If you’ve been doing magic long enough, you must have heard of the hoary maxim, “It’s not what you do but how you do it.”
It’s a gospel according to Witless the Clown, The Amazing Prestidigitator and Uncle Funny. Not surprisingly, its validity is mostly unchallenged by clowns, close-up performers and birthday party magicians.
In the magic aristocracy, however, it is rarely invoked, if at all.
I don’t know if it is a well-meaning advice. Or if it’s sophistry. To be honest with you (although as a magic trickster, I’m seldom honest), I suspect the more seasoned magicians dish out this advice to keep mediocre magicians in their state of mediocrity.
Of course, what you do matters. How you do a trick matters, too—up to a certain extent. That extent is breached when the intrinsic strength of a trick is factored in.
Not all tricks are created equal. There are those that are strong, more magical and more amazing than others.
Levitating a lady is strong. The 21-Card Trick is not. You can jazz up The 21-Card Trick with flash paper displays, adorn it with jokes and funny bits of business, embroider it with elegant movement, music and choreography, it will still not be nearly as amazing as a minimalist presentation of a floating lady.
I may be facetious, but at least you get my point.
If presentation, personality and skill are all that matters, then pray tell me, why do the gods of magic turn the universe upside down in search of the best, strongest, most amazing and entertaining tricks?
I hear that David Copperfield, and the rest of the superstars in the magic firmament, search, review and test hundreds of tricks/illusions/routines before adopting them in their programs. They have presentation, personality and skills, too, but they don’t stop at how well they can do their act. Instead, they cast about the vast ocean of magic resources, hunt for and chase after those tricks that are intrinsically strong, amazing and entertaining.
And what about us earthbound magic performers? What do we do? Guided by the It’s-not-what-you-do-but-how-you-do-it rule, we buy identical tricks and perform identical routines. We tweak it a bit “to fit our personality”, add our “own patter and presentation” and live contentedly and happily ever after with our “unique” magic.
Here’s an updated version of the the old advice (I offer this for the readers’ consideration):
For a successful magic performance, It’s What You Do and How Well You Do It is the rule to follow.