The Speed of Magic

Dear Friends:

Our guest columnist this month is our good friend and instructor at the school, CJ May—or as you may know him better, “Cyril the Sorcerer.” CJ uses his magic to advocate for the environment, and particularly recycling.

“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in awhile, you could miss it.”
– Ferris Bueller

Ferris Bueller’s famous quote is good wisdom for magicians as well as teenagers in Hollywood films. Magicians, however, have an exceptional advantage during most performances. We can set the speed of our magic, and thereby set the speed of life…at least for a while.

Our days generally move along at an unsteady pace set by work, family, friends, and global pandemics. Even a single day may move fast, and then slow. It may be punctuated by jumps, starts, twists and pops. It might contain vast stretches of mind-numbing slowness—which turn out to have been 2 minutes long, but which felt like twice eternity. 

Our performances, however, are very largely under our own control. For the most part, we get to decide how fast our shows move at any point. Openers, welcome, audience participation pieces, deep personal dives, and finales, can all move fast or slow. Within each. we are the ones who can adjust the throttle, tap the brakes, or intentionally hit the warp drive button.

WHEN and HOW to move fast or slow, or adjust show speed from one to the other, is the hard part. Really hard. Some basic wisdom on this comes from our teachers and guests:

  • Abigail generously admired a few Ninja Ring flourishes I was showing at Wonderground a few years back. She commented, “That was amazing! Now slow it down.” Although I had been enjoying imitating the rapid moves I had seen another student perform a few years before, the importance of her suggestion in making powerful magic holds true. Too often we go fast to the point where no magic moment can stay in the mind of a viewer. In line with Abbi’s comments, I find that the strongest Ninja Ring routines impress in large part because they are intimate and slow.
  • Max Maven apparently offered a similar observation when he put forth that most magicians could improve their magic simply by slowing down. 
  • Jeff has shared some general advice he received earlier in his career along the lines of, “play the music fast enough and loud enough, and the show will be over before people realize it sucks.”  Although this may seem a vote against high speed, it does recognize that for certain performers and routines, high speed is an asset in making a show great, and that it does not mean all fast shows “suck.”  But, it does suggest that we might be tempted to resort to speed as a crutch if we are not careful.
  • Tobias advised in Beyond Deception that one should experiment with the speed of one’s magic by rehearsing a routine to a metronome, and then again after resetting the metronome for other speeds. His advice to try a routine set to music using alternative music also shifts your gears. This will help by forcing you to speed up or slow the routine as a whole, as well as to establish the rhythms and various tempos.

In the end, however, the best speedometer will likely be our own. But, to get an accurate reading, we are  likely to require several things:

Practice and rehearse extensively. Doing so will get you so comfortable with your magic, that you won’t be accelerating out of nerves. This is a big challenge for me, especially with new material. Watching video of yourself can alert you to magic moments that were lost due to accelerating past them. Video may also help you see moments where you did drag your feet, and audience attention might flounder.

Perform extensively. As we hear again and again from our teachers, and the oft quoted Lance Burton, the best magicians are those that perform the most shows. Learning when to speed up, slow down, continue a rigorous pace, or a placid moment, will come from us seeing audience reactions to our shows.

I wish you luck in finding your speed, avoiding speed traps, and creating fast and slow wonders in shows that weave together in delightful harmony.  Life moves pretty fast these days. Let us make sure that the Speed of Magic in our shows is just right.
Cyril John “CJ” May is an instructor and continuing student at Jeff McBride’s Magic & Mystery School.  He performs for professionals and other adults as and for children and families as In his fulltime work as Refuse/Recycling Coordinator for the City of Waterbury, CT, he regularly performs enviromagic in-person and online. Reach CJ at He is happy to help you with your enviromagic.

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