Something New Under the Sun

A friend of mine with a talent for music posted the following statement on
Facebook recently in response to another FB friend of his, named Ron, who had
shared Paul Simon’s song 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover on my friend’s page. My friend’s response was this:

Thanks for this, Ron. Funny, I was looking up local bands and listening to them
tonight, trying to figure out where I fit in the landscape that is the
oversaturated music scene… and then you posted this and I thought – there
aren’t many Paul Simons anymore… story-writing song writers (that aren’t
country and full of patriotic yuck). I read somewhere recently that music has
jumped the shark… perhaps it has… which always leaves me wondering – what
could I possibly contribute to such an oversaturated art? There is nothing new
under the sun… right?

I have to admit that reading his post made me sad. Sad that this
was his view of his potential place in the music scene, and especially the
comment that there is “nothing new under the sun.”

There is a quote that is erroneously attributed to Charles Duell, the commissioner of the United States Patent Office from 1898 – 1901. Duell was supposed to have said during that time, “Everything that can be invented has been invented.”  The jesting quote’s origin actually seems to come from a humor magazine from 1899 entitled Punch, but by attributing it to Duell it instantly makes the words more ironic and provocative.

My friend is also a Christian and so, relying on his religious
sensibilities, naturally referenced the Bible with his equally provacative
“nothing new under the sun” comment. The full statement comes from Ecclesiastes
and basically goes like this:

What
has been will be again,

what has been done will be
done again;

there is nothing new under
the sun.

Let me take this moment to state that I am the last person who should be preaching gospel or even quoting the Bible, but I must say (at the risk of my fingertips catching flame and burning as I write this) that while my friend’s intentions by making the statement he made may have been reverential, I fear he may be missing the point. Was this “nothing new under the sun” statement meant to be taken literally or, rather, meant as a gentle nudging to his friend Ron, himself, or anyone reading his post to attempt to make a difference?

In my opinion, artists and entertainers, including myself, would do well to take
this as a precautionary statement. The idea that there is “nothing new under the sun” can instantly feel stifling and cause one to take on a “what’s the point” attitude that is so detrimental to good art. Art is there for us to enjoy, yes, but to the artist it can–and should – also be used as inspiration to expand upon and create. Stopping too soon, or worse yet, not even beginning because one feels that there is “nothing new under the sun” can be
disadvantageous.

Intimidation can also be problematic. Besides being a performer, I am also a writer.  In my earlier days of writing – when I was first starting out by writing movie reviews for a very small newspaper for a Podunk town In California – I went to the theater to watch the movie Stand By Me when it was first released with the intent of reviewing the film. What I was treated to in that darkened room was a marvelous coming-of-age story with impeccable writing. It is close to 30 years later, and it still remains one of my favorite movies. But, I remember leaving the theater that night with a strange, gnawing feeling; an odd mixture of both elation and dread. Elation, obviously, for the brilliant
cinematic treasure I had just witnessed, but the dread I felt was due to the
sad realization washing over me as I made my way back to my car that, try as I
might, I would never be able to write something as powerful or as meaningful as the writing I had just seen played out before me. I was honestly affected by this for the next couple of days; so much so that I didn’t even feel like writing the review of the movie, the
deadline for which was fast approaching. After a couple days of what I can only describe as “wallowing” in this self-inadequacy, I made the conscious effort to write the review by drawing upon the inspiration I had felt while watching the film and redirecting it into writing a review that I thought would do the film justice. I wanted the world (okay, the awfully low number of subscribers to the newspaper) to know just how great this film was, and I decided to do this by writing a review that challenged what writing skills I had acquired up to that point, and to devote more time to the writing of it than I had ever devoted to a review in the past. By doing so, the piece ended up being one of the better
things I wrote during that period of time in my life.

Comparing oneself to what has come before is a fool’s exercise. Yet, I admit I am still guilty of it myself. I will still find myself, on occasion, comparing myself to other performers and experiencing envy for what they have accomplished. When that happens, I have to remind myself of all that I have accomplished and take solace in the knowledge that the work I’ve done is uniquely me and that I have been very fortunate to have had the opportunity to accomplish all that I have up to this point.

It’s all right to admire, just don’t compare.

There is a reason we only have one Paul Simon; and if you love his work, don’t be envious, jealous, defeated, or covetous of it. Instead, infuse that love and admiration into your own work and see if you can’t create something new under the sun.

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Happy Birthday, Harry…And Thanks

He died way too young (at age 39), but he had a profound impact on my life and career. The reason for that was because Harry told stories of compassion, remorse, reflection, and living a life of meaning, just to name a few. His story songs also warned of the danger
of not pursuing your passion or of allowing outside influences to deflate your attempts at reaching your fullest potential.

