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ALTHOUGH so much time and care are given to the various means of
artistic expression, it is a singular fact that comparatively little
attention is given to the use of the very first instrument which
should be under command before any secondary instrument can be made
An old artist who thanked his friend for admiring his pictures
added: "If you could only see the pictures in my brain. But--"
pointing to his brain and then to the ends of his fingers--" the
channels from here to here are so long!" The very sad tone which we
can hear in the wail of the painter expresses strongly the
deficiencies of our age in all its artistic efforts. The channels
are shorter just in proportion to their openness. If the way from
the brain to the ends of the fingers is perfectly clear, the brain
can guide the ends of the fingers to carry out truly its own
aspirations, and the honest expression of the brain will lead always
to higher ideals. But the channels cannot be free, and the artist
will be bound so long as there is superfluous tension in any part of
the body. So absolutely necessary, is it for the best artistic
expression that the body should throughout be only a servant of the
mind, that the more we think of it the more singular it seems that
the training of the body to a childlike state is not regarded as
essential, and taken as a matter of course, even as we take our
The artificial is tension in its many trying and disagreeable
phases. Art is freedom, equilibrium, rhythm,--anything and
everything that means wholesome life and growth toward all that is
really the good, the true, and the beautiful.
Art is immeasurably greater than we are. If we are free and quiet,
the poem, the music, the picture will carry us, so that we shall be
surprised at our own expression; and when we have finished, instead
of being personally elated with conceited delight in what we have
done, or exhausted with the superfluous effort used, we shall feel
as if a strong wind had blown through us and cleared us for better
work in the future.
Every genius obeys the true principle. It is because a genius is
involuntarily under the law of his art that he is pervaded by its
power. But we who have only talent must learn the laws of genius,
which are the laws of Nature, and by careful study and steady
practice in shunning all personal obstructions to the laws, bring
ourselves under their sway.
Who would wish to play on a stringed instrument already vibrating
with the touch of some one else, or even with the last touch we
ourselves gave it. What noise, what discord, with no possible
harmonies! So it is with our nerves and muscles. They cannot be used
for artistic purposes to the height of their best powers while they
are tense and vibrating to our own personal states or habits; so
that the first thing is to free them absolutely, and not only keep
them free by constant practice, but so train them that they will
become perfectly free at a moment's notice, and ready to respond
clearly to whatever the heart and the mind want to express.
The finer the instrument, the lighter the touch it will vibrate to.
Indeed it must have a light touch to respond clearly with musical
harmonies; any other touch would blur. With a fine piano or a
violin, whether the effect is to be _piano_ or _fortissimo,_ the
touch should be only with the amount of force needed to give a clear
vibration, and the ease with which a fortissimo effect is thus
produced is astonishing. It is only those with the most delicate
touch who can produce from a fine piano grand and powerful harmonies
without a blur.
The response in a human instrument to a really light touch is far
more wonderful than that from any instrument made by man; and bodily
effort blurs just as much more in proportion. The muscles are all so
exquisitely balanced in their power for co-ordinate movement, that a
muscle pulling one way is almost entirely freed from effort by the
equalizing power of the antagonizing muscle; and at some rare
moments when we have really found the equilibrium and can keep it,
we seem to do no more than _think_ a movement or a tone or a
combination of words, and they come with so slight a physical
exertion that it seems like no effort at all.
So far are we from our possibilities in this lightness of touch in
the use of our bodies, that it is impossible now for most of us to
touch as lightly as would, after training, bring the most powerful
response. One of the best laws for artistic practice is, "Every day
less effort, every day more power." As the art of acting is the only
art where the whole body is used with no subordinate instrument, let
us look at that with regard to the best results to be obtained by
means of relief from superfluous tension. The effects of unnecessary
effort are strongly felt in the exhaustion which follows the
interpretation of a very exciting role. It is a law without
exception, that if I absorb an emotion and allow my own nerves to be
shaken by it, I fail to give it in all its expressive power to the
audience; and not only do I fall far short in my artistic
interpretation, but because of that very failure, come off the stage
with just so much nervous force wasted. Certain as this law is, and
infallible as are its effects, it is not only generally disbelieved,
but it is seldom thought of at all. I must feet Juliet in my heart,
understand her with my mind, and let her vibrate clearly _across_ my
nerves, to the audience. The moment I let my nerves be shaken as
Juliet's nerves were in reality, I am absorbing her myself, misusing
nervous force, preparing to come off the stage thoroughly exhausted,
and keeping her away from the audience. The present low state of the
drama is largely due to this failure to recognize and practise a
natural use of the nervous force. To work up an emotion, a most
pernicious practice followed by young aspirants, means to work your
nerves up to a state of mild or even severe hysteria. This morbid,
inartistic, nervous excitement actually trains men and women to the
loss of all emotional control, and no wonder that their nerves play
the mischief with them, and that the atmosphere of the stage is kept
in its present murkiness. The power to work the nerves up in the
beginning finally carries them to the state where they must be more
artificially urged by stimulants; and when the actor is off the
stage he has no self-control at all. This all means misused and
over-used force. In no schools is the general influence so
absolutely morbid and unwholesome, as in most of the schools of
elocution and acting.
