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The Magic Cafe Forum Index » » The September 2003 entrée: Whit Haydn » » Against Originality in Magic » » TOPIC IS LOCKED (0 Likes) Printer Friendly Version

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Whit Haydn
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This is a reprint of an essay in my Chicago Surprise manuscript. I wanted to publish this here in order to initiate a discussion on the topic. Let me know what you think.

The following article was first published in the newsletter of the Blackstone Ring:

Against Originality In Magic

In magic convention contests and in the meetings at local rings, much is made of the importance of originality. It seems to me that this concern is sometimes misdirected, and most certainly so when it comes to young or beginning magicians.

It is essential that those who want to learn magic start by copying or imitating others. There is nothing wrong with this—provided of course, that the effects and routines being copied have been published by the originators. In fact, I don’t believe one can learn to be a good magician except by imitation.

A beginning guitar player isn’t told to make up original songs. He first learns to play other people’s work. Neither should a beginning magician be asked to do original tricks.

The way that patter goes with the presentation of the trick, the feel for routining, the subtleties of misdirection—these are all learned best by the student taking a great routine and learning to do it the way it was created by a competent working performer. I have too often seen magic students learn a classic routine and then immediately begin to muck around with it for the sake of “originality.”

Often, one doesn’t understand the subtleties of a routine until he or she has performed it many times in front of people. It is only from faithfully reproducing the routine in front of an audience that one begins to see why certain moves or patter lines are structured or placed the way the originator had them. Without spending time performing the routine the way it was created, the student abandons all the experience, knowledge, and thought that went into its creation.

Routines should not be changed for the sake of being “original.” Originality should come in when there is some need—when the routine as written doesn’t suit the personality of the performer, his performing situations, or has some inconsistency or fault that the performer finds and corrects. This should come after the routine has been explored in front of an audience many times.

All the great magicians had to learn their craft somewhere. They all began by copying the work of those that they admired.

In Zen brush painting, the student would apprentice with a master for eight years. Each morning the master would let the students watch him create a few paintings, and for the rest of the day, the students would try to exactly copy those paintings with as much speed and accuracy as possible. In the evening, the teacher would look over their work and give them suggestions for improvement in their technique.

Students were not encouraged or allowed to be “original.” At the end of the eight years, the students were sent out into the world. At this point they would have absorbed the point of view, values, and tastes of the instructor. They would have an appreciation and understanding of their art.

The idea was that if they could capture whatever image the master showed them perfectly, then they could capture any original image that came into their heads. If they were not original thinkers, then they would always be good copyists and could make a living at that. If they had original ideas, then they would have the skill to realize them.

In magic, I have often seen very clever and original material that suffered from a lack of knowledge of the basics of the craft. I prefer to see classic or familiar magic done well, than original magic that fails to fool or to entertain. Much can be gained from reading the philosophy of magic in books such as Maskelyne and Devant’s Our Magic (my favorite magic book), but it is only in the experience of performing that these lessons really begin to make sense and can be applied.

There is nothing wrong with a magic act that lacks originality but is professionally and competently done. In music, this would be the equivalent of the cover bands that play for weddings and similar events. These groups are respectable and serve a need. The lack of originality will keep them from going beyond these sorts of venues, but within this area, they are perfectly fine.

Many magicians would fall under a similar category. Not everyone has the skill, originality, and dedication of a Lance Burton, but magic that is well executed, and performed entertainingly is always going to be well received. As the magician grows in his understanding of the art, his need for originality will grow as well.

I would like to see magic organizations encourage young magicians to learn the classics. Too often, the need for the hobbyist to see something new and different regardless of its quality overtakes the need for entertaining, well-executed magic. The great street magician Jim Cellini hosted a famous get-together of close-up performers in Greensboro, NC a few years back. Slydini, Frank Garcia, Bob Sheets, Karl Norman and many other top performers attended.

The performers concentrated on their most commercial magic, without regard to repetition. We saw many different variations of the card on ceiling, the cups and balls, and other classic effects. It was an incredible experience. Watching fine performers do their own versions of the same routines provided a hugely rewarding lesson in the art of magic, and a resource for future ideas.

The contests for young magicians might best be structured around classics like the linking rings, cups and balls, etc. Within the context of a cups and balls contest, for example, a premium should be placed on skill, technique, and entertainment value. Originality should be relegated to its rightful place—as an important but not necessarily the most important criteria.

--Whit Haydn, 9/8/99
Lee Darrow
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BRAVO!!!