Today would have been Harry’s 73rd birthday. The sound bite of Harry below is an inspirational piece of auditory encouragement that seems to be ever-present in my mind, and has been since the first time I heard it. It’s less than 2 minutes long, and you should
listen to it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zbpoUWO3kA8

I was not the only one affected by Harry’s work; his fight against world hunger and other deserving causes influenced many later artists and organizations. I encourage you to learn more about this very giving, and amazing individual. Read a wonderful article written about him here: http://geekdad.com/2015/12/lets-celebrate-harry-chapin-day/

Happy 73rd birthday, Harry, and thank you for the inspiration.

Not Your Typical Interoffice Mail…

One of the things I love about my job is the emails that are exchanged between me, my fellow performers, and/or booking agents. The content of many of my emails over the years – content that is completely normal and indicative to my line of work, and therefore written in a serious nature – may seem anything but normal to someone outside of the entertainment industry, and usually will contain sentences and/or paragraphs that you would never find in your everyday, run-of-the-mill email.

And that is why I enjoy them so. That we can be talking about subject matter that would otherwise be considered ludicrous in such a serious manner because it is our livelihood.

Take, for example, this email sent to me by the enormously talented and charming juggler Lindsay Benner. Lindsay was going to be one of the performers in a show I was producing last March. I knew that she would be presenting her lovely “Book of Love” act, but wasn’t sure how she would end it, extending her time onstage to the 20 minutes I had allotted. I had contacted her asking for a line-up of the routines she would be performing. Lindsay, replying to my inquiry, sent me this email:

Looking forward to it! 

For my 20 minutes, I can either add 5 minutes to the beginning of the “Book of Love” and
do a ball out-of-mouth, sleight-of-hand type of thing, or I can add 5 minutes to the end which means I end in a straitjacket. Which would you prefer? 

Of course, I went with the straitjacket…

Here is another example that involved my act. This is an actual email I received only a few days ago while working my current run here in Cancun, Mexico. My shows take place every night in a different resort. These resorts are the all-inclusive type and usually cater to adults. There are some, however, that welcome kids and are considered “family resorts.” I am engaged to perform my comedy and magic show at both types of resorts. This email came from the owner of the company who books me for the resort contracts. I received it
the day following one of my appearances at one of the family resorts. The only alteration to this email I have made is to remove the names of people involved to protect their anonymity. Other than that, it remains the same as how I received it:

 

Shawn,

Here is a copy of an email I received from [NAME DELETED] at [NAME OF THE RESORT DELETED].
I have no idea what was done or said, only what he wrote. PLEASE remove these two, and all similar items from the show there immediately. I like the show and they like you, but apparently he has an issue with these two things. Here they are: 

 

Hello,

Hoping this email suits you well i would like to
communicate something that has turn on our alarms.

Yesterday In  Shawn McMaster´s show  happened a
couple of situations that we can´t  present, as entertainers we are, in a
FAMILY resort.

The very first trick he present he appeared from his crotch
a card, he opened the zipper and show the card. He was very graphic.

Then, in his performance of walking through the audience
appearing cards, he stand up a lady and said, “look I appear this card from
your butt”

Is not that we are easily impressionable, is just that we
never know how our guests are going to take this kind of attitudes.

Please help me to enforce the family friendly performances.

Send you my best Regards.

 

His English needs work, but if you are pulling cards from your crotch, please stop. And if they come out of a woman’s butt in the audience, please stop that as well. If you pull a card out of any bodily cavity of people, please do not do that.

Please stop these things at all the family resorts. Thanks!

 

The owner of the company was very gracious and understanding in his email, but he also has to think of his clients – the resorts – and I totally understood where he was coming from. However, what was described by the man at the resort – in broken English to the man who booked me – was not exactly what happened. Here was my reply:

 

Hi, 

Everything in my show at [NAME OF RESORT DELETED] is exactly the same as I have presented
it in the past. Nothing has changed over these past few years, and they have always been fine with it before. But, I will make the appropriate changes, if that is what they are now requesting. 

Just so YOU know, there has never been anything “graphic” in my act. Yes, I have removed a chosen card from my fly in both family and adult resorts. It is quick and there is no “rummaging around.” However, when I first began the contracts here in Mexico, I originally asked all the family resorts if
“Card from the Fly” would be ok. They told me yes, but apparently that has changed and I will no longer do that at the family resorts. 

As to pulling a card from “a woman’s butt,” that is not what’s happening. I run through the audience at the end of my act looking for a selected card. I ask a woman to stand up and find that she is sitting on a card. I say, “Underneath this lady’s butt, the 7 of Diamonds! Was THIS your card?” I have always been sure to say “butt” instead of “ass” so as not to offend anyone who might be sensitive. Again, if a woman sitting on a card is considered offensive in the family resorts, I will change that. 

Thanks for bringing my attention to this matter. Consider these two bits changed at the family resorts. 

All the
best,

Shawn

The ART of Magic

“What instrument do you play?’

