Armitage barbatus: or, beard as costume, part 3

[In the remaining posts in this series, I argue that the beard as costume grants Armitage added sprezzatura, and that this effect alone is a reason to like it. In order to do so, below I try to define the word and its implications by relating an account from my life. The main takeaway from this section is on the meaning and contradictions of the term I’ll be using to interpret Armitage for the remainder of the series. Feel free to skip piece this if you’re more interested in the Armitage part of “me + Richard Armitage,” as this is a post that’s about me. Part IV on the 2010 BAFTAs and Part V on the Hobbit press conference of February 2011 will turn to the analysis of situations in which we see Armitage display sprezzatura and how he manages it, so they may be of greater interest. If you do skip this section, though, you’ll have to make sure you understand the term for the rest of the series to make sense.]

Part One; Part Two.

III. Never let them see you sweat, or: on the role of sprezzatura

Raphael, portrait of Baldassare Castiglione, the author of the The Book of the Courtier, and the historical author who wrote most eloquently about sprezzatura. Painting, oil on canvas, c. 1514-5, The Louvre.

When I was almost sixteen, through a complicated series of events that followed what I until recently considered the worst year of my life, I ended up with a new piano teacher different from every one I’d had before. She was a little more than a decade older than me. She had a lot of wisdom (she still does — and now I am proud to call her friend). At 27 she had a B.A. in music education, four babies, and a miscarriage behind her, and was managing a household on her husband’s beginning rural teacher salary and teaching music in her spare seconds. She knew instinctively how to teach me — at the best of times I was often a difficult student, and I was much worse than normal that year. Because of her flexibility, I learned more from her about everything, not just music, than probably from any other teacher in my life. Her music lessons were like life coaching — or therapy.

In retrospect, one of the most important things she taught me about was sprezzatura. She didn’t call it that, and I didn’t read Castiglione, pictured above — whose discussion of the manners, style, and being of the Renaissance courtier in Il Libro del Cortegiano is considered definitive — till my second year of college, but the term is often translated based on Castiglione as involving the avoidance of behaviors that seem unnatural or overdone: a natural nobility that derives from a “studied nonchalance,” or what my teacher termed “the charm of the smooth exterior.” In a recent book on the topic, the authors call it “effortless mastery.” Sprezzatura is the fundamental quality that distinguishes the great courtier for Castiglione, and by extension, one of the most important tools in any performer’s arsenal.

So back to piano lessons. About six months into our relationship, I studied the Grieg piece embedded above. At some point, she said to me, “Now you can play the music. But can you perform it?” A discussion of the manners of the performer ensued (at which, of course, I was decidedly lacking, since no piano teacher had discussed this matter with me before. Now I realize that they were simply focused on training me to play more and more difficult pieces). “You always look like you’re struggling when you’re playing, ” she remarked. “What you are doing detracts from the music for the audience.” “It is hard to play the sections with those grand arpeggios and the octaves up and down the keyboard,” I said. “I have to struggle if I want to get it right.” “OK, and one reason to learn this piece was precisely because you struggle with those octaves. By playing it you gain security with them, authority over the geography of the keyboard that will make other things easier later. That’s a great result for you. But think about it,” she said. “What does the audience get from seeing you struggle? The impression of a precocious teenager with an ambitious teacher who’s bitten off just slightly more than her student can chew.” “Well, it’s honest,” I laughed. “And I don’t want to put on a show, or imply that I’m something I’m not.” “But the point here is the effect of the music, not who you are or what you’re going through to achieve it. Performing always means ‘putting on a show,’ but by controlling your appearance while playing, you will minimize the effect that you are doing so. Your performance will be better the less the audience can see the effort that’s going into it.” “It seems fakey,” I objected.  “We’re Lutheran,” she noted, “and so we’re working hard to make sure that what we are on the outside matches the inside. But you have to think about this differently.” “But what am I supposed to do?” I asked. “You could start by thinking of your own performance as effortless,” she replied. “That will take some doing,” I said, and she laughed.

