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Signs of Mastery

Dr. Black's test of mastery (cited in Chapter XX.) is excellent, though arduous. But one instance alone is not sufficient to impress the reader with the advantages of mastery and the signs thereof.

A speaker, like an actor, is liable to the criticism of a casual hearing. The auditor who hears you but once may form an opinion of you forever. Against this there is no protection but in acquiring such a mastery over your powers as to be able always to exert them well, and to impress a hearer, in some respect or other, at every appearance. He, therefore, who has a reputation to acquire or preserve, will keep silence whenever he is in danger of speaking indifferently. He will practice in private, and train himself so perseveringly, that perfection will become a second nature, and the power of proficiency never desert him. Those who think genius is an impulsive effort that costs nothing, little dream with what patience the professional singer or actor observes regular habits and judicious exercise; how he treasures all his strength and power for the hour of appearance. There must, of course, be natural power of personation in an actor, a fine voice in a singer, and that instinctive aptitude and capacity of excellence which men call genius, or no cultivation will produce more than talent. At the same time, the highest natural endowment of genius will spend itself without effect, and perish devoid of renown, unless application and study develop and mature it.

The triumphs of application are as remarkable as the triumph of genius. One day, an acquaintance, in speaking of Curran's eloquence, happened to observe that it must have been born with him.

“Indeed, my dear sir," replied Curran, "it was not; it was born three-and-twenty years and some months after me. When I was at the Temple a few of us formed a little debating club. Upon the first night of meeting I attended, my foolish heart throbbing with the anticipated honor of being styled 'the learned member that opened the debate,' or 'the very eloquent gentleman who has just sat down,' I stood up—the question was the Catholic claims or the slave trade, I now forget which, but the difference, you know, was never very obvious—my mind was stored with about a folio volume of matter, but I wanted a preface, and for want of a preface the volume was never published. I stood up, trembling through every fiber; but, remembering that in this I was but imitating Tully, I took courage, and had actually proceeded as far as 'Mr. Chairman,' when, to my astonishment and terror, I perceived that every eye was turned upon me. There were only six or seven persons present, and the room could not have contained as many more; yet was it, to my panic-struck imagination, as if I were the central object in nature, and assembled millions were gazing upon me in breathless expectation. I became dismayed and dumb. My friends cried 'Hear him!' but there was nothing to hear. My lips, indeed, went through the pantomime of articulation, but I was like the unfortunate fiddler at the fair, who, upon coming to strike up the solo that was to ravish every ear, discovered that an enemy had maliciously soaped his bow. So you see, sir, it was not born with me. However, though I was for the time silenced, I still attended our meetings with regularity, and even ventured to accompany the others to a more ambitious theatre, the club at Temple Bar. One of them was on his legs; a fellow of whom it was difficult to decide whether he was most distinguished for the dirtiness of his person or the flippancy of his tongue—just such another as Harry Flood would have called 'the highly-gifted gentleman with the dirty cravat and greasy pantaloons.' I found this learned personage in the act of calumniating chronology by the most preposterous anachronisms. He descanted upon Demosthenes, the glory of the Roman forum; spoke of Tully as the famous contemporary and rival of Cicero; and, in the short space of one half-hour, transported the Straits of Marathon three several times to the plains of Thermopylae. Thinking I had a right to know something of these matters, I looked at him with surprise. When our eyes met, there was something like a wager of battle in mine; upon which the erudite gentleman instantly changed his invective against antiquity into an invective against me, and concluded by a few words of friendly counsel to "orator mum, who, he doubted not, possessed wonderful talents for eloquence, although he would recommend him to show it in future by some more popular method than his silence." I followed his advice, and, I believe, not entirely without effect. So, sir, you see that to try the bird the spur must touch his blood.'

But Curran had the blood of oratory in his veins, or the spur had pricked him in vain. The pretentious ignorance of the previous speaker afforded the very 'preface' that Curran wanted to his volume. Many persons of real power of speech can never present themselves to an audience unless called upon or provoked by some egregious thing said, or incited by a sense of duty that something not said ought to be said. Then the effect will be according to the knowledge, capacity and practice of the speaker.

