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Keep blowing, banging and bowing

I see a great deal of theatre for young audiences, most of it imaginative and enjoyable. In some ways it’s the most challenging work a performer can undertake because the younger the audience members the less conditioned to politeness they are. If you fail to engage them they will simply switch off or worse.

That’s why the best work for very young audiences is multi-sensory with plenty of interesting sound, visually engaging things, touchable items and even smells and tastes. For older young audiences theatre has to offer experiences the audience is not expecting. And of course that often means live music. Welcome to the world of the actor-musician.

An actor who can play musical instruments, as many as possible,  and use them as part of his or her acting, is currently in high demand. Yes, these things go in fashions and a few years ago everyone wanted acrobats. In five or ten years’ time fashion may turn elsewhere. But at present actor-musos are more employable than their friends who can’t do music, especially, but not exclusively, in shows for under 21s although I’m seeing ever more family and adult shows featuring actor-musos – Once which I wrote about last week, for instance.

So how do you become an actor-muso? Well of course there are actors who happen to play a musical instrument and who are therefore able to use that skill as part of their work. Every drama school acting class includes some students with quite high level skills on musical instruments. You only have to read the CVs in graduate showcase programmes to see the evidence  although there aren’t many actor-pianists about. Most musically inclined acting students seem to play portable or orchestral instruments.

Increasingly, actor-musos are coming through drama school courses specifically designed for them.  Mountview, for instance, offers a BA Hons in Performance: Actor Musician. Rose Bruford’s has a  well established BA (Hons) in Actor Musicianship.  GSA has a newer one through which very employable performers are now coming into the industry.

There has always been scope for the informal development of actor-muso skills if you train to act in a conservatoire which also trains musicians – Guildhall School of Music and Drama, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama and the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland – and more recently Royal Birmingham Conservatoire.

It cuts both ways too. Sometimes musicians, normally in a pit or on balcony, have to come on stage and do a bit of acting. It happens at The Globe all the time for example. It makes sense to allow the training to overlap a bit to maximise every student’s employment potential. Actors and musicians no longer live in precious watertight boxes – if they ever did.

If you’ve long since trained and are working or wanting to be, all is not lost either. Actors who haven’t really done any musical playing for a long time can, obviously, self-help. If you played trumpet, cello, flute or whatever even at a very basic standard when you were a child, what you learned is still hardwired into you somewhere because that’s how music works. It’s worth digging out the instrument, or getting another one, and working up those skills again now. Get a few lessons. Practise. Act confidently with it and it might help you to get a job you wouldn’t otherwise have got. A lot of the music used in shows, especially for young audiences, is not particularly complicated. It just needs playing with panache.

Be adventurous too. People who’ve once, even many years ago, been taught, say, violin can often teach themselves the guitar, ukulele, banjo, rhythm double bass and more because they know how to hold strings down. It’s quite common for people who play reed or brass instruments to be able “to find their way around” close relatives of the instrument they originally had lessons on. Most accordionists start on piano. And any competent performer can play non-pitch percussion and sing. I’ve seen literally hundreds of actors in children’s shows in recent years knocking or shaking out rhythms in cast bands. And they didn’t all attend the Royal Academy of Music. Some have had no musical training at all.

My observation is that the days of acting as a tightly focused single discipline are well and truly over. The more strings you have to your bow – literally perhaps – the more likely you are to be able to pay the bills. So if you’re still at school and have an eye on a career in acting for goodness sake don’t give up the trombone.

Image: Actor-muso, Dannie Harris




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Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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