You've probably seen the announcements for Jeff McBride's Master Class, where performers are invited to "learn the secrets of better magic in a fun and informal setting." At first glance, the tuition might seem a little steep for what's promised. But since most graduates of Master Class were raving that the experience was worth every penny of it, we decided to find out exactly what you get out of a weekend spent at Master Class.
At the end of the movie Old Yeller I would expect animal-lovers to cry. I also wouldn't be surprised to see star-struck teenagers get misty-eyed at an N'Sync concert. But I never would have expected to see magicians shedding tears at the end of a magic class.
During the "closing circle" of Jeff McBride's Master Class, held in his Las Vegas home on September 8 through 10, some attendees had difficulty preventing a few tears from dripping down their cheeks. This raw and, in my experience, unprecedented display of emotion at the end of an educational magic event testifies to the strength and depth of the Master Class experience. For the participants, this intensive seminar designed to teach "the secrets of better magic in a fun and informal setting," was more than a weekend getaway. It was a life-changing experience that according to attendee Carl Jones from Dallas, "was the single most helpful experience I've had since jumping into magic about four years ago."
Patterned after university-style lecture classes, McBride's Master Class is limited to a small number of students, usually around a dozen, who wish to have a semi-private session with one of magic's most popular performers. The class is open to all ages and skill levels; some members of the class may be professional magicians with years of performing experience tucked under their cumberbunds, while others may be relative newcomers. Often, special guest Eugene Burger co-leads the class, helping to balance McBride's enthusiasm with wise reserve. In addition, ancillary instructors Dan Harlan and Tobias Beckwith participated in the sessions, intermittently interjecting their own unique views on magic.
The three days of activities comprising my session began with an "opening circle/vision council" where the 12 attendees introduced themselves and articulated their goals for the weekend. Most did not come to the class hoping to learn tricks. Instead, they hoped to polish their current routines, refine their stage presence, put together new material outside of their current realms of specialty, and to gain insight into the life of a professional magician. These were tall orders to be filled in just one weekend, but Jeff tackled them immediately by offering preliminary advice based on each student's initial statement. For example, to Javier Garza, a magic tyro who came to the Master Class to learn how to envelop his life more fully in magic, Jeff suggested that he read Eugene Burger and Robert Neale's Magic and Meaning. That title, along with any other book that Jeff specifically suggested that a student read, was instantly accessible and available for "check out" from Jeff's extensive library. This immediate feedback set the tone for the weekend; the advice would be directed and tailored to each student's needs. If an attendee had a problem, Jeff would try and solve it.
Next came a three-hour long session called "Works in Progress." This was the time for interested students to present some of their current routines for criticism. Participation was not mandatory so that those who preferred to just listen and watch could do so. After performing a ten-minute routine before the group, Jeff and Eugene would make critical comments about it. For about 15 minutes they would dissect the performance, highlighting both its strengths and weaknesses. Rather than simply acknowledging internal problems with a routine, they would suggest solutions to these problems and even take the time to solve them immediately. They also tried to make changes that maintained the integrity of each student's style and character. Joe Pawlak, an amateur magician with 40 years of magic experience behind him, felt that during his feedback session he "ended up receiving extremely creative suggestions" to improve his magic.
Jayson Morrison, a 13-year-old magician from New Orleans, presented a short card-manipulation act during the opening session. His sleight of hand impressed everyone, especially in light of his age, as did his interesting stage persona. But his act lacked structure and a storyline, and some of the magic was not clearly presented. Jeff immediately reordered the act to provide an underlying narrative and also streamlined the act, eliminating superfluous effects and props. He introduced a scarf into Jayson's card routine and also suggested an ending with spring flowers. Besides the aforementioned additions, Jeff worked entirely with the effects that Jayson already performed. He did not try to invent or suggest wild new routines. Jeff also gave Jayson the "real work" on some of his current effects. For example, Jayson did a brief sequence with a "Dancing Cane." Jeff suggested a better thread to use and also revealed some of his own cane techniques.
One quickly got the feeling that Jeff would hide nothing. He was willing to share all his professional secrets with the attendees. In fact, throughout the weekend Jeff continually asked what people wanted to learn and willingly taught everything within his ability. If he didn't know how to do something, at the very least, he suggested a resource that would have the answers. Gerry Morrison, Jayson's mother, who also attended the workshop class, admitted to not trusting other magician's suggestions because of their lack of experience, "But," she said, "we trusted Eugene and Jeff because this has worked for them."