Curran's defect in enunciation (at school he went by the cognomen of ' Stuttering Jack Curran') he corrected by a regular system of daily reading aloud, slowly, and with strict regard to pronunciation. His person was short, and his appearance ungraceful and without dignity. To overcome these disadvantages, he recited and studied his postures before a mirror, and adopted a method of gesticulation suited to his appearance. Besides a constant attendance at the debating clubs, he accustomed himself to extemporaneous eloquence in private, by proposing cases to himself, which he debated with the same care as if he had been addressing a jury. It was thus the great advocate won his self-possession and power.

Professor de Morgan's rule was, when he wanted a pupil to work well seven places of decimals, to practice him in working fifteen. When Malibran was introduced to Rossini, as a girl of fourteen, by her father, Garcia, she having sung a cavatina, the grand maestro said: 'Practice, mademoiselle, and you must inevitably rise to the highest point of your profession.'

Mr. Vere Foster, an authority on copy-book art, remarks that 'the grand secret in teaching writing is to bestow much attention upon a little variety. The necessity of a continued repetition of the same exercise till it can be executed with correctness, cannot be too strongly insisted on. But, as this reiteration is tedious for an age so fond of novelty as that of childhood, we should not keep too close to the maxim, and by a judicious intermixture of a few slightly differing forms, contrive to fix attention and to insure repetition.' 'The method of teaching anything to children,' says Locke, 'is by repeated practice, and the same action done over and over again until they have got the habit of doing it well, a method that has so many advantages, whichever way we come to consider it, that I wonder how it could possibly be so much neglected;' but it is better for children when there is variety in it as Pestalozzi proved. This rule of repetition is also true in elocution, for on the verge of a new art men themselves are distrustful of their own powers.

Mastery in any art can only come by practice. When Demosthenes was asked what was the secret of success on the platform, he is said to have answered: 'Action, action, action.' But action gives no power, and Dr. Clair J. Grece must be right when contending that the answer of the great orator should be translated: 'Practice, practice, practice,' for there skill comes in. A man who wishes to speak well at a moment's notice should speak every night if he has an opportunity. Preachers and barristers speak better at will than other persons.

In speaking, as one writer has observed, it has often been a matter of curious consideration, that a person will explain his views to a single individual in such terms as to force conviction in many instances, and where he fails the exposition would be just such a one as would please an audience. At the same time it is notorious that what will not convince one or two will be effective on many persons; yet when he who can succeed in the more difficult task with one or two, when he comes before an audience he is abashed, and cannot utter two consecutive sentences with propriety, energy or sense. Nevertheless, this incapacity will vanish at once under a sense of duty. Paul says perfect love casteth out fear; so does a sense of duty in speaking. But where the motive is not an incentive, there is no remedy for confusion of mind before an audience save practice and deliberation; practice gives confidence, and deliberation gives capacity a chance of manifesting itselfprovided the assembly is not too large for the compass of the speaker's voice. No man speaks with confidence who is not sure that he is heard.

Whewell held that we are never master of anything till we do it both well and unconsciously. But there is no test of proficiency so instructive as that put by George Sand into the mouth of Porpora, in her novel of Consuelo. When Consuelo, on the occasion of a trial performance, manifests some apprehension as to the result, Porpora reminds her that if there is room in her mind for misgiving as to the judgment of others, it is a proof that she is not filled with the true love of art, which would so absorb her whole thoughts as to leave her insensible to the opinion of others, and if she distrusted her own powers, it was plain they were not yet matured powers, else they could not play her false.

Mastery is manifest when we have no misgiving as to the trial of our attainments; we are then rather anxious for the opportunity and confident as to the result. In George Eliot's Deronda there is the little Jewess who sings for the first time undismayed before a critical assembly met to judge her capacity. On being asked why she was so unapprehensive, she answered to this effect, 'Because I knew what I could do, and because the audience, being well-informed, knew what I was doing, knew the difficulties I had overcome, and could appreciate what I did. I am never afraid of singing before those who know.'

In the first Lord Lytton's day there was a fashionable figure in society whom everybody regarded as a 'superior person.' Chancing next day to call on Lord Durham, Lytton said, 'I spent six mortal hours with Lord Spraggles' (the superior person), 'and I don't think there is much in him.' 'Good heavens!' exclaimed Lord Durham, 'how did you find that out? Is it possible he could have—talked?' The superior person had mastered nothing, and when he spoke it was apparent.

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George Jacob Holyoake

  • Born April 13, 1817 in Birmingham, UK and died on January 22nd, 1906.
  • Was a British secularist, co-operator (The English Leader), and newspaper editor (Reasoner).

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