Interview with magician Jamy Ian Swiss

Jamy Ian Swiss during a lecture

Michael Guerra: With all you have on your plate, I can’t imagine that leaves time for much else. Then, considering your level of sleight-of-hand skill, one would think you did nothing but practice constantly. Can you give us some insight into your practice habits, and how you incorporate them into such a busy schedule?

Jamy Ian Swiss sitting with a deck of playing cards in handJamy Ian Swiss: Tommy Wonder made the point in his marvelous “Books of Wonder” that amateurs should never complain about lacking the time for practice, because it’s really professionals that have trouble finding that time. The pro is trying to pay the rent with magic. He or she needs to book work, he needs to adapt his work to fill the venues available to him and the needs of his clients. Who has time to just practice? This September I have to write a column for “Genii” (and read the books!); prepare for my lecture appearance at the Las Vegas Magic Invitational (LVMI); get back to work as Head Writer and Associate Director of a magic TV series, Virtual Magician, starring Marco Tempest; prepare for Close-up Clinic; prepare for a speaking engagement appearance that requires customized material I have to develop and learn for the client; perform at other corporate and private gigs; perform at “Monday Night Magic” and fulfill my responsibilities as co-producer there; and try to have a life in between, which seems unlikely at the moment. Practice? What’s that?

But of course, I will practice. The best practice time I ever had was that year I took off when I went pro. I was practicing 40, 50, 60 hours a week. I spent an hour a day just on the pass for 18 months, except for two weeks in which I got cramps in my knuckles. I made a lot of progress. I went a little crazy and didn’t have much of a life otherwise, but I learned a lot.

These days, I can’t do that. I find different kinds of times for different kinds of practice. I tend to work on moves in the mirror late at night, after Carol has gone to sleep, and there’s no longer any interruption from the phone or email. For rote practice that no longer requires a mirror—just staying up on false deals and things like that—I can sometimes do it sitting in the bed watching a movie. For rehearsal, I have to set aside uninterrupted time, and that’s difficult. It’s often easier on the weekends, when the phone isn’t ringing and business isn’t making demands, but that means I have to take time away from my personal life. So practice time is always a challenge. If I can find the time, however, I still enjoy it. It’s relaxing and satisfying to attack a problem with a sleight in the mirror, and then solve it.

As to learning new material, I have a file of material that I’m interested in. When I come across something that I think might suit me or seriously interest me, I photocopy it and set it aside in that file. But often I don’t get to work on that material, because I’m working on something else that fills a professional need. I’ll die with twenty or thirty routines in that file that I’ll never get to master, some of which have been there for ten or twenty years or more. Perhaps I keep going back to something but I can’t figure out how to present it. Perhaps something contains an idea or element I’d like to incorporate into something else someday. And there’s magic that’s just beautiful that I’ll never get to because I don’t “need” it, if you will, and I can’t find the time to work on it for the pure pleasure of the thing. I’d love to pick just one of those monster sleight-of-hand routines in John Carney’s new book, “The Book of Secrets,” and invest six solid months or a year in the pleasure and challenge of mastering it. But I’ll probably never get to it. But if you’re an amateur—you have that opportunity. So don’t waste it! Sign off the chat boards. Turn off the DVD player. Pick one masterful routine from a good book and start practicing! As Vernon says in “The Vernon Book of Magic,” if you don’t enjoy practicing, why be involved in magic?

Jamy Ian Swiss head shotMichael Guerra: With such a rich history in magic, I imagine you’ve picked up a wealth of wisdom along the way. What kind of advice, tips or philosophies can you offer up-and-coming magicians or those who are considering magic for the first time?

Jamy Ian Swiss: First of all, don’t do it for a living. If you really think you want to do that, don’t ever make that choice just because you can or because you’d like to. Keep it as your hobby—although that’s maybe a poor word. Keep it as your art, your means of creative expression. But despite the rewards, there are also great sacrifices called for, so only make that choice if you have to. “Want” and “can” are insufficient rationales.

But that aside, I would say what many others have said before me. Read books. Seek out the advice and counsel of others, but not just of your peers who know what you know, rather of your betters, your elders, those who are truly qualified to guide you. The secret to getting good guidance is in picking good guides, and using only a very few once you’ve found those. Everyone needs guidance, and everyone needs teachers. When Penn & Teller need help, they turn to John Thompson, or Jay Marshall, or Billy McComb. The question is whether or not you’ve got the strength to go to those who will truly challenge you with their guidance, and who are genuinely equipped to help you improve.

Ignore the latest fad. Ignore the dealer ads, the newest internet video clip, the noise on the chat boards. Read the great books. Read some of the history of your art, learn about your predecessors who have given you so much. Learn the classics. Learn a few things, learn to do them well. Study magic that will reward you and your audience, by teaching you principles and ideas instead of just tricks and moves. Magic that can enable you to present your audience with the experience of mystery that is unique to magic, rather than with just the flash and speed of skill or juggling that is so terribly commonplace in the world, and so unsatisfying after the first few moments. Treat the art with great respect and present it in such a way that your audience will come to think of it differently. Stop trying to figure out what you can take from magic, and think about what you can give—with it, and back to it. Give back to those who have given so much to you. Don’t squander their largesse. If you approach magic in this generous manner—magic aside, if you approach relationships and indeed life in such a manner—you will eventually be handsomely repaid by magic, and I don’t just mean in dollars. But if your most important goal is to get that payment as soon and as big as possible, you will come up artistically empty in the end.

Michael Guerra: Finally, when all your spare change is spent and your last card is tucked safely in its case, what other interests or hobbies occupy your time?

Jamy Ian Swiss: Cooking is my hobby. I do most of the cooking at home—mostly Italian and also Japanese—and I love food and enjoy preparing it and improving my skills and repertoire. I actually have a student who is a professional chef, and we are trading lessons—magic for cooking. It’s working out wonderfully, I would never get the chance to learn what I’m learning from him otherwise. And if I’m not cooking, I like to be out somewhere, exploring a new restaurant, eating a good meal!

I also see a lot of movies, perhaps 60 or 70 a year in the theater, and more at home. I love film and think it not only a great art form of the 20th century, but it will likely become the most important art of the 21st. I’m glad I got an early start—today you can live a lifetime and never see everything that’s good, or even just what’s important.

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