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Bill Palmer
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I've seen several threads that have headings such as "Amateurs vs. Professionals," as if there were some kind of battle raging between those of us who do magic as a hobby and those who do it for a living. These battles seldom accomplish anything except angering people.

I don't know who starts these battles. Usually, it has been a hobbyist who is fairly advanced as a magician, who has been "put down" by a professional who has made an off-hand remark that has been taken personally. Or it may have been started by a "part-time pro" who hasn't really advanced to the next level.

So, let's examine all of these things.

From my favorite on-line source Smile, we get the following definition of amateur:


Amateur: Literally, someone who does something out of love for it. However, a look at the history of the use of the word is interesting.

Synonyms: amateur, dabbler, dilettante
These nouns mean one engaging in a pursuit but lacking professional skill: a musician who is a gifted amateur, not a professional; a dabbler in the stock market; a sculptor but a mere dilettante.
Antonyms: professional
Word History: When Mrs. T.W. Atkinson remarked in her 1863 Recollections of the Tartar Steppes and their Inhabitants, “I am no amateur of these melons,” she used amateur in a sense unfamiliar to us. That sense, “a lover, an admirer,” is, however, clearly descended from the senses of the word's ultimate Latin source, amtor, “lover, devoted friend, devotee, enthusiastic pursuer of an objective,” and from its Latin-derived French source, amateur, with a similar range of meanings. First recorded in English in 1784 with the sense in which Mrs. Atkinson used it, amateur is found in 1786 with a meaning more familiar to us, “a person who engages in an art, for example, as a pastime rather than as a profession,” a sense that had already developed in French. Given the limitations of doing something as an amateur, it is not surprising that the word is soon after recorded in the disparaging sense we still use to refer to someone who lacks professional skill or ease in performance.


Granted, there are levels of "amateur." The fellow who does several really wonderful routines perfectly is a much better magician than the bumbler who can't remember how to do an Elmsley count, yet insists on inflicting magic tricks on people without regard to how well he has practiced them.

Now, for the definitions of professional:



1) Of, relating to, engaged in, or suitable for a profession: lawyers, doctors, and other professional people.
2) Conforming to the standards of a profession: professional behavior.
3) Engaging in a given activity as a source of livelihood or as a career: a professional writer.
4) Performed by persons receiving pay: professional football.
5) Having or showing great skill; expert: a professional repair job.

Some definitions refer to "learned professions." This word "learned" is pronounced "learn-ed," meaning that it requires training and deep knowledge. It doesn't mean something you pick up at a technical school.

There is no definition in the dictionary for "part-time professional." This is a term that Gene Anderson coined to describe his position in magic. He did not like the term "semi-professional," because professional is used to indicate quality. He felt that semi-professional could mean either half bad or half good.

His criteria were very specific. If you are a part time pro,

1) Your act must be as good as a professional's. He had won several awards, so he qualified on that one.

2) You must be paid for performing. He also adhered to that.

3) Your quality must be consistent. He did not state this outright, but he explained how to do it, so the implication is there in his notes.

Basically it worked like this. Gene taped every show he did. On his way to the next show, he played the tape in his auto cassette player. He listened to the lines to make sure that he had all of them in place, and he listened to where the laughs did not occur. This way he could handle the problem with the line that did not get the laugh or eliminate the line altogether.

Unfortunately, there have been many total duffers who assume that because they are paid, they are part time pro's. They are not. They are full time hobbyists who get paid occasionally.
"The Swatter"

Founder of CODBAMMC

My Chickasaw name is "Throws Money at Cups."
Bill Palmer
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Okay, now that I've got your attention -- and I know I have it, because people have phoned me about this one -- I will discuss the really important thing about the professional. This is "professionalism."

I don't like definitions that are self referincing, but this is about the most compact set of definitions that I could find quickly.

1) Professional status, methods, character, or standards
2) The expertness characteristic of a professional person

So, a professional magician is one who exhibits expertness, adheres to a set of standards that other professionals would consider to be an example of their standards, and who behaves according to a professional code of ethics.

There are many magicians who are "amateurs" in that they do not perform for money, but they are "professional" in that they exhibit the characteristics of a professional.

One good example of this would be Dr. Persi Diaconis. I've never seen Dr. Diaconis perform, but every one of you reading this column has either heard of him or seen one of his inventions. That is the Himber Ring. I understand from his friends that Dr. Diaconis is a very skilled performer.