If Jayson were to implement all the suggestions that Jeff made, his act would' improve greatly. But that is the interesting predicament of the class. We do not know whether the students heed Jeff and Eugene's advice or not. Even during the feedback session, Jeff and Eugene talk with only limited interaction from a student. It is never clear whether the information is digested or not. As we all know, a nodding head doesn't necessarily indicate comprehension. And since the students don't get a chance to re-present their routines during Master Class, neither Jeff nor Eugene nor anyone else knows if any actual benefit was derived from the advice or not, Instead, the students must go home and make changes on their own. To ease this process, the sessions are videotaped for later study. But ultimately, Jeff and Eugene can only begin each student down a path of self-directed improvement; they cannot ensure an actual transformation.
The question then becomes whether or not Jeff and Eugene provide the appropriate tools to each student so that they can begin and sustain their own process of growth. I think the answer is yes. Because the entire class is able to listen to the critiquing sessions of others, it is possible to gain a lot of practical and theoretical knowledge from them. Carl Jones agreed: "The feedback that classmates got on their acts, whether it was stand-up or closeup, was incredibly helpful to each of us and I, like my fellow attendees, left there with page upon page of incredibly valuable notes. What was good for one person, in many cases, was good for others in the room too."
After the first half of the class presented their routines for criticism, the pace changed as Tobias Beckwith led the group through a series of stretches, shimmies, and shakes designed to warm-up the body prior to a performance. As Tobias explained, the exercises are fairly standard fare for experienced theater performers, but magicians often neglect to do them before show time...
After a short dinner break, the group reconvened at Jeff's home for a more formal lecture by Eugene called the "Philosophy of Magic." During the weekend, Jeff and Eugene presented a few formal lectures on such topics as enhancing performance impact, show structure and flow, and living the life of a magician. Themes that surfaced during the feedback sessions were often reiterated during these lectures, but in a more formal and thorough manner.
After the lecture, we traveled to Caesars Magical Empire for a show starring Jeff McBride. It gave attendees the chance to witness McBride in action and relax and digest some of the information absorbed during the day. At the end of the first evening I heard more than a few of the attendees say that if Master Class ended now, it would have been well worth its $69S price tag. Clearly, the students were pleased with the direction and intensity of the class.
The second day began at noon with another "circle" where Jeff offered up more advice for each student. Then it was back to "Works in Progress" where the remaining students showcased their acts and received criticism in front of the group. Tobias again took the reins once again and led the group through movement exercises.
After a dinner break, Tobias, who also doubles as Jeff's business manager, gave a lecture on the business side of magic. This lecture explained proper marketing techniques for magicians and touched upon such things as creating effective promotional material and approaching agents and managers. Tobias' real-world experience in the entertainment industry made the lecture quite enlightening. According to Jones, "This session could have been three times as long. It was one of the most valuable experiences of the weekend." Detroit-area professional magician Kevin Lepine agreed. He felt that every word out of Tobias' mouth on business should have been written down and committed to memory.
Eugene and Dan Harlan ... each took half of the group and gave mini-lectures. Dan dealt with stand-up magic and taught the group a rope and card routine while Eugene focused on close-up magic. This portion of the class satisfied any students who wanted to leave with at least a few new routines or sleights to perform. Also, the students were delighted to work with Dan who proved to be a thoughtful teacher and entertainer.
Sunday, the last day of Master Class, promised another visit from a special Las Vegas guest. When the door opened and it was Siegfried, one half of magic's most dynamic duo, accompanied by "The Voice of Magic," singer/magician Darren Romeo, the class was most pleasantly surprised. Siegfried talked openly about his life in magic and fielded questions from the class with candor and wit. Most were taken aback by Siegried's friendliness and sincerity and found him to be an inspiring conversationalist.
To close the Master Class, the group formed a circle and shared their final thoughts on their experience together. Students were unanimously enthusiastic about the class and continually thanked Jeff, Eugene, Tobias, and Dan for their leadership and guidance. The intensity of the three days, coupled with the sense that we had all learned very important techniques to improve our magic, served as the catalyst for what would happen next; people started to cry. But it was not the newly learned teachings that inspired the eruption of emotion. Instead, it was (at the risk of sounding incredibly cheesy) the feeling of warmth and love in the room. Because Jeff cultivated an environment of camaraderie, companionship, and support at his home, many students strongly connected with other members of the class. The most magical part of the weekend was the growth of this connection. It wouldn't have developed if an authoritarian pedagogue stood before us lecturing dogmatically about doing better magic. It happened because we all interacted as equals, and ended up leaving as friends.
Dan Cole is a professional magician living in Los Angeles, and he attended one the last of McBride's weekend workshops conducted this year.