The methods by which the necessity for artificial stimulants can be
overcome are so simple and so pleasant and so immediately effective,
that it is worth taking the time and space to describe them briefly.
Of course, to begin with, the body must be trained to perfect
freedom in repose, and then to freedom in its use. A very simple way
of practising is to take the most relaxed attitude possible, and
then, without changing it, to recite _with all the expression that
belongs to it_ some poem or selection from a play full of emotional
power. You will become sensitive at once to any new tension, and
must stop and drop it. At first, an hour's daily practice will be
merely a beginning over and over,--the nervous tension will be. so
evident,--but the final reward is well worth working and waiting
It is well to begin by simply inhaling through the nose, and
exhaling quietly through the mouth several times; then inhale and
exhale an exclamation in every form of feeling you can think of Let
the exclamation come as easily and freely as the breath alone,
without superfluous tension in any part of the body. So much freedom
gained, inhale as before, and exhale brief expressive
sentences,--beginning with very simple expressions, and taking
sentences that express more and more feeling as your freedom is
better established. This practice can be continued until you are
able to recite the potion scene in Juliet, or any of Lady Macbeth's
most powerful speeches, with an case and freedom which is
surprising. This refers only to the voice; the practice which has
been spoken of in a previous chapter brings the same effect in
It will be readily seen that this power once gained, no actor would
find it necessary to skip every other night, in consequence of the
severe fatigue which follows the acting of an emotional role. Not
only is the physical fatigue saved, but the power of expression, the
power for intense acting, so far as it impresses the audience, is
The inability of young persons to express an emotion which they feel
and appreciate heartily, can be always overcome in this way.
Relaxing frees the channels, and the channels being open the real
poetic or dramatic feeling cannot be held back. The relief is as if
one were let out of prison. Personal faults that come from
self-consciousness and nervous tension may be often cured entirely
without the necessity of drawing attention to them, simply by
Dramatic instinct is a delicate perception of, quick and keen
sympathies for, and ability to express the various phases of human
nature. Deep study and care are necessary for the best development
of these faculties; but the nerves must be left free to be guided to
the true expression,--neither allowed to vibrate to the ecstatic
delight of the impressions, or in mistaken sympathy with them, but
kept clear as conductors of all the heart can feel and the mind
understand in the character or poem to be interpreted.
This may sound cold. It is not; it is merely a process of relieving
superfluous nervous tension in acting, by which obstructions are
removed so that real sympathetic emotions can be stronger and
fuller, and perceptions keener. Those who get no farther than
emotional vibrations of the nerves in acting, know nothing whatever
of the greatness or power of true dramatic instinct.
There are three distinct schools of dramatic art,--one may be called
dramatic hysteria, the second dramatic hypocrisy. The first means
emotional excitement and nervous exhaustion; the second artificial
simulation of a feeling. Dramatic sincerity is the third school, and
the school that seems most truly artistic. What a wonderful training
is that which might,--which ought to be given an actor to help him
rise to the highest possibility of his art!
A free body, exquisitely responsive to every command of the mind, is
absolutely necessary; therefore there should be a perfect physical
training. A quick and keen perception to appreciate noble thoughts,
holding each idea distinctly, and knowing the relations of each idea
to the others, must certainly be cultivated; for in acting, every
idea, every word, should come clearly, each taking its own place in
the thought expressed.
Broad human sympathies, the imaginative power of identifying himself
with all phases of human nature, if he has an ideal in his
profession above the average, an actor cannot lack. This last is
quite impossible without broad human charity; for "to observe truly
you must sympathize with those you observe, and to sympathize with
them you must love them, and to love them you must forget yourself."
And all these requisites--the physical state, the understanding, and
the large heart--seem to centre in the expression of a well-trained
voice,--a voice in which there is the minimum of body and the
maximum of soul.
By training, I always mean a training into Nature. As I have said
before, if art is Nature illuminated, we must find Nature before we
can reach art. The trouble is that in acting, more than in any other
art, the distinction between what is artistic and what is artificial
is neither clearly understood nor appreciated; yet so marked is the
difference when once we see it, that the artificial may well be
called the hell of art, as art itself is heavenly.
Sincerity and simplicity are the foundations of art. A feigning of
either is often necessary to the artificial, but many times
impossible. Although the external effect of this natural training is
a great saving of nervous force in acting, the height of its power
cannot be reached except through a simple aim, from the very heart,
toward sincere artistic expression.
So much for acting. It is a magnificent study, and should be more
truly wholesome in its effects than any other art, because it deals
with the entire body. But, alas I it seems now the most thoroughly
morbid and unwholesome.
All that has been said of acting will apply also to singing,
especially to dramatic singing and study for opera; only with
singing even more care should be taken. No singer realizes the
necessity of a quiet, absolutely free body for the best expression
of a high note, until having gained a certain physical freedom
without singing, she takes a high note and is made sensitive to the
superfluous tension all over the body, and later learns to reach the
same note with the repose which is natural; then the contrast
between the natural and the unnatural methods of singing becomes
most evident,--and not with high notes alone, but with all notes,
and all combinations of notes. I speak of the high note first,
because that is an extreme; for with the majority of singers there
is always more or less fear when a high note is coming lest it may
not be reached easily and with all the clearness that belongs to it.
This fear in itself is tension. For that reason one must learn to
relax to a high note. A free body relieves the singer immensely from
the mechanism of singing. So perfect is the unity of the body that a
voice will not obey perfectly unless the body, as a whole, be free.
Once secure in the freedom of voice and body to obey, the song can
burst forth with all the musical feeling, and all the deep
appreciation of the words of which the singer is capable. Now,
unfortunately, it is not unusual in listening to a public singer, to
feel keenly that he is entirely adsorbed in the mechanism of his
If this freedom is so helpful, indeed so necessary, to reach one's
highest power in singing, it is absolutely essential on the operatic
stage. With it we should have less of the wooden motion so common to
singers in opera. When one is free, physically free, the music seems
to draw out the acting. With a great composer and an interpreter
free to respond, the music and the body of the actor are one in
their power of expressing the emotions. And the songs without words
of the interludes so affect the spirit of the singer that, whether
quiet or in motion, he seems, through being a living embodiment of
the music, to impress the sense of seeing so that it increases the
pleasure of hearing.
I am aware that this standard is ideal; but it is not impossible to
approach it,--to come at least much nearer to it than we do now,
when the physical movements on the stage are such, that one wants to
listen to most operas with closed eyes.
We have considered artistic expression when the human body alone is
the instrument. When the body is merely a means to the use of a
secondary instrument, a primary training of the body itself is
A pianist practises for hours to command his fingers and gain a
touch which will bring the soul from his music, without in the least
realizing that so long as he is keeping other muscles in his body
tense, and allowing the nervous force to expend itself unnecessarily
in other directions, there never will be clear and open channels
from his brain to his fingers; and as he literally plays with his
brain, and not with his fingers, free channels for a magnetic touch
To watch a body _give_ to the rhythm of the music in playing is most
fascinating. Although the motion is slight, the contrast between
that and a pianist stiff and rigid with superfluous tension is, very
marked, and the difference in touch when one relaxes to the music
with free channels has been very clearly proved. Beside this, the
freedom in mechanism which follows the exercises for arms and hands
is strikingly noticeable.
With the violin, the same physical equilibrium of motion must be
gained; in fact it is equally necessary in all musical performance,
as the perfect freedom of the body is always necessary before it can
reach its highest power in the use of any secondary instrument.
In painting, the freer a body is the more perfectly the mind can
direct it. How often we can see clearly in our minds a straight line
or a curve or a combination of both, but our hands will not obey the
brain, and the picture fails. It does not by any means follow that
with free bodies we can direct the hand at once to whatever the
brain desires, but simply that by making the body free, and so a
perfect servant of the mind, it can be brought to obey the mind in a
much shorter time and more directly, and so become a truer channel
for whatever the mind wishes to accomplish.
In the highest art, whatever form it may take, the law of simplicity
is perfectly illustrated.
It would be tiresome to go through a list of the various forms of
artistic expression; enough has been said to show the necessity for
a free body, sensitive to respond to, quick to obey, and open to
express the commands of its owner.
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