Did the title get your attention? Good.
A question I get relatively often is something along the lines of "Allan, how can I improve my magic? How can I become a better magician?"
Every time someone asks me that, I explain that it is a very hard question to answer, because it depends on where you are coming from and where you are at in magic. However, today I will try to answer it here. While everyone is different, I believe that there are some fairly universal steps and actions that we can all take to improve what we do.
Before I get into the twelve tips that I have listed below - a disclaimer is in order: While I say all of these things, it doesn't mean that I do all of them myself. I don't want to come across as a hypocrite or a know-it-all. I'm neither. I am in a position to offer these suggestions and thoughts because I have been practicing and studying magic for the last 17 years. That does not make me good however. I have a long way to go and I am an eternal student of magic. I imagine I'll be saying the same thing if you ask me again in 5, 10, 20 or even 40 years. That's the mindset that I believe is required to become really good at something. And yes, I do most of the things that I have listed below. Otherwise I wouldn't mention them!
Let's look at the twelve tips.
This is the easiest way to improve what you do. You are already practicing pretty much every day, but you can take steps to maximize what you get out of your investment. Adding more practice time is helpful. Having a plan for practice is also important. I'm sure you already keep lists of things you are working on - you can also try keeping lists of things you are practicing and things you want to improve on specifically. That makes your practice sessions more targeted and focused. Keep them free from distractions. Turn your phone off, practice away from your computer or at least with the monitor off. Listening to music is sometimes helpful, but sometimes quiet is what you need to really work on certain things.
I've seen a certain mindset amongst some "working" magicians. This idea, that since they're already experienced and already working, they don't need to practice as much, or they don't have the time to practice, etc. It's basically one excuse after another. If magic is your job, of course you have time to practice. More so, you actually have an obligation to practice. You don't want to be doing bad, unrefined magic, do you? If you're out there actually doing shows and performing for people while getting paid, if anything, you should practice more than anyone else. Just put the work in.
2: Study more
This goes hand-in-hand with practice. Just like you can never practice too much - you can never know too much. Magic is one of those fields where having a really vast knowledge will make you better. I bet you have at least a few magic books in your shelf that you haven't even started reading. I bet you have a dozen books you haven't finished reading. That movie you were planning on seeing tonight can wait - go pick one of those books down from the shelf and read it. Seriously. You'll discover something new or learn something new. Maybe it will inspire you to finish something you are working on, or start something new. Maybe it will give you what you needed to improve something you already do. In magic, knowledge really is power.
3: Film yourself
When practicing, I'm sure a lot of you use mirrors. That's good, but unfortunately they have a blind spot - our own eyes. We are less critical when viewing a mirror image because it is happening in real time. We often inclined to give ourselves the most flattering angle and adjust our hands and gaze accordingly. Unfortunately, this habit could lead to us fooling ourselves more than we fool and delight our audiences. Using a camera, and positioning it roughly where the audience would be, gives us a better view of ourselves. This lets you see yourself the way your audience will see you - and the camera is very unforgiving. For some it can be a harsh realization watching their magic on video - but it's a necessary one and it will help you improve. You can go frame by frame, scrutinize and adjust your own angles, movements, choreography and performance. You will learn so much from watching yourself on video.
4: Want to be better
Reality check. In order to become better, you need to want to be better. You need to have a burning desire to be really good at what you do. Honestly, if you don't want to be good at what you do, why are you even doing it?
5: Love what you do
You need to love magic in order to be good at it. It's probably the only thing that will push you to work as hard as you need to work in order to really excel.
6: Watch more good magic
Go out and see a magic show. Not just any magic show - but go out and see your heroes. The performers you truly look up to. Go watch your favorite magicians perform. You probably have to travel in order to make it happen. But it's worth it. I grew up in Norway, where there is almost no magic activity in terms of shows. I had to travel out into the world, and it has been so worth it. I try to see good magic as often as I can. Watching good magic will inspire you. It will make you see what's possible in this incredible art form. If you're lucky, you'll also get really fooled and amazed, and it will make you feel that incredible sensation of wonder again. I love turning off the magician switch for a night and just being an audience member enjoying a fantastic piece of entertainment.
7: Go to a convention
See performers. Get ideas. Get feedback. Make friends and connections. Be social with people who love the same thing as you. Attend lectures. Take notes. Be inspired. Some conventions are great, some conventions are terrible. Try to pick one convention a year you'd love to go to, and do everything in your power to be there. Even if it's on the other side of the world. I have to get on a 11 hour flight to attend my favorite convention. And I do it, every time. You should too.
8: Meet some magicians
Meet some local magicians. Show them what you are working on. Discuss your ideas. Get feedback. Take the feedback seriously. But be aware of who you socialize with and who you share your ideas with. Not everyone is in a position to give good feedback and not everyone deserves your trust.
9: Ask questions
Doing research and being independent is important. You need to be self-sufficient and you need to be able to track down really obscure pieces of information on your own. Even if it involves hours in front of your computer or rummaging through your local magic club's library. But sometimes you just have to ask questions. About those sorts of things you can't find out on your own or those things you can't find in a book. When you've done your research and your homework, it's time to ask questions. Then you pick someone you think could answer your questions, and you ask them. Ask good questions. Ask specific questions. "How can I improve my magic?" is not a very specific question, especially if the person doesn't know anything about you and your situation in magic. "I have been doing card magic for 3 years. I just finished Card College for the second time and I love effects involving faro work and estimation. What's a good next read for someone in my situation?" is a specific question and one that makes it really easy to be helpful.
10: Don't let it get to your head
Try to keep level-headed and modest. Always know that you can be better and that you probably have a long way to go. The moment you delude yourself and think that you can't get any better, is when you fail. Never forget that.
11: Take a break
Sometimes it helps to take a break for a few days, maybe even a week or more. About once a year I put away the cards and don't do anything magic-related for up to a week. During that week I focus on other aspects of my life. It's really healthy, and by the time a few days have gone by I start to miss magic, which is a sign that I am ready to come back. I'll come back with a fresh outlook and be in a better position to do good work.
12: Find inspiration from other places
Don't get inspired just by magic. Find inspiration in movies, novels, stories, theater, sculptures, paintings, dance, sports, food, travel, music and other things. There is inspiration and stories in every art and craft out there. If you have another interest, can that be combined with magic? This process and this way of thinking will take you along a path in which you will be able to develop your own voice and vision as a performer. That's extremely important.
Alright, I think that's it. Those are 12 points to improving your magic. If you decide to follow all 12 of them, you should have enough to do for the rest of your life. And I haven't even mentioned some of the big ones, such as getting a mentor, taking acting/drama classes, going out and performing. I think those are fairly obvious. Performing is by far the best way to get better, but there are a lot of things that have to happen before you are ready to perform, and there are a lot of things to do between performances. I tried to cover only those things in this blog post.
Ultimately there is no big secret to getting really really good at something. It's just about putting the work in and being smart about it. It takes years. It takes love, passion, criticism and a great deal of patience.
I'm happy to answer your questions (see the note about asking questions above), and if you have any you can email them to me here.
Thanks for reading, and I hope you found this valuable, insightful and helpful.
Any thoughts are always appreciated in the comments section below.
PS: If you got this far, here's a 13th tip: Read a lot of books. Most of them should not be magic books.
Did the title get your attention? Good.