Two weeks later, I was playing the same piece, and things went a lot better. After she’d given me her notes, she said, “your performance is a lot less distracting now. It makes your achievement seem greater — a teenage girl calmly stroking the keys and getting all that sound out. Really, it makes you look like a more talented musician.” “I did what you said.” She grinned, and said, “I didn’t think you were going to take my advice.” “I was really perturbed,” I responded, “but once I started thinking about it not as an intentional lie on my part, but something I’m doing on behalf of the audience, it got easier.” “Oh, that’s good,” she said. “I was also thinking you could think about it as an attempt to make yourself humble and the music grand, that might have helped you if I’d thought of it earlier. So what specifically did you do?” she asked. I said, “Like you said, I started trying to think that I needed to appear as if I can do this effortlessly, and that seemed to actually make it more effortless, which is really weird. It’s like the music itself got easier, which makes no sense.” She smiled and said, “maybe you were carrying over your feelings from when we started studying this piece and it was hard for you.” “But I still feel like it’s hard,” I said, “and when I imply that it’s not, I feel like I’m lying. Like I’m–” “Insincere?” she asked. “Yeah.” “Is that a problem?” “Well, kind of, since I play because it usually makes me feel better afterwards, and I thought that was about being honest about my true feelings and getting them out.” “You’re asking a lot from music, but I think it still can be that for you,” she said, “when you’re playing for yourself.” “Yeah,” I said, and I still remember how upset I got, “but if I pretend to be playing as if it takes no effort, and because of that it takes less effort, than isn’t what I’m doing not a real expression of me, but just an effect of how I’m supposed to be for the purposes of the performance?” “Huh?” she said. “If pretending makes it easier in real life, then don’t I lose what I’m trying to get out of doing it in the first place?” “I see what you mean,” she said, “but what you’re saying seems to assume that in order to be your real self, you can’t ever change. I know it seems crazy now, but in five or ten years you will see that you are changing all the time, and yet you are still yourself.” “But–” “What?” “What happens if the performance takes over everything else, including me? If it’s so effective that I change so much that I forget why I was doing it in the first place?” “Success,” she said, “from the performer’s view, anyway, if you can induce that level of forgetfulness of self. But I don’t think you have to worry about that just yet. Right now you can stick with being a teenager who’s performing this piece with a deceptive effortlessness.”

She was a great teacher, and she was just who I needed at that point in my life. What’s interesting to me, thinking about this experience now, is the whole question of self vs. performance and sincerity vs. faking it: That the effect of an appearance is greater if we can’t see the structuring pieces of it; that the seamless performance hides not only the traces of its preparation, but changes the performer in its turn and enhances her capacity to perform. At the same time, we need to be somehow aware of the artfulness of the product — the teenager producing the great sound — otherwise we don’t fully appreciate the achievement. Producing sprezzatura thus lies on the cusp between sincerity and lies — “making the effort to appear effortless” — and appreciating sprezzatura involves an awareness of the framework that points to the artifice involved in the performance. (Planting a thought in your head for Part VI: this is why we need both bearded and unbearded Armitage. Of that, more later. Meanwhile, on — to what I consider Mr. Armitage’s most effective appearance as himself that I’m aware of: BAFTAs 2010.)

Supplement to part III.

~ by Servetus on July 23, 2011.

23 Responses to “Armitage barbatus: or, beard as costume, part 3”

  1. […] To Part Three: Never let them see you sweat: or, the role of sprezzatura […]


  2. One of the indications of a bad actor is seeing him “act.” Too much head movement, too much gesticulating, over emoting standing in for a convincing performance. In acting class in college, the teacher said if you need to do all that to get a point across, you’re doing it wrong. This idea is true for other disciplines.

    It also works from a psychological point of view. If you try to picture things as not a struggle, even if it is, things eventually become more facile.


    • … and in turn alter your definitions of difficulty …

      the problem is that it’s not usually the case that displaying effortless mastery can happen without making an effort.


  3. How interesting! I have never heard that word “sprezzatura” before. I completely agree that from the audience’s point of view a performance has to be effortless – otherwise all sorts of undesirable thoughts intrude. But I never knew there was a word for it. Looking forward to the next part.


  4. A very interesting post indeed. I think I might be getting a hunch of where you will be taking us in the two remaining „beard posts“ and I am already looking forward to them.

