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How learning a musical instrument can boost your acting career

Captain Corelli's Mandolin at the Rose Theatre, Kingston. Photo: Tristram Kenton Captain Corelli's Mandolin at the Rose Theatre, Kingston. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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Maybe you played recorder at school, or piano is on your CV, but all you can remember is Chopsticks. As ever more shows feature actor-musicians, Susan Elkin finds out how working on that Grade 3 might bag you a lead role

Being able to play a musical instrument can increase your chances of getting acting jobs – actor-musicians have never been in more demand.

The Worst Witch, currently wowing audiences of all ages at London’s Vaudeville Theatre, for instance, is a musical piece that pounds energetically along without a conventional band. Everyone is simply part of the cast.

So how do you embrace this trend if you didn’t train as an actor-musician, have never played a musical instrument or haven’t done for a very long time?

One way is to learn from someone you’re working with who can already do it. “I’d done piano and singing at school,” says Dannie Harris, 22, who has just graduated from Drama Centre London with a degree in acting. “For our final drama school show Mephisto, I said I played piano and there was another girl who played clarinet. I happened to have a clarinet at home and brought it along. I learned the basics for the show from the other students and I am now trying to up my musical skills.”

YolanDa Brown, 36, self-taught saxophonist of CBeebies and concert fame, learned the saxophone after failing to warm to violin and piano. “Having been given an instrument for Christmas in my early teens, I worked out the basics over the holiday and took it from there,” she says.

How do you train to be an actor-musician?

Jonathan Ashby-Rock, 29, actor and artistic director at Hounslow Arts Centre, believes in never saying no to anything. “I played guitar in all styles, with a fine and eclectic teacher, when I was a teenager at Redroofs School for Performing Arts in Maidenhead. But, when I started auditioning, there were too many guitarists about.”

Then, what he calls “youthful ballsiness” got him a job in Of Mice and Men at the Brockley Jack. “They wanted harmonica and I blithely said I could do it,” he recalls, chuckling. “On the way home, I went and bought a box of harmonicas and learned in a week. I’ve also taught myself banjo and mandolin.”

So, where does that leave the ukulele, so simple to master in the very early stages that it is now used extensively in primary schools instead of the traditional recorder? “We’ve sometimes had to say ‘no ukeleles’ when we’re auditioning at Hounslow,” says Ashby-Rock. “Because there are too many people who can play five chords.”

That’s tiresome for an actor/performer such as Amanda Harkett, 33, who originally trained in musical theatre at Central School of Speech and Drama and then as an opera singer at Goldsmiths, because she’s a serious ukulele player.

“I’d done flute and various recorders at school and first picked up the ukelele as a joke. Then I found it was really liberating to be able to accompany myself in opera arias so I worked at it and eventually developed a show called Opera-lele, which has toured extensively in Britain and Europe. And I often use the ukulele if I’m cast in, say, pantomime.”

How do you train to become an opera singer?

Once you’ve decided to push yourself on an instrument, one of the best ways of practising is to join a local amateur band or orchestra. Most of these are desperate for players of certain instruments – especially strings, brass and percussion, even at very elementary levels. Flutes and clarinets tend to be plentiful, so bear this in mind if you’re trying to work out which instrument to hone your skills on. And don’t worry if the orchestra is playing Mozart but you really want to do musical theatre. The Western classical tradition provides an excellent base for any sort of further development.

Or, maybe you’re looking for lessons and courses. There is a huge range of summer schools where you can learn musical instruments. The Institute of Contemporary Music Performance, for example, runs short courses in music performance, songwriting and music production, for example. Dartington annual international summer school in Devon offers a wide programme of instrumental opportunities. Rose Bruford runs an annual short course for actor-musicians, among many others.

Benslow Music in Hertfordshire runs short residential musical instrument courses, across all genres and caters for all abilities, from folk fiddling by ear, summer saxophone classes and gospel choirs to learning to sight-sing, string quartets and late-starter violin lessons.

And, as soon as you tap into any of these networks you meet other people keen to develop their skills with whom you can practice, form groups and create work. Exeter Music Centre is another example – it aims to “help adults to further their music, to get back into music or to get into music for the first time” and offers a range of facilities including practise space, inexpensive workshops and courses.

We’ve all seen plays employ actor-musician talents – most of Sally Cookson’s work, for example (Hetty Feather, Jane Eyre) or much of Emma Rice’s. But does it also work for full-blown musical theatre? “It depends on the instrument,” says Harris. “Instruments that you can play while singing and dancing are good, as in the recent sung-through production of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button at Southwark Playhouse. You can’t sing and blow at the same time.”

Ashby-Rock hires performers, as well as acting and playing instruments himself. He says: “Turn nothing down. Be open to small roles and be prepared to learn new skills – such as playing an instrument.”

Useful links

An eclectic, nationwide list of amateur orchestras and bands: amateurorchestras.org.uk
Useful list of music teachers: musicteachers.co.uk
Institute of Contemporary Music Performance: icmp.ac.uk
Dartington International Summer School: dartington.org.uk
Benslow Music: benslowmusic.org
Exeter Music Centre: exetermusiccentre.org.uk
Hounslow Arts Centre: hounslowartscentre.co.uk

For more training advice go to: thestage.co.uk/advice

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