I can't think of how many times I have thought the same thing, or said something similar, only to get pounded on by the wannabes and the never-was's!

To take your music analogy a bit further, Van Cliburn isn't much of a composer, neither is Yo Yo Ma, but they are both recognized virtuosi (pl. of virtuoso) in their own areas of music. And NOBODY disses them for not being "original!"

They are judged by style, form, substance, phrasings, tonality and interpretations of other people's works among other things.

Why not apply that logic to magic?

"One should not try to run when one cannot yet crawl." Lao Tzu.

In Jazz, one does not go straight into riffing or cutting without a solid understanding of the basics. That's a sure fire way to flop and get burned.

It's great to see someone who understands and is able to put it so eloquently!!

I am really looking forward to this!

Lee Darrow, C.Ht.
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<BR>"Because NICE Matters!"
Whit Haydn
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Thanks, Lee. I also think that a lot of the guidance on how to be a magician is based on what it takes to be a great magician, based on what the great magicians have accomplished and how they went about it. Few of us are ever going to be truly great originals, and those are usually people with a unique gift and vision. Very hard to copy.

What most of us need is a guide on how to be a "good" magician. That is also rarer than it should be, and part of the reason is that we have so many magicians trying to be "great" before they have become "good."

As in your quote from Lao Tzu, "One should not try to run when one cannot yet crawl."

In my published work, I would rather produce practical, solid magic for the average performer who wants to become good.
Lee Darrow
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If you don't let me know when you're in Chicago the next time, I am going to be sorely disappointed!

Without going through the steps, paying one's dues, playing the scales, one cannot truly aspire to greatness.

The proof of this is in all the factory-built boy or girl bands. One or two hits, they all sound pretty much the same and have the same moves and no one remembers them six months later.

This is exactly what some of the younger magicians are dealing with now. Except that, instead of star promotions companies looking for eye candy that can sing and be taught a few basic dance steps, the magicians are getting their material canned from video and dvd.

This leads to magicians who start off in their "acts" as a Jay Sankey clone, move in the next trick to looking and sounding like Gary Kurtz, flipping to Daryl and then to Paul Harris!

While each of these performers is a great in and of themselves, the mish-mosh of styles on stage is jarring, to say the least!

And it does no good just to parrot moves and lines, as we both know. One HAS to inject one's own personality into the performances one is doing.

If not, all you get as a series of pale (and usually excrable) imitations of some fine performers. And audiences who STILL believe that magic is for kids - "cuz it sure don't ennertane AYDULTS!" (spelling errors on that quote are deliberate)

Keep the faith!

Lee Darrow, C.Ht.
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leefoley3
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Very profound input, guys. I know that I can only benefit from imformation and insight such as this. I'm very impressed (and thankful)!! Smile
In December of '06 I was diagnosed with a very rare cancer, Dermatofibrosarcoma Protuberans. One in a million people worldwide are diagnosed with this type of cancer annually. Sarcomas account for 1% of all cancers. Knowledge is power!
Maestro
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Thanks for posting your essay here! I don't know about anyone else, but as a beginning magician, reading this made me feel a whole lot better. Smile

It is important and necessary to be yourself when performing magic at any skill level, but I don't think this means all of a person's effects must be origional (especially when just starting out in magic), as you argue in your essay.
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I am sure this essay has brought many smiles to the novice magicians in the house, I know they did for me when I read them in the Chicago Surprise manuscript. I am a musician as well, and was sure of the truth of this essay as soon as I had read it. I thought back to a point when I wasn't 'an original' and was wondering how one gained the necessary skill and knowledge without angering any 'old timers.' I think the answer is to make an effort to find a likely mentor for one's magic hopes, and one whose own presentation is not so far outside of your own persona. For example, it would be better for me to imitate a more cerebral persona rather than a very energetic one. I would sound like a really bad Jay Sankey doing Jay Sankey material, but if I chose something more in line with my own demeanor I wouldn't necessarily be accused of being another 'baby Jay.' I see nothing wrong with, and much right with, starting with proven material that has been published and honed by a professional. We would do well to choose wisely, though. Thanks so much for joining us this week, Mr. Haydn.

Mark
Whit Haydn
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I would take things a little farther than you guys. There is nothing wrong with imitation. The beginner should imitate the teacher exactly. Personality, mannerisms, timing--everything.

Slydini used to teach his students to copy his every nuance, even to the point of gesturing like him and even using his Italian accent. His great students, like Cellini, can probably still do an exact imitation of him, though they no longer perform that way. Cellini learned like all of Slydini's students, but then went on and carried what he learned farther until he became a unique performer and personality, and a master himself. Look again at what I wrote about the Zen brush master.

