HomeBlogsMister Tim's blogOf Music and Magicians: pt 1.5 of 2

Mister Tim's picture

Is it possible to be critical of something, and yet still love it?

Is it possible to be aware of the inner workings of a trade, a skill, an art form, and still adore it, warts and all?

Is it possible to hold two contradictory thoughts simultaneously in your mind, and have both be true?

I sure hope so, because there are plenty of a cappella folks with decades more experience than I, who have seen more warts than ought to be seen, who still love a cappella.

I want to make this abundantly clear: I love magicians.  I think they are great, collectively as practitioners of an art, as well as individually to the same degree as I like individuals in any group (meaning, there will naturally be some I like, and some I don't, and some I can’t stand, and some I want to hang out with every day, the same as with musicians, or librarians, or mechanics, or bus drivers).

I also want to make this abundantly clear: I was using magicians as an example, a point of comparison, a launching place for discussion.

When I say novelty, or dime a dozen, I don’t mean those as personal insults.  Remember, I’m making the statement that I believe a cappella, my professional field, deserves the exact same descriptions.  I use these terms in a clinical sense, not an emotional sense.  I am making no value judgment about magicians, or magic.  I, for the sake of seeking greater success in the entertainment world, am simply attempting to wrap my odd little brain around the machinations of society.  It does me no good to categorize my art/act one way when the general public, that is to say the people who buy tickets, see it differently.  I’m not disparaging magicians; I’m actually rejoicing that they serve a wonderful function in society!  And exploring how a cappella might learn from them.

The whole purpose of part 1 of 2 was that I am trying to establish a baseline premise on which to build a more important conclusion, one that would be of benefit to a cappella singers.  I was trying to explore the comparisons, to find common ground, so that I could point out the success magicians have, and suggest ways that a cappella acts can emulate it.  I did not post the second part because a) I didn’t want the blog to be too long, and b) I really do want to know what other people think about the initial hypotheses.  I am completely open to re-evaluating my ideas!

This is my premise: there are a lot of highly successful magic acts.  A cappella acts are, in my opinion, similar in many ways to magic acts.  By studying and emulating what successful magic acts do, a cappella acts can become more successful.  That is my premise.  I will describe more of the _what_ in part 3 of 3; I will go into tedious (but oh so satisfying!) detail responding to mfeldmans comments from my previous post right here.  He made a lot of great points, and I’m very interested in exploring them!

Now would be a good place to stop reading if you’re not interested in a looooooong discussion.


I perceive some realities about magicians and magic acts.  These perceptions are my opinion.  I hold equally strong opinions about the state and nature of a cappella.  No one has to agree with me.  No one has to even read my opinions.  That’s the wonder of a blog!  I have opinions, I state them.  For the record, anyone who registers at CASA.org can state their opinions.  For the record, I love to type the word blog.

I looked at every word of my 10 points in my first post, and not only do I not find anything offensive in them, I stand by every word (with the exception of ‘sleight,’ which though accurate, always makes muh mouth feel like I’m on a lint-only diet).

There were some great comments, and issues raises, and I want to expound, if I may.  Which I can.  ‘Cuz it’s my BLOG!  Blog blog blog blog mmmmmm.

To clarify a point I brought up:

“9) There is very little to differentiate one magician from another.  One might specialize in sleight of hand, one in grand illusions, one in wrapping their tricks up in mystical or gothic or seductive trappings, but when it comes down to it, there are only so many magic tricks.  No one is doing anything unique or original.”

There are only so many tricks.  Make something materialize.  Levitation.  Jamming a sword through someone one.  Sawing in half.  I don’t know if magicians have classifications for their tricks, and how many there would be, but there is a limited number of tricks.

I know, magicians spend endless amounts of time working the nuance of the tricks, devising new ways to hide the assistant while it appears they are being segmented, putting their own spin on things.  I know that it is creative, and fulfilling, and cool.  At the end of the day, if the birthday party magician disappears your mom in the coffin of mystery, or Copperfield disappears six hot laydeeeez from a floating platform over the Mississippi river, it’s the same fundamental trick.

But the tricks still work!  Why?  Points 3-4: most people have not seen them before, or if they have, not regularly enough to be bored by it, especially if the magician wraps new bells and whistles on the trick.  Further, even if they have seen it before, even if they’ve seen it a lot, if it’s performed well it’s still a great illusion.

And the ART is wrapping it up in a way that looks new, fresh, unique, even though the basic principle is not.

mfeldman mentioned David Blaine specifically, as someone who has “a fascinating take on magic.”  What you talked about, namely:

“professing to be a person actually born with powers and calm about it. He also turned the camera back on the audience and made audience reaction the focus of a magic show. That is an incredibly original and interesting presentation for magic that had never been done before.”

What you’re talking about, as you say, is the PRESENTATION.  The tricks he’s doing?  Same old tricks everyone else does.  He’s successful because he made it about more than the trick.  He built up a whole THANG that he was able to sell.  But the content of his tricks is not any different than other acts.

NOW let’s apply this to a cappella.  Just how different are a cappella groups from one another?  Particularly at the semi-pro level.  Even at the Harmony Sweepstakes level, most listeners would have a heard time distinguishing between many groups if they couldn’t see who was on the stage.

But most people are not terribly familiar with a cappella.  It will be cool to them because it’s still novel.  Beatbox!  Wow!  Songs I recognize!  Hooray!  Funny, corny schtick between songs!  ROFLMAO!!!

It doesn’t matter that the other groups on campus, or the group that performed at the fair the previous year, or the group that is winning national awards is basically the same.  Same music, same schtick, same awkward knee-popping dance moves.

