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  • Writer's pictureJoel Nash

What is Actor-Musician training?

Over the last few years the theatre industry has seen actor-musicians being in increasingly high demand. The rising popularity of these multi-skilled performers has meant that more and more drama schools are developing courses that focus specifically on this craft. But what is actor-musician training? And is there more to it than simply learning how to multi-task? We approached two students, from two separate conservatoires, and asked them to keep a short diary about their experiences as an actor-musician in training. This is what they wrote...

Elaine Jones: A 1st Year Actor-Musician student at Guilford School of Acting.

"A typical day at GSA starts at 9am (11 if you’re lucky). Yet somehow it’s not an effort to get up, despite having to haul all your instruments across campus! For me, beginning a Thursday with ensemble musicianship is the best way to start. Playing through a piece on both clarinet and sax reminds me why I love music so much and how rewarding it is to play with a group in one room rather than over video - something we’ve all missed massively over lockdown. We also discuss music we enjoy and the musical techniques behind how tone and mood is created, and it’s brilliant to see people being so enthusiastic about their pieces and discovering new ones.

After our ensemble class we have storytelling! So far we have been working on a mythical story project. My group chose the legend of George and the Dragon. It was fascinating for us to begin using instruments not only to create music, but to create soundscapes using unconventional methods. Who knew you could use a kazoo to emulate a rooster?!

Elaine (far right) and her classmates enjoying another day at GSA. Photo by Rebecca Goddard.

As first years we only get one 1-2-1 singing lesson every four weeks, but it’s definitely a highlight of a Thursday afternoon when you do have one! As musos we have such a wide range of singing and dance ability, from real pros to complete beginners, and I love how GSA is able to provide us with exactly what we need to improve, whether that’s a crash course of technique or building on existing knowledge.

At 5pm we round off another tiring, but incredibly enjoyable day. Despite the restrictions that Covid-19 has put on our training, I am still living my best life on the actor-muso course. The days where we get to go in and experience lessons in the studio are incredible! The atmosphere created in the room when we're all together is not even comparable to zoom lessons. It’s so amazing to know that I am going to spend the next three years surrounded by such incredible people, playing music and developing as an actor-muso. I can’t wait for us to continue our journey."

Harry Curley: A 2nd Year Actor-Musician student at Rose Bruford College.

"In our second-year training on the actor-muso course we have started to steer away from psycho-realism and we're now entering the realms of absurdism and political theatre.

In our acting seminar we have been discussing the importance of class injustice in political theatre; notably Brecht’s theatre and the provocation for change that he gives to the audience. The focus for us as actor musicians is to elicit this feeling of astonishment as the audience watch the inequities taking place onstage. We have been exploring this idea of the active audience member who is assessing and evaluating the morality of the characters and the dire circumstances in which they often find themselves.

Harry (bottom right) and his classmates in a choreography session at Rose Bruford. Photo by Tom Attwood.

In our composition classes we have also been using music to communicate ideas within these political contexts. Our task this term was inspired by the famous step sequence in Eisenstein Odessa's 1925 film ‘Battleship Potemkin’. Using the principles of Kurt Weil - the composer Brecht worked with frequently - we created compositions inspired by the film. Some students created a piece of music that could run alongside the sequence as accompaniment. Others decided to zoom in on one element of the stimulus and write a composition based on that. One of my classmate wrote a disconcerting piece called ‘The Parasol Song’ – a deeply critical piece about the futility of umbrellas and their variants.

This politically conscious approach has also been bleeding into our voice classes where we've been tackling political speeches. From the use of strong rhetoric I have often found myself persuaded to mindsets I wouldn’t have thought I would be. The relationship between our lessons in different disciplines is really apparent - the understanding of our musical training can really influence our understanding of our acting training - and vice versa.

Harry practicing his political speech in the courtyard at Rose Bruford. We love the denim on denim Harry! Photo by Lee Birnie.

This is perhaps most obvious in our actor-musician rendition of ‘Too Darn Hot’ from ‘Kiss Me Kate’. In a few weeks of rehearsal we saw the synthesis of all our skills coming together. The process kicked off with two music rehearsals where we dissected the score – we took off our 'political theatre hats' and indulged in the jubilant quicksteps of Cole Porter. It was interesting to see the benefits and limitations of being a company of 15 actor musicians. We found that the original score had to be reduced to suit the company - it was mentioned that we should be open to change as we would be dancing with our instruments in just a few weeks. We also found more challenging sections of score would be made even harder with the incorporation of dance and movement. This feels like a pivotal moment in the training, but also the shift didn’t feel so large as all the skills that we've been developing became apparent in this mini project.

Next week we will be put into rehearsals for our political plays and we will wave goodbye to our actor-muso company until we're reunited in the next skills block. Our group of 15 will be split into small handfuls and put into plays with our peers on the Acting course. This feels hugely exciting; I am eager to see how our slightly different creative vocabularies will work together during the rehearsal process. The actors’ musicality feels different to ours, yet I think within our separate specialisms we may find we have a lot more in common than we think."

The Bohemians would like to thank Elaine and Harry for their contributions and wish them all the best in the rest of their training.



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