It is not just the routine, but the timing, the misdirection, the emotions and expressions that should be copied. Now that doesn't mean you should go out and do that in public, although you will at first. And it may take time to shake the personality of the teacher off. That is all part of the learning experience. You should begin by mimicking. There are a lot of ways to grow past that mimicry later.

I still sometimes find Eddie Fector's inflections coming out of my mouth when I do one of his routines. No one in the audience would notice it, but I do. It always makes me smile and think "Hi, Eddie." When I first learned great close-up from Brian Gillis, I found myself copying his Buffalo accent, and I am from Tennessee. When I was beginning, I copied lots of the pros, and sometimes performed with an assortment of styles and voices that would embarrass me now.

Once you can imitate the masters perfectly, then you begin to let your own personality emerge, enlarged by the master's personality. To avoid becoming a complete copy of someone else, you should study and imitate more than one master. Each will enlarge the range of your performing personality, while helping to merge and cancel the others out. Eventually you find a way to be yourself, but somehow "containing" the masters within.

You will never get very far by being an imitation of someone else, but the beginner can get much farther, much faster by absorbing the master's work through imitation.

I often use an exercise with my students to broaden the scope of their presentations through imitation. I have them perform their routines as some famous actor whose personality is familiar enough for them to assimilate. They do the routine for example, as Peter Lorre would do it. Then as Jimmy Stuart. Then as Edward G. Robinson. Humphrey Bogart. Whoever appeals to them.

It is not important to do a "good" imitation, but to hear the speech and feel the timing and mannerisms of the actor in their work. This opens up whole new vistas of personality, phrasing, timing, and vocalization that inform and stretch the way they look at the routine they are working on. It also stretches the imagination and offers new possibilities for them to explore in their own personalities.

Imitation is an exercise that every beginning student that has not yet found his voice and persona should explore. It keeps us from becoming trapped in what is familiar and safe.

If you think I am saying that you should begin by doing the master routines exactly, but with your own personality, phrasing, and timing, you are not following me. I mean for the beginner to be a copy.

Any great musician can imitate the work of his heroes in music. He started by listening to them and learning to play just like them. It is after he mastered the master's work that he grows past it into his own.
Bill Hallahan
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If you copy another magician’s act exactly, then aren't you hurting their act?

For example, I imagine copying Daryl’s ring and rope routine exactly and performing it in public. Later, Daryl comes into town (we should be so lucky.)

I am an amateur and he is a world class magician. How embarrassing would it be for him, and for me, if someone who didn’t know Daryl was to say to him, "That was good, you do it just like Bill Hallahan." (Now you know my fantasy about being as good as a F.I.S.M. gold medalist!)

I thought that copying someone’s act exactly was not only in bad taste, but it was unethical.

I am not really disagreeing, I am seeking clarification. I would like to be able to copy polished acts. The great magicians are certainly better than I. But I have always been uncomfortable doing that.
Humans make life so interesting. Do you know that in a universe so full of wonders, they have managed to create boredom. Quite astonishing.
- The character of ‘Death’ in the movie "Hogswatch"
Whit Haydn
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Well, in the first place, I am only talking about doing published routines.

Copying someone's act is very different. Presenting yourself as the Charming Cheat, or any other perfomer's trademark style and dress would be wrong. I don't think that you should use more than one effect in your stage act from the same source.

When you do a number of the routines from a perfomer's repertoire in a similar order you are doing much more than learning by imitation. You are borrowing the structure and character the performer has created.

By the time you are performing in public for money, you should already be beyond the beginner stage and working on your own personality and performance.

But Daryl's routine is published, including the patter. If he were worried about people copying his presentation, he would not have published it. The same with my Four Ring Routine, which many magicians use word for word. It has never bothered me.

I know that other pros may have different feelings about this, but once something is published in print or other media, the performer has given up a great deal of control over it--unless he has specifically reserved certain performance rights.

Copying another magician's presentation will not get you very far. By the time you understand the timing and presentation, you should be moving on to develop your own personality.

Copying is something I recommend for the beginner, not for someone who is out making money performing. I think one of the problems with magic today is that too many guys are out charging money for magic before they have developed sufficiently as artists to have anything of their own to present.

But a published routine, say Martin Lewis's Cardiographic, can be presented as written. I often do other pro's published routines on the ships, often without many changes in presentation, though with my own personality.