This is the question I most often get when I tell someone I’m a magician. The thought never even enters their minds that I could have possibly said “magician,” and their natural response is to immediately go the musical route, sharing with me the fact that their son plays the French horn or that they were a first chair flute player, but “never pursued it much after graduating high school.” They are usually halfway into wistfully recounting their youthful aspirations about becoming the next Ian Anderson before I have
the chance to interrupt them to inform them that they have misheard me, and that I am actually a mAGICian.

The look of confusion is oddly satisfying.

Wrapping their minds around the concept of someone doing card tricks for a living, for some reason, becomes a much more difficult task than the concept of becoming a professional musician. As if musicians don’t face the same, challenges as other entertainers. As if playing old Eagles and Tom Petty cover tunes in a seedy bar for free beer and whatever tips can be scrounged up in their formative years is somehow more admirable than a magician in…well, being a magician. And if it’s a question of skills, all right, yes, I don’t know an A note from a treble clef, but most clarinet or sax players can’t execute a simple double undercut or a deceptive Elmsley Count, either. And if you don’t know what those are, that is exactly my point.

Yes, I’m a magician. Yes, I do it for a living and have for over two decades. And while the mental image one, if you’ll pardon the expression, conjures up when they hear the word “magician” may be something less respectable than when thinking of a musician (this “image thing” being a battle I have fought most of my life), the skill set needed and the practice involved is certainly comparable.

Despite the resurgence of interest magic is enjoying these days, it still has an image problem, due primarily to all the bad magic that is out there. And where magic has the disadvantage as compared to other art forms is in the tendency to be unfairly judged. If one goes to a show and hears a singer who sings off-key or witnesses a dancer who gives a less than polished performance, one doesn’t walk away from the experience swearing off all singing and dancing for the rest of his or her life. Chances are that person will again attend another singer’s or dancer’s performance at a later date and be rewarded by doing so. Their image of dance and song is not tarnished irreparably; instead it is just chalked up to that particular performer having an “off night.” Not so with magic. When one sees a terrible magic performance, the tendency is to immediately ostracize the performer and categorize magic as cheesy or stupid.

Having said that, please don’t misunderstand me. Believe me, I agree that there are some people out there calling themselves “magicians” who should be ostracized and never
allowed to ever again pick up a deck of cards or set foot on another stage, but they are the minority.

Magic is an art form. Beautiful performances can be rendered just as fine paintings or
intricate sculptures are brought into being. Moods can be established and genuine emotions can be brought forth. Emotions that can span from appreciation – such as understanding the technique used or just the mere acknowledgement of the work, love, and commitment that went into bringing the piece to life – to personal – where the piece in question evokes an honest, and sometimes uncontrollable emotional response.

David Copperfield’s performance piece “Snow” does that. The first time I saw
him perform this live in a theatre, it honestly brought tears to my eyes. I, to this day, can’t pinpoint exactly what chord it struck with me. Perhaps it was the memory of a childhood long since passed, although I did not grow up around snow. Perhaps, it was the unspoken yearning of wanting that childhood back, or, because I was a father at the time, perhaps it spoke to the child-like wonder of experiencing something for the first time and what it’s like to experience it again with your child; this time seeing it through his or her eyes. Maybe it was a mixture of all of these things. Whatever it was, I wasn’t the only one wrestling with these emotions. As I looked around, I saw many adults – both men and women – experiencing the same feeling and experiencing the same moist eyes as snow began to fall not just onstage, but throughout the entire theatre! I encourage you to take a look at this wonderful performance if you haven’t already seen it.

Just as there are many styles of paintings, so it is with magic. And just as there were and are, pioneers of the different styles or movements in the world of art, again, so it is in magic. As way of an example, just as the artists of the cubist movement had Picasso and Braque to thank, every magician you have seen who produces doves or playing cards at his fingertips is standing on the shoulders of Channing Pollock. Much of what contemporary magicians of this type present to modern-day audiences was either influenced or taken directly from Pollock. Watching old film footage of Pollock perform his act may prompt one to say, “Yeah, I’ve seen this all before,” but you have to remember that Pollock was the first to do it, and is still considered one of the best years after he has passed on. It is the true artists in any field, however, who will expand upon that influence to create new, unique art. A good example of this from the magic world is Korean magician Yu Ho-Jin. I first saw Ho-Jin perform in 2008 in Louisville, KY and his performance was artistic excellence and absolutely breathtaking. It still is.

Any field of art has its past masters. Just as the world of fine art has names like Van Gogh, Magritte, Pollock (Jackson, not Channing), and Warhol, the world of magic has CardiniVernon, Kaps, and Slydini. Not to mention the pioneers who blazed the trail before them: Maskelyne, Devant, Herrmann, Kellar, the list goes on and on.

Yes, I am a mAGICian, and while the music we create with our
instruments may not be melodic in the traditional sense, it can still move you – like any art can move you – if you just give it the chance.