Lessons for musicians from actors

Toshiro Mifune had a kind of talent I had never encountered before in the Japanese film world. It was, above all, the speed with which he expressed himself that was astounding. The ordinary actor might need ten feet of film to get across an impression; Mifune needed only three. The speed of his movements was such that he said in a single action what took ordinary actors three separate movements to express.

Akira Kurosawa

Toshiro Mifune, the epitome of cool

Imagine an actor focusing so hard on diction and projection he forgets what he is trying to say. Or imagine a violinist spending so much time to get a thorny work clean and in tune he forgets there is music behind the notes. In order to play classical music professionally you have to practice technique but the challenges can be so great there is a temptation to focus just on technical work.

Mifune. Those eyes....

Expression in music is comprised of many ingredients. One is tone, or “color.” For a given passage, should you choose the dark, chocolaty sound like you might reach for in Brahms; or maybe the clear, innocent ring that works for much Mozart; or the harsh, fluorescent glare sometimes required in Shostakovich? An actor might ask whether he should whisper some lines as if to himself; or call them out angrily; or say them lovingly with the “girlfriend voice.”

Mifune: a lift of an eyebrow
conveys a world of meaning

Music also has phrasing which requires figuring out where the notes are going and how they will get there. An actor reciting his lines has to interpret how he is going to say the words the script tells him to say. Those choices have a fundamental impact on meaning: “what do you want to do here?” is very different from “what do you want to do here?”

Mifune studied footage of lions in the wild:
at rest - and closing for the kill.

On an even smaller scale is phrasing within each note; what’s happening in the middle of the note or the end (a lot of time is already spent on the beginnings of notes), does the music flow out of the note or recede? Should the vibrato be fast or slow, narrow or wide? A playwright who wants a line spoken a specific way might use punctuation or descriptors in the text: (joyfully) “I’ll take it!” or (hesitatingly) “I’ll….take it?” or (sighing) “I’ll take it.”

You had to do a lot more than
tie him up to render him helpless.

Musicians strive to play expressively, whereas actors can communicate directly with expression. Watch 2:18 in this scene from the end of “Skyfall.” Daniel Craig/James Bond enters “M’s” office, looks around, but is unsure how to proceed given their complicated history. His eyes wander, suddenly focus, he flounders for a second, his mouth opening before fully forming his words, then settles on superficial small talk. Without uttering a sound, we get a comprehensive window into his thoughts: awkwardness, their changed circumstances, a desire to move on.  

“How’s the arm, suh?”

This level of expression is what we strive for in music where every note is suffused with meaning. We all do this naturally without thinking in day-to-day conversation but sometimes need to be reminded when picking up a musical instrument. Composers provide some instructions but in general rely on the good sense and experience of the performers.

Here is the entrance of the solo viola from the manuscript of Hector Berlioz’ viola concerto, “Harold en Italie.” In this recording of William Primrose (jump to 2:54), he does so much more than the composer’s minimal markings which consist of:

1.  Play expressively (“expresif”)
2.  Quietly (“p” for “piano,” which is “quiet” in Italian)
3. One small crescendo in the second measure (notated with a hairpin opening to the right)


Primrose modulates the speed of his vibrato, varies the color, sometimes is a little ahead of the beat, sometimes behind. He opens up emotionally in the third measure, then pulls back to end the fourth introspectively. That’s a lot going on in a few seconds of music but it comes off as effortless.

The score/script is merely a
point of departure.

Unlike musicians, actors have an actual text to work from but the most famous soliloquy in the English language (“To be or not to be….”) comes with no instructions; you just get “Enter Hamlet.” A great actor like Toshiro Mifune has an intensity of expressive power where even the smallest gesture suggests worlds of emotion beneath the surface.

An example of beautifully-inflected music-making is Josef Szigeti playing the Bach Sonata in G Minor for solo violin. Every note is beautifully shaped; every phrase going (or coming) from somewhere; the music moves, hesitates, slows, swoops up or glides softly down.

Some musicians play more
instinctively than others.

(The most annoying ones do this
beautifully without thinking at all.)

I find this act of unearthing and then executing expression one of the great pleasures in life.

David Yang, Artistic Director

A short list of Toshiro Mifune's  greatest films:
1. Rashamon (some consider this the
greatest film of all time)
2. Seven Samurai
3. Yojimbo, and its sequel, 4. Sanjuro
(inspiration for Leone's "The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly")
5. High and Low
6. Throne of Blood (Macbeth)
7. Hidden Fortress
(Spielberg acknowledges this as inspiration for Star Wars)
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