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Katie Jackson: Cueing from a score is like learning to drive – it just takes a bit of nerve

Photo: Oleksandr Nagaiets/S hutterstock
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Cueing to music: you’ve either got it or you don’t, as they say. Well, not entirely. I’m lucky that I grew up playing the piano and did A level music, so being unable to score-read was not an option. That was, of course, entirely coincidental, and not something that all stage managers experience when growing up. Musical education is expensive.

But we can all learn new skills. I don’t have a driving licence, but I can get driving lessons, and there are ways of getting around score-reading too. Some methods are a bit arduous, but if they create the same end result then why not engage them?

The most important lesson is how to count beats. Yes, this means counting every beat from the beginning of the music until the moment the cue lands in. If you can clap in time to a piece of music then you are correctly identifying the beats. Once you get to know a piece of music, then you will recognise a moment in the tune as you would a line of dialogue in a play.

Alternatively, you can time code the cues if you’re working off a click track, so you know that LX Q 48 goes at 3 minutes and 27 seconds into the track, for example.

I’m not denying it’s complicated even with a background in music. If I have to call a cue on the fourth beat of the 32nd bar, I have to be able to keep up with the first 31 bars of the piece to know where I am in the music.

Then comes the actual rhythm of calling. I have to decide how many beats I should start talking from, before the cue needs to land. If it’s a short phrase like “LX Q 71 go”, that’s not too bad. But if I have to say “Follow spot 1 pick up the Prince, he’s entering mid stage left, go”, that could take a page worth of the score, depending on the speed of the music. Saying the cueing phrases is the most likely moment to lose count of the beats and bars and, therefore, your place in the score.

You also have to account for the fact that at the other end of your comms is a human being with a reaction time.

If you say “go” on the beat that you want the cue to happen, it will inevitably be late because of the time required for you to speak, the time for the operator to hear, and the time for them to press the button on the lighting desk. So, if the cue is supposed to land on the eighth beat of the bar, let’s say, you want to be saying “go” just after the seventh beat.

This is when not being able to read a score tends to make people shy away from the idea of calling musicals, operas or ballets. This is totally understandable, in the same way that the idea of getting behind the wheel of a car is terrifying for me.

What I’m saying is: there’s nothing stopping anyone calling a ballet, just as there’s nothing preventing me from taking my driving test. It’s all about having the nerve to try.

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