Another such performer is Ken Krenzel. Ken does something else for his living, but he is a very capable "professional" performer. Ed Marlo was another one. All three of these men set a high standard of quality for their work, and adhered to it. So did the late Alex Elmsley. He was a computer programmer, but a fine magician.

But there are a couple of other qualities that are also necessary for professionalism. One is reliability. The other is repeatability. If you call yourself a professional, but you show up to a job with your props missing (unless due to an unforeseen accident), your clothing awry, late, you run over on your allotted time, then that is NOT professional, even if you are getting paid for it. And if you can't consistently deliver a good show, that's not professional.

There is an old adage that a professional performs the same 10 tricks to hundreds of audiences, while the amateur performs hundreds of tricks for the same audience. This is only partially true. I don't think "pro's" should tell people that they are amateurs because they can do hundreds of tricks. That's offensive and it's probably wrong. Some pro's can, by using basic principles, almost improvise new material on the spot. And if their skills are sharp, they can have that material polished very quickly. However, there is something about the 10,000th performance of a routine that is very special. It becomes as smooth as glass, and you find yourself doing it without having to worry about what happens next. And you can do things with the nuances of the routine that you cannot do when you have to worry about blocking, scripting, time and the other details that go into a routine.

A well-practiced amateur will do a more professional performance than an unpracticed professional.
"The Swatter"

Founder of CODBAMMC

My Chickasaw name is "Throws Money at Cups."
Bill Palmer
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Now, let's get down to the nitty-gritty. What really makes the distinction?

I played banjo, guitar and keyboards in various kinds of groups for several years. That's what kept a roof over my head before I went into magic full time.

I played five to seven nights a week, taught banjo and guitar and did studio work. I was a very busy musician. When you do this over time, you develop two things that musicians need -- "ears" and "chops." Some people develop ears very early in life. This is basically the ability to hear the chord changes that the rest of the group are using and know how they fit into the piece you are playing. It also includes the idea of being able to play or sing in harmony, so what you do fits everything else. It's a complex term, but musicians know what it means.

"Chops" is a term that refers to the wind instrument players' skill. It has also been adopted by other instrumentalists. It's the other half of the "ear - note coordination" equasion. If you can hear it in your mind, it comes out of your instrument. When you don't play for a while, you lose some or all of your chops.

To quote an interview with Sonny Osborne in Bluegrass Unlimited Magazine -- "I play more notes in a week than most banjo players do in a year." This is one reason Sonny never competed. It was a lose-lose situation. Why should he compete in a banjo contest that was being judged by a policeman, a judge and a fireman whose cousin was competing against him? If he won, he looked like a bully. If he lost, he looked like a fake. So he played his music and got paid for it. Like most musicians, his skills were deeply imbedded in muscle memory, instinct, subconscious and conscious. He knew about fingerings on the instrument that most banjo players never discovered.

Magic is the same way. Some people develop the ability to instinctively know the best sleight to produce a given effect. Darryl used to have three different ways to do each of his signature pieces. He had one version for close-up, one for stand-up and one for television. Each one used the correct sleights and/or moves for the audience he was working.

Did you ever wonder why some of us ask the questions we do when we see certain things posted, such as "what is the best F**** for the (insert name of trick here)?" or "what is the best P*** for the (insert name of trick here)?" There's no context in quesions like that. Your performing situation will dictate this. It's the kind of question someone whose experience level is not very high will ask.

Now there is nothing wrong with being inexperienced. We all were at some time or another. But sometimes when we read posts, we imagine that the person who wrote them may not have really thought the idea through that they were trying to get across.

Being able to perform your material under a maximum set of working conditions is a mark of the professional. Knowing how to adapt a piece from proscenium to 270 degrees to in the round is a mark of the professional. Knowing when not to do it is also a mark of the professional. Where does this knowledge come from?


When you go out several nights a week, perform for "real people" in "real world" conditions, you begin to understand what is practical for you and what isn't. You also begin to develop your own "licks," just like a trumpet player or a guitar player. You develop "ears" and "chops."

I had been out of music for about six months, still practiced a bit, so I still had my chops in shape, and I got a call from a fellow who wanted me to play in a band with him. I told him I wasn't interested in the gig.

He pressured me. I caved in. I really shouldn't have. One thing he said that stood out was that he had gone over to one of the local C&W clubs for the past three or four weekends, they had called him up to sit in with them and "he had blown their lead singer away." This meant that he knew four songs. What he didn't realize was that it was going to take him a couple of years to work up the 36 or so songs it takes to do four hours of music at a C&W bar, and he was going to have to keep his material current, if he wanted to get anywhere with it. He was an attorney. For some reason, he felt that he didn't need training to be a musician.

