The Use of Music and Musical Theatre in Actor Training

[Editor’s note: This article was adapted from an earlier presentation at the Albert and Elaine Borchard Foundation Center for International Education Colloquium, “Evolutions and Revolutions in Actor Training: Michel Saint-Denis in Contemporary Context,” at the Chateau de la Bretesche, Brittany, France, 2018.]


seminal moment in my development as an acting teacher happened just before my fifth birthday. I had wanted to take piano lessons. My mother was against the idea, thinking I was too young, so I set out to prove her wrong by “practicing” two hours a day. 

I had no music. Instead I would just play, experimenting with the keys. I told stories in my head to match the notes. My left hand was the dad, and he’d say in his low-notes voice, “I’m home from work.” Mom was the right hand. She’d say, in her lilting high notes, “I’m so happy you’re home.” (This was the sixties.) Countless characters lived out their hopes and fears, loves and hates, at full volume. My mom quickly relented and I got my lessons.  

A few months later my piano teacher held her annual student recital. She assigned me “My Sweetheart’s the Man in the Moon,” which I was to play and sing. The lyrics include: 

My sweetheart’s the man in the moon.
I’m going to marry him soon…
Then behind some dark cloud
where no one is allowed,
I’ll make love to the man in the moon.

Not exactly four-year-old territory. Nevertheless, my imagination went right to work, creating what we’d now call a detailed backstory, exploring character, plotting choreography to match every note. 

The day of the recital arrived. As the youngest pupil, I was up first — and the moment I finished, I felt a thrill. I’d fulfilled my plan, told the story. To my mind, I’d fully embodied “My Sweetheart’s the Man in the Moon.” 

I got up from the piano to walk back to my seat — and in a flash, everything changed. The audience started clapping. In that instant, I knew that I had been judged. I’d been judged and found highly deserving, and that was a different kind of thrill. Immediately I returned to the piano and played and sang the song again — but this time instead of trying to live it through, I tried to do everything precisely as I had before. I tried to “get it right.” 

Finished, I ran to the same spot I’d stood when the audience applauded before, but this time there was only a smattering of response. Most didn’t clap at all. A new feeling came over me: I was unworthy. 

Looking back, I understand that the audience was probably afraid to respond lest the cycle repeat itself. Regardless, in that pivotal moment what people thought of my work had become more important to me than the work itself.


Some years ago, when I began to include Musical Theatre Performance in the MFA acting curriculum where I teach, I discovered that same dynamic, that singing carries with it an overwhelming expectation of judgement: of the voice, of sound quality, of self. Fear of judgement eclipses all else. 

But to my surprise and delight, I also discovered that rigorously applying acting technique to singing crowds out fear of judgement and engages students. What’s more, the acting techniques applied in musical theatre singing classes were seeping back into the acting studio: Acting students who were stuck in some aspect of their regular acting work were now breaking free following musical theatre class, while music majors, many of whom had never considered themselves actors, were finding a way into truthful acting. 

Michel Saint-Denis, one of the forebears of professional actor training in the United States, also experienced this phenomenon. In fact, he based the training of the actor’s voice on singing — in his words, to help bring a vocal quality in the actor that is strong, clear, rhythmic, and musical, with the goal of awakening in the actor a poetic sensitivity that starts from within and finds its full outer expression in the voice.1    

Once central to the training of actors, it’s now rare to find a professional program that includes the study of singing and music as an essential component. With the advent of specialized musical theatre training programs, we have further siloed the art of singing to the detriment of both courses of study within theatrical training. 

It is my firm belief we must bring singing back into the mainstream of actor training, not to produce more Broadway-caliber singers but to deepen our students’ connection to acting technique itself, an argument I will detail below. 

But first, another seminal moment: 

I continued studying piano, sadly still driven less by enjoyment of the work than need for approval. In seventh grade, I was preparing to participate in my first piano concerto competition. I’d been working on the first movement of Mozart’s A major concerto for months (33 pages that needed to be perfect) when I went to my piano lesson, taught by the remarkable Arnold Bullock, a professor at Arizona State University. After working through the piece for an hour, he asked if I’d have it learned for next week. I was pretty close to having the whole piece memorized, so I said, “Absolutely!”

Upon arriving at the next week’s lesson, my teacher held out his hand and I gave him my music, which he placed on his desk. “Now,” he said, “did you learn the piece?” 


“Wonderful,” he said. “Please play just the left hand alone.” 


“The left hand alone. You don’t really know this piece if you can’t play that. We’ll work on other music today. Will you have it learned for next week?”  

That evening I set about memorizing the left hand in isolation. I began to understand the music in ways I had never thought to explore. Anticipating another sneaky move by