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Things To Consider When Playing Live Music and Acting Simultaneously

The careers of actors and musicians naturally experience a certain amount of overlap, but in most cases they are distinct. Performing as a musician on stage and acting while playing an instrument are two different beasts. But many plays (even non-musicals) incorporate music, singing, etc., both in and out of character. So if you have any sort of instrument listed in your special skills, you must be prepared to use it.

Understand Your Musical Details

First things first, if it’s listed on your resume, make sure you both clearly understand, and can clearly articulate your level of experience. For example, I can play the clarinet, but I wouldn’t call myself a clarinetist. It’s something that I have played in shows and a skill I can brush off fairly quickly, but not something I regularly practice and keep up between times. In the room, I usually specify that if I have a week or two I can play most things, but my sight reading days are largely behind me. 

It’s good to keep up communication about maintenance details as well. Make sure you establish (preferably in writing) who is responsible for every aspect of the instrument. If you buy supplies or take them in for maintenance or repairs, are they fully reimbursed, partially reimbursed or not at all? If you leave it at the theatre, do they have a safe, locked space for it or are you bringing it home every night? Where is it being stored between scenes?

It’s better not to assume you know how these things will be handled, especially in non-union spaces. Remember, your employers very likely may not have experience with your specific instrument, or perhaps any instruments at all, so be prepared to advocate for your needs.

Determine Your Role

Now, on to the actual playing! The first thing you want to determine is your role. Are you playing as a musician, a character or both? I’m currently performing in a show where I both act and play and in one instance, play onstage in character. When I’m playing just as a musician (visible and in costume, but essentially in the equivalent of an orchestra pit), all my concentration goes to playing the best I can and throwing focus to what’s going on onstage without distracting from it. 

When I’m playing onstage in character, however, I have to incorporate more layers. How does my character play, how accomplished of a musician are they, how do they handle their instrument, do they play for money, pleasure, or both?

Hone Your Musical Skills

Something to keep in mind is that you must be a better musician than your character is. Playing and acting at the same time makes each thing harder. Additionally, just like playing a character who’s a bad actor, you have to have the skill to know how to portray a lack of skill. Especially if you’re playing in character, the number one thing isn’t the playing itself, it’s the story you’re telling.

Just like with fight choreography, the music is a tool to support the story, not a skill featured for the sake of showcasing the actor’s skill. If there is text over the music, the text comes first. You still have to support the tone of the play, character objectives, and tactics, the arc of the story, etc.

Keep Calm and Play On

Finally, just because you’re both a skilled actor and a skilled musician doesn’t mean performing them professionally will feel the same. Acting, even improv, rarely gives me the kind of performance anxiety that playing an instrument does. So even though it’s a marketable skill, I’m choosy about when and how I take it on professionally. 

There are so many different ways music can become part of your acting career. These are just my thoughts as an actor with an additional skill I sometimes use. There are certainly actors who prioritize music performance, or even artists who do both and prefer to keep them separate.

Like anything else, you get to decide what you take on. But perhaps keep an open mind. I was honestly surprised by how much I enjoyed the challenge of waking up old skills. As long as you can deliver on the job, saying yes to the things that scare you can take you to some interesting places. 

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