I have a little more than an hour of truly original stage magic, and the second hour of material is made up from published routines of other performers, some of which I have altered to suit me, some of them pretty much as published.

I change a routine when I feel the need to adapt the routine for my performing conditions, my personality, or to fit in with the other routines in my act.
Jonathan Townsend
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Whit,

You are addressing your comments to beginners and I'll go along with the advice;

That THEY learn the basics, and some full routines AS WRITTEN and from that mastery move on to develop their performing personae.

Originality and invention come about from necessity, not mere ego. Until someone finds a personal motivation to change a routine that comes from working, there is usually little improvement as a result.

For example, David Roth tipped his chink-a-chink and winged silver back in 77. There has been little improvement on these routines in the last twenty plus years... even though for some reason variations get published almost every week, and people seem to like adding 'kickers'.

I'm not going to point fingers or name names on this matter. Instead, I'll just agree and stronly suggest folks work on the basics of our craft, and treat published material with respect and historical context.

Won't make any comment about folks doing unpublished material they happen to see.
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mattpuglisi
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I'm thrilled to hear this coming from such an esteemed professional - one who obviously understands the mechanisms of learning magic.

Imitation is perhaps the most natural learning strategy, one that appears to be "wet-wired" in all of us. (How, exactly, did you learn to write? Or, better still, how did you learn to think? Think about it. Smile) We learn how to express ourselves (in various ways) by imitation and repetition (and, paradoxically, introspection, but I won't go off on that tangent), and these strategies and processes are thereby fundamental to the acquisition of any art. They must occur prior to the knowledge gained by one's experiences, which then allows us to more effectively refine the fundamentals we have learned, and shapes what we have learned into something personal.
Lack of invention is the mother of necessity - Robert Nozick

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Payne
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The real question here is where does copying stop and mimicry begin. In the old days (pre video and DVD) magic was generally learned from books and manuscripts. Descriptions of moves and sleights were not always as clear as they could have been and thus were open to various forms of interpretation. Two magi learning from the same source material could, and oft times did, derive entirely different presentations of a particular routine. This however is not generally the case with video and DVD aided instruction. A person learning from a DVD is more likely to mimic the artist on the recording than he is to infuse the effect with his own style.
Cover Bands and Actors are often sighted as examples of why originality is not always to be sought. They don't write their lines or compose their own music. And while this is true a good performer will infuse their presentation, whether they wrote it or not, with their own unique interpretation of the lines or music. People don't line up to see Yo Yo Ma play their favorite tune they go to see how he is going to play their favorite tune. The notes are all the same but he infuses them with his own unique style.
There is a difference between doing your version of Tabaray's Rope routine and Tabaray's rope routine exactly as it appeared on the DVD.
I will agree that mimicry can be a valuable learning aid. I myself went through a Doug Henning phase followed by a Harry Anderson phase. Fortunately I got over it and no known pictures nor recordings exist of this dark time in my magical past.
And there's the rub. When does one get over it? Many unfortunately never do. I am sure there are still Slydini students out there who break into an Italian accent every time they are asked to do a trick. The good performers took what they learned and merged it into their own unique style. All artist start on the road to learning their craft by imitating the masters. Painters copy masterpieces to learn technique. Those who master that technique and infuse it with their own style become Artists and show their work in galleries. Those who never learn from what they copy continue to imitate the technique of others and their work can be seen in hotel lobbies and waiting rooms.
"America's Foremost Satirical Magician" -- Jeff McBride.
Whit Haydn
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Some people will never be original artists. Not only because they don't have the drive, but often because they don't have the creativity, intelligence, and talent. Some are happy to paint for hotel lobbies and waiting rooms. Just glad to be doing something they love. These kind of performers have their place. Few wedding receptions can afford a Sinatra, but are happy with a good copy.
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What a great essay, Whit! Thank you for sharing some valuable advice. I was lucky to spend some time with Slydini, and I was taught in the same way that all his students were - do as I do - EXACTLY! And those lessons have served me well all these many years. You are right, imitation is the first step to understanding your craft, to developing good habits (assuming you've picked good mentors!), to good workmanship. I understand direction and misdirection, audience psychology, the concept of challenging an audience and how that may or may not work, all as a result of Tonys' lessons. But I don't "do" Tony, in fact, I can't. It just doesn't suit me. But any student of Slydinis' will immediately recognize his influence when they see me work. I know, because people I didn't know have come to me after a show and said "Did you study with Slydini?" without my having done a single thing that even remotely resembled Slydini material. Of course these were students who understood Tonys' work, and so had adapted his principles to thier material in the same way that I did. By the way, I mentioned Slydini because he is such a cliched example of the copyist theory. I had many other mentors along the way and I took liberally from all of them!