I’m not saying there aren’t exceptions!  There are original, out-of-the-box groups!  I’m saying GENERALLY.  But even then, the best groups are necessarily doing anything DIFFERENT than anyone else… they are just doing it BETTER.

So what makes the best groups best… is the way they package their product.  A combination of sheer musical talent, professional experience, onstage chemistry, smooth-in-the-spotlight performance suavity (I think I just invented the best word ever).

And what makes the not ‘best’ groups still able to be successful, is that audiences don’t care if it’s best as long as it’s entertaining.  If it’s fun, musical, nostalgic, whatever, who cares that it’s not Rockapella!

Stereotypes: I was not saying I agree with the stereotypes, be it G.O.B., cartoon magicians in tuxedos and top hats, or loud birthday party magician clowns.  I was only pointing out that they exist, and isn’t that interesting that a cappella has the same kind of stereotypes?  We, insiders, see the inaccuracies, but what is reported, what is put on television (be it Arrested Development or The Office) is what the PUBLIC sees.  You ignore that perspective to your own detriment.

Yes, there are magazine articles about magicians.  Yes, we have recently had Pitch Perfect, Ben Folds, Rudy from M*Pact on American Idol, Blake Lewis, The Sing Off, Glee… there is a LOT of parallels between magic and a cappella.

ted.trembinski made this point:

“An exception might be groups like Straight No Chaser (the pro group which was signed to a record label). I can't think of anything that might parallel to that, as I can't recall ever hearing of a magician having an equivalent of a record label.”

I think there are actually a lot of parallel cases.  mfeldmen mentioned David Blaine’s popularity on YouTube.  Magicians frequently get exposure and work their way into bigger gigs by appearing on TV.  I don’t know what the magician parallel would be to a record label, but there are certainly cases of exploding popularity, ‘viral’ emergence, if you will.

Amy Malkoff mentions that Penn & Teller “are brilliant individuals where most other magicians, I would suggest, are rehashing what's already been done due to lack of funds, time or the extraordinary brainpower that (people like P&T) have. Likewise, it's easy to be in an a cappella group, but difficult to be in a groundbreaking one. You don't even have to write music! Just write or get some arrangements of already existing songs and execute them reasonably well. It can breed complacency in some sense/s, and I think Tim is challenging us as a community, as artists, to do MORE.”

I don’t know if that was specifically what I was saying… but I certainly agree with it!  Let’s just say that’s what I was saying.

My surprise advocate hyperdel said:

“Maybe a more magician-friendly way to compare would be that there are lots of magicians (groups) but very few really great ones. BUT...there ARE great magicians (groups) and they deserve the respect that they've earned.”

I 100% agree with this statement.  I certainly was not trying to disrespect anyone.  In fact, many of my observations have come over the past several months when I drive across the strip in Las Vegas, see the Penn & Teller signs, Lance Burton, Nathan Burton, and then go to a showcase and see 8 mid-level, up-and-coming magicians, or go to a show and see a mediocre act who’s been performing in Vegas for 25 years.  There is no disrespect in comparing the different acts, whether it’s to recommend one over another for a visiting friend to buy tickets to go see, or for me to find principles to apply to my (very similar) career.

Yes, the great ones deserve respect; the not great ones deserve respect, as well, but do NOT deserve an uncritical blind eye.  Applies exactly to a cappella: there is nothing wrong with singing at an amateur level, and nothing wrong with doing it for fun, but you don’t get a free pass to the professional level just because you try hard.

I think that’s enough.  As always, please comment!  I know it will be easy to find exceptions and unique cases; what I’m interested in is how magic and a cappella compare overall, and more importantly, what valuable principles YOU can find to improve a cappella.

And please, if you’re going to disagree, find a civil way to do so?



ok. trying to be more civil

Tim -- I appreciate that you are trying to be more civil now, so I will also try to be more civil. 

I actually agree with some of what you have to say here. Had you said much of this in Part 1 I probably would have been less offended, but I'd still like to clarify a few points. 

You say that there are only a limited number of tricks, and everyone is rehashing old stuff. I disagree. In fact, a magician named Dariel Fitzkee said precicely what you are saying now back in 1943: that there are only 11 different effects (appearance, dissapearance, transposition, transformation, prediction, penetration, levitation, etc). However, magicians quickly (and by quickly, I mean over the course of the next few decades) realized that this is not true. Just as there are only 12 notes in western music, and infinite variations, so too are there infinite variations of magical effects. Many are in the same style or genre, but nontheless very different. I would argue that making a lady, standing in the middle of the stage, suddenly dissapear is a very different trick than placing 2 coins into a spectators hands and having only 1 there when he/she opens her hand. Both would be very strong and amazing effects with a similar genre, but they are also very different. If you come to a good magic show (and I can recommend a few in New York, LA, San Francisco, or Vegas), you'll see a lot of new and interesting magic in addition to new and interesting presentations. If you go to a bad magic show, you will see bad magic. Duh.

As you may have gathered, I also have strong feelings about a lot of things (a cappella and magic included) and I would like to diagree with one other thing: The magicians and a cappella groups who are BETTER and not ONLY doing things better, they are, in fact doing things DIFFERENTLY as well. I think that many acappella groups cover songs attempting to sound exactly like the original and this often bores audiences after a while. Many of the groups who are so well known or so good, have achieved success because they know that the arrangement needs to be changed -- altered to suit the strengths and weaknesses of voices rather than the strengths and weaknesses of a guitar or piano. The best arragnements I have heard are worlds apart from the original song, and I think THAT is the direction a cappella should be going to improve. 

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.