    Anyway, last week’s ongoing exchange in RA world about the “beard or no beard” was a lot of fun and of course I have been following the CA premiere appearances through the internet. All the excited discussions on twitter and in the various blogs about RA’s outfit, about whether he appeared (not) to be his natural self, whether he was relaxed or not, whether he had changed (already), whether he was a bit like Thorin and also of how did he present himself to the American public made me think about the subject of image and identity. Every once in while I try to remind myself that all public personae (politicians, singers, actors) are creating images of themselves while they are communicating through the media. So is it possible to know the “real” person behind the image? I suppose it is possible to detect small signs of the “real” person but more than that? I don’t know… (A difficult topic for me to reflect on in a foreign language)

    I think I will have to re-read Max Frisch, one of my favourite authors whose novels and plays often deal with questions of image, identity and biography.

    To close this rather sober comment on a more cheerful note – I thoroughly enjoyed (and also took part in) last week’s excitement and I hope there’s going to be more…


    • Frisch: loved Montauk.

      I think that we have to question whether there is a “real” Richard Armitage. I think there are plenty of things about Armitage that we don’t know or are unlikely to discover, but in fact all the Armitages we see are real Armitage. The real Armitage is not static, or the same in evry setting.


  5. Oh, what a wonderful piano and life teacher ! I wish I had connected with mine that way and could have had a common basis. I had to search for my space in music all on my own. He found things easy I found hard to do, whereas things I could do easily had been a problem for him and he could not understand why they were none for me. So we were quite the opposit, but he could easily connect to my sister and I was the burden.
    But I see your point. Now I understand why the performances of other piano pupils, even when I need not perform myself, made me ill. So I really think the “sprezzatura” while playing / acting is ‘necessary’ for the audience.
    But now I also see why my teachter connected to my sister. She did not really care for playing the piano though she was good. I tried everything to be good and put effort into it – that showed and met with opposition.

    I love the word ‘sprezzatura’ and your interpretation of it concerning RA. What a great idea and I am really looking forward what role the beard will play in your further posts. I see the beard a bit like a mask and I am not always sure I like it that he is able to hide behind that mask.


  6. Woow! I too have never heard that word “sprezzatura” before. I think the art that uses more “making the effort to appear effortless” is the ballet. I recently watched the show of Deborah Colker, called Tatyana, based on the novel “Eugene Onegin,” where the dancers seem to defy the limits of body and gravity, although their expressions are are grace and lightness.
    I hope the continuation the your article!


    • yes, exactly right. Ballet is an extreme example because the effort required is so significant but the audience sees none of it (including the bleeding toes afterward).


  7. Change is a funny thing and something so difficult to grasp fully. Not to mention it’s quite hard to measure it by yourself, as I find myself too close to the source material. Though I can say with certainty I’m definitely not the same person as I was a year ago. Just don’t ask me what is different, nor can I tell you how.

    And sprezzatura, it just seems to go against my natural modesty and inclination to downplay everything I know and do. It is something I wish I could pretend more often in my life.


    • I think sprezzatura is hard for different people for all kinds of differing reasons. I’m really focused on honesty. I think women also think when they’re performing that they get credit for appearing to try harder. (which may be true in some settings.) Then there’s the wanting to get credit for what you’ve actually delivered, and so on. It’s the last piece of a performance, and sprezzatura won’t help you if you’re not prepared. On the other hand, it can help you to recover from a mistake more effectively. If you imply to the audience that you don’t care so much, you won’t have to listen to them gasp.


  8. I actually heard ‘sprezzatura’ in The Borgias, although I didn’t understand the meaning. Now I do and can see it does apply to RA.

    You made me very curious about the book, just today I was looking for a book to read in italian, I’ll see if I can find it.

    OML 🙂


  9. HI,

    This interview with RA seems very relevant to the discussion


  10. […] A sort of supplement to Part III. […]


  11. […] One, Two, Three, and supplement to Part […]


  12. […] III. Never let them see you sweat, or: on the role of sprezzatura […]


  13. […] / Childline as it’s my personal favorite of Mr. Armitage’s charities, probably because my own teen years were made bearable by adults who were willing to listen without judging, and because I’ve talked to my share of troubled or struggling late / post-adolescents, but […]


  14. […] / Childline as it’s my personal favorite of Mr. Armitage’s charities, probably because my own teen years were made bearable by adults who were willing to listen without judging, and because I’ve talked to my share of troubled or struggling late / post-adolescents, but […]


  15. […] the amount of work they go through to make things seem like they take no work — camera sprezzatura, you might say. See also her post on Stevie Ray […]


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