So, I told him that I would come by, but that if I felt he was not up to a professional level, I wouldn't even stay for the end of the first rehearsal. I added, "Most amateurs can't even tune their own instruments." This was prophetic.

I got to his place, took out my instrument, and he said, "Let's play (so and so)."

I said, "Let's tune first."

He hit an open E chord on his guitar and said, "I'm in tune."

I said, "Nope. Hit a C" He did. It was out of tune. I offered my electronic tuner. He refused it. He thought he could do it by ear. Most people can't.

I put the instrument back into the case and said, "Good luck. You don't need me. If you don't care enough to tune up, you don't need me. We really wouldn't get along very well." And I left. He stuck with lawyering, I hope.

So, what's the point?

He thought he was ready to be a pro. He really wasn't. He didn't have a clue as to what was involved. He thought that all it was, was knowing how to sing a few songs. There is a lot more than that. You have to start with the premise of selling those songs to the audience. But first you have to sell yourself.

So, if you are an amateur magician, and you can execute several pieces at a professional level, are you ready to be a professional? Maybe, maybe not.

Can you sell yourself? Can you produce consistently? Do you have presentations for all the things you are going to do that really fit you and are not, as Burger refers to them, "channelling various other magicians?"

If so, you may be ready. There is only one way to find out.

Do it.

And if it doesn't work, figure out why it didn't work, and correct it. Then do it again.

There is nothing inherently wrong with being a very competent amateur magician. It is much better than being a bumbler who calls himself a professional, but does not have any of the symptoms.
"The Swatter"

Founder of CODBAMMC

My Chickasaw name is "Throws Money at Cups."
Bill Palmer
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Now, let's get into the seamy side of professional performance. What happens when the professional starts behaving in an unprofessional manner? Why does it happen? Why might a professional not have the same passion for magic as an amateur?

There are a number of things that happen to you when you do magic constantly. Sometimes you get tired of it. Magic tricks are no longer an adventure of discovery. Instead, they become worn out tools that you want to get away from. Sometimes there is artistic burnout. Magic is like any other job at that time. Remember more than half of the people in America hate their jobs.

Granted, when you do the same set over and over constantly, you learn things about those tricks that other people will never find out. The first time you perform CTW, it probably will not be pretty. The 100th time, it will begin to look very good. By the 1000th time, it will be very good. And you probably won't be doing it exactly like you did the first time. You will have found more efficient methods, subtleties in the timing and elements of misdirection that will make this a really artistic performance. There is a point sometime when you will probably get tired of it. That's the danger spot.

Different people handle this different ways. Some stop doing the routine for a while. Others stop concentrating on what they are doing. Still others practice through it, and then the routine becomes something really beautiful. This is one reason that it is a good idea to work with material you really like. Otherwise you will burn out eventually.

Some performers experience artistic burnout. It starts with a reluctance to go to work. You begin to forget some of the things you need -- that Sharpie marker, the envelopes, the cards. You make a side trip to pick up the things you need. Then, at some point, you are just going through the motions, doing the tricks, and you don't care any more. Your work may not suffer, but you do. Suddenly, one day, you just don't want to do it any more.

I've seen the results of this. I experienced it myself when I was playing music. That's one reason I quit.

I saw a very well-known illusionist, who did a lot of "boiler room" shows, when he came to Houston to perform. He performed in front of two different sets. There was just one problem. He set both of them up at the same time. So he had some cowboy and indian props set up with a domed mosque in the background. It looked very strange. His background music was on a phonograph record. When they played it, if they ran out of music while the trick was still going on, someone grabbed the tonearm of the phonograph and jerked it across the record. YERERRRRRRKKK!!! It was AWFUL.

I really felt bad about seeing this.

It was a big contrast to watching Virgil and Julie, who performed college shows. They were set up so that when Julie was out front, Virgil was packing the parts of the show that had already been done, and vice-versa. When they finished the show, the last props rolled into the trailer, and they were ready to drive to the next town.

It wasn't an easy gig for a man who was Virgil's age, but he carried it off just fine. And his work was excellent. I wish I'd seen him when he was doing his big show, but he did this material extremely well.

Some performers fight off the burnout with alcohol or drugs. Neither one will work.

Sometimes what it takes is work on new material. And the success of that depends on whether depression has set in.

Imagine how one of these fellows would react to "I know 100 card tricks. How many do you know?"
"The Swatter"

Founder of CODBAMMC

My Chickasaw name is "Throws Money at Cups."
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