If you are blessed with certain other gifts, or work to understand certain classic tricks, standard principles, and time-honored techniques from theater as well as magic, then imitation is an important step toward creativity, as well. With a solid foundation to build on you can begin to let your character develop. I am not at all creative when it comes to tricks. I don't come up with new plots, or startling effects. But, thanks to many mentors, I have a good understanding of the magic art, and I can do an acceptable job at entertaining an audience with magic tricks! And, apparently like you, I find a part of every mentor that I copied in the character I developed over the last 40 years. If I am creative in any way, it is in becoming myself by absorbing and combining all those things I learned from others, and ending up with me!

Not all the masters were so original, either. Vernon comes to mind. His genius was not in the creation of original material, it was in his thorough understanding of the underpinnings of his craft, and his keen and incisive mind. Vernon knew how hone an effect, to develop, not create, clean and elegant handlings of classic plots. And he had good taste - an unerring eye for a good trick. You are right, creativity is not all-important. After all, can anyone deny the everlasting effect that Vernon has had on magic and magicians over the last 75+ years?

And since when does originality equate with value? I can think of many ORIGINAL ideas that are not very good, at all. The art world offers many good examples. William Burroughs "Shotgun Art" may have been original, but, by his own admission, a fraud, and not very good at all! In fact he perpetrated it on an unsuspecting public as a total sham, a con.

We place far too great a value on originality for its' own sake, as opposed to the value of its' product. By all means, imitate, I believe you will find far more value in that process than the alternative.

Best, PSC
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Quote:
On 2003-09-03 19:23, whithaydn wrote:
Some people will never be original artists. Not only because they don't have the drive, but often because they don't have the creativity, intelligence, and talent. Some are happy to paint for hotel lobbies and waiting rooms. Just glad to be doing something they love. These kind of performers have their place. Few wedding receptions can afford a Sinatra, but are happy with a good copy.


I like the way you think.
Jonathan Townsend
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imitation can help with modeling
if one has a clear understanding of WHAT YOU ARE MODELING
after having a working model, one can use the working principles and build a model of how something could be done through a different personae.

The Slydini example is great. The first step is to get the whole performance down the way HE did it. Then, after the lessons are learned by watching audiences of people, one can try the ideas out in a differet personae.

Anyone do an impression of Christopher Walken doing a Slydini routine? Or how about Orson Wells?
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I have to agree with your assessment Whit. A beginner must learn technique first, and imitation is necesary in order to learn technique. How can one learn technique without imitating others?

Sure a beginner read about technique from a book. Try to figure it out from the printed page, and perhaps even stumbling upon some new technique, in the process, and miss the fundamentals. By imitating the masters one learns proper technnique. It's similar to learning karate.

In traditional karate there are really only two belts - white and black. A white belt is a beginner, someone imitates others in order to learn basic technique. After about four years of practicing technique, and never washing the belt as that destroys its power, the belt is now black and the beginner in now considered a "student," ready to begin learning what karate is all about.

After another ten years, the student may be ready to begin developing his or her own style. After another twenty or so years, the martial artist might even be considered a "master."

Unfortunately, it's not the same in magic. I'm always a little saddened when I see someone who has been into magic for less than twenty years call themselves a "master magician." I don't think so....but I digress.
Jim Snack

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Hi Jim, You didn't mention that after several years of wearing a black belt the material fades and becomes white - signaling a new learning experience, a beginner but in new snse of the word.

I have found many similarities between magic and the martial arts.
Cheers,
David
Daniel Faith
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I agree 100% Whit.
I wish that there was someone like you out there when I was a newbie!
I have been to clubs that totally trash a newer magician for not being totally original even to go as far as to say they, s****d! I think that in most cases it is really ego talking.
I hope that as many experienced seasoned magicians as possible read your essay and take it to heart as truism because you are SO right!

I learned from books for the most part, so it was very difficult to immitate another performers teachings. However, I did learn from and try to immulate many of the performers I did see in person. Not effects but style, audience management, etc,..
It was the only way for me to learn!
It wasn't until much later that after learning the principles I was able to put things together myself and start being ME during a performance instead of immulating others.
It was a long and slow process but it just seemed to happen naturally.

I have often heard said that, imitation is the highest form of flattery!
Thanks Whit!
Daniel Faith
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