skill needed to perform them. Although out-of-print, this quite useful trade paperback is easy to find in the used marketplace.
Royal Road to Card Magic & Expert Card Technique, Jean Hugard/Frederic Braue—These two volumes are standard references on card sleights, with many good tricks included. Start with the card information in any of the books on the beginner list, move on to Royal Road, and then progress to Expert Card Technique if you fall in love with card magic.
Modern Coin Magic, J.B. Bobo—This is the standard reference on coin sleights and tricks. Although the first edition is now in an inexpensive Dover reprint, the revised and expanded version, available from Magic, Inc. in Chicago, is to be preferred.
Practical Mental Effects (retitled Practical Mental Magic in the Dover reprint), Theodore Annemann—This is the classic book on mental magic. All other writers build upon it or refine ideas from it, but there are hundreds of usable mental magic tricks here, in every sub-category of mental magic.
Magic, Earle Coleman—Not a book of tricks, this is a 1987 annotated bibliography of magic books. A brief description of nearly every commonly available magic book from the 1890’s to 1987 is present. This is a great way to learn about other books that interest you.
Magic and Showmanship: a Handbook for Conjurers, Henning Nelms—This inexpensive Dover paperback teaches showmanship, stagecraft, and creativity to experienced magicians. I highly recommend it for the advancing amateur, despite less-than-sterling tricks, due to the excellent information on staging and helpful suggestions for personal creativity in one’s magic. The book is unfortunately out-of-print, but it can be found in the used marketplace.
Now You See It, Now You Don’t: Lessons in Sleight-of-Hand & More Lessons in Sleight-of-Hand, Bill Tarr—These two volumes, in large format paperback, feature good, if terse, explanations of sleights and tricks using them. The main attraction here is the thousands of detailed drawings by commercial/comic artist Barry Ross, illustrating the sleights in marvelous detail. Volume One is back in print in the mass market bookstores; Volume Two will have to be sought on the used market, to my knowledge at this writing. The books are more inclusive than Pure Magic, but not as well routined. They are nice companions to Amateur Magician’s Handbook and/or Complete Course in Magic.
101 (Classic) Easy-to-do Magic Tricks, Bill Tarr—Similar in format to the Now You See It books, this paperback volume teaches classic apparatus magic to make and perform rather than buy (see section E. above). If nothing else, it is a great way to learn these magical standards without having to purchase the commercial tricks. It blends well with the latter half of Amateur Magician’s Handbook or the latter half of Complete Course in Magic.
Illustrated History of Magic, & Panorama of Magic, Milbourne Christopher—Christopher, a fine professional performer, had a strong historical interest that expressed itself in several different histories of magic. The former volume is a detailed text history with some illustration, while the latter volume is of interest due to the rare posters and lithographs of long-deceased magicians reproduced within its pages. The books are great fun and inspiration for the magic buff, and they are an amazing compendium of information on the development of magic as entertainment. Panorama is out-of-print; both books are worth seeking in the used marketplace.
I. Conclusion. I hope this essay has been helpful to you. I love magic, and I want to help beginners get a fast and successful start in it while skirting the pitfalls that can await the uninformed. Please feel free to email me with questions or comments about this article. If I have been of any assistance, or if you learned anything from my suggestions, I am gratified. Maybe someone now reading this page will one day be a famous professional magician, or simply a lifelong hobbyist who enjoys entertaining his friends and colleagues. Have fun, and make magic!
Jon A. Hand, August 1999, revised June 2001 © 1999, 2001, Jon A. Hand; Used by Permission. All Rights Reserved. firstname.lastname@example.org
I wasn't kidding when I said long was I?