When I was a kid, my parents forced me to take up piano lessons and, oh boy, was I unhappy about that. Every Wednesday afternoon on the way to the lesson, I would think: “Why oh why are my parents so unkind as to force me into something that I dread with such frenzied passion?” So, I quit as soon as they let me. Now that I’m older and wiser , and working as an actor, I wish that I’d stuck with it for longer. Learning how to play an instrument is incredibly valuable and something everyone should do. Actors especially.
Actors should learn how to play an instrument for a number of reasons: it can be a relaxing and fulfilling hobby, a skill that can distinguish you in casting opportunities and allow you to work across conventional and musical theatre. Even if you have no desire to play professionally on stage, the mental and physical processes of learning how to play an instrument can improve your ability to learn, memorise and comprehend complex artistic ideas.
Do you Have any Hobbies?
Let’s talk first about the importance of having a hobby. You have to have something that you do outside of acting to stay sane—and that doesn’t include your muggle job. Your hobby, or hobbies, should be things you do because you enjoy doing them. If you’re short in supply of hobbies, might I suggest picking up an instrument? One of the many great things about learning an instrument is that it is an easily measurable skill” the more you do it, the better you get.
In the murky waters of an acting career, having something as tangible as playing an instrument is really valuable. It gives us something to work towards that we can measure and get excited about. You could apply this to just about any skill-based hobby, of course, but let’s dig into why learning an instrument is such a good hobby for actors.
What are your Special Skills?
Yeah, yikes. Sorry to bring up some nasty feelings if you’ve been asked that question in interviews or auditions before.
This one is obvious. Learning how to play an instrument is a crazy good skill to have as an actor for the simple fact that it opens up a world of acting jobs previously unavailable to you. A lot of theatre companies I have auditioned for ask if you can play an instrument in their pre-screening and if you can, it gives you a much better shot at the part you’re going for.
Even if the job you’re going for doesn’t require you know how to play an instrument, chances are that if a casting director is tossing up between two brilliant actors, they will go with the person who can play an instrument if that’s an option for the simple fact that they’re more versatile. Actors who play instruments also have additional advantages when it comes to learning new skills.
Thank you, spellcheck. I asked a friend of mine who teaches piano why he thinks people should learn an instrument and he hit me with that word. After staring at him blankly for a few moments, he explained that neuroplasticity is basically how effectively your brain can adapt and pick up new skills. Playing an instrument is apparently one of the best ways of improving neuroplasticity. So not only are you learning a new and valuable skill, but it’s also priming you to be able to pick up other skills at a faster pace.
This is shiny, buttery gold for actors. If you need to learn a new skill for a role because you lied about having it in the first place (which I’ve never done, I’d never do that) and you’re a musician on the side, you’re going to be able to pick it up much more quickly than your non-musical peers. This includes learning new languages and accents, too.
Brain Food for Actors
Learning music is so good for your brain. In addition to making it more elastic, it also makes it more fantastic. There’s plenty of research out there that shows learning an instrument improves your concentration, memory and a big handful of other cognitive functions. With the amount of lines we have to learn and the hours we spend waiting for our scene to come up, having good concentration and memory is vital.
Whilst there is less research behind this, there is some evidence to suggest those who learn an instrument are more empathetic people. I suspect the this has something to do with the amount of listening that goes into playing an instrument. Learning to listen is a crucial skill for good acting. In fact, good acting is almost entirely good listening.
The Score and the Scales
When I was working on a production of The Seagull, I asked about managing my mental health alongside some of the heavier themes in the play. The director described the script as a ‘score’—the sheet music you read when you learn to play a song. In music, you can only ever play with what’s in the score. Once the song ends: that’s all there is. At the end, you get up, take a bow and go back to your life. It can be the same with acting. Once we’re finished with the story and the character, that’s it. You don’t have to carry them with you beyond the play or film or episode.
Another director I worked with loved to workshop scripts with a practice called ‘Viewpoints’, a methodology coined by practitioner Anne Bogart. It’s a simple but very effective exercise and this particular director likened actors using Viewpoints to musicians practicing scales. It’s about getting the basics down so that you can play with joyous and reckless abandon in the moment, but retaining control and technique.
What I love about these comparisons is that they encourage us rowdy actors to think about our craft with the same kind of discipline that playing music requires. Acting can get esoteric at times, but music is a hard science. You play the notes you’ve got to work with and once you get good, you can start to improvise around them but always within the rules of the score and only if we’ve practiced our basic scales first. If you learn how to play an instrument, these lessons in discipline will become more apparent and will resonate through your acting work.
Are you a fan of musicals but find yourself more in the traditional theatre game? Ever wished there was a genre that let you dip your toe into the pool? Actor-musician shows (or “actor-muso”, as the cool kids say) might be for you!
Simply put: actor-muso shows are scored live by performers who may either sing songs or simply provide the underscoring to the production. This kind of show has been around forever, but is finding popularity as a sub-genre of its own. They are particularly popular in the UK, but companies and productions are now finding greater international appeal through shows like Once, Amelie, Hadestown and Come From Away.
If you’re not familiar with these kinds of shows, they can be odd beasts. Not quite a play, not quite a musical, they often fit somewhere in between. But for actors who can strum a guitar or pick up an accordion (if you really must), they can find themselves in high demand by companies desperate to jump on one of live theatre’s most exciting new trends.
Okay, I’m Sold. Where do I start?
Piano. You start with piano. Piano is the musical equivalent to Spanish in that it’s relatively easy to learn and it forms a great foundation for learning other instruments. You can buy electronic keyboards that are compact, portable, and come pre-loaded with a bunch of songs and lessons that can teach you how to play. There is a wealth of free lessons on YouTube made by very generous people that teach everything from basic scales to well-known music. Start with the scales and then learn a short song. Once you’re feeling confident, you can start learning something bigger. I’d start with the theme from Interstellar because it’s an amazing piece for piano and damn it, I cry every time I hear it.
A quick word of advice from one of my tutors: when you get your keyboard, set it up right away in a room you spend a lot of time in. Your bedroom, for example. That way, it’s there ready for you to play, rather than wrapped up in a box in the garage somewhere.
Once you’ve made a good start on piano, you can pick another instrument to learn, if you like. Guitar is great, drums are great, you’d likely pick up the ukulele in the same time it takes to read this article! Any instrument in the world is great. Learn whichever one makes you most excited.
Music is a gift. Like anything, once we understand what goes into making it we can appreciate it a whole lot more. The road to musical prowess can be winding and tiresome at times but the lessons in discipline, concentration and creativity are invaluable to performers. So give it a go: challenge yourself, expand your mind and have fun!
See you around the traps.