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Artistic Considerations

Categories: Uncategorized
Sources: Power Through Repose

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

perfectly expressive.

An old artist who thanked his friend for admiring his pictures

added: "If you could only see the pictures in my brain.

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

regular nourishment.

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

steadily increased.

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

equally necessary.

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

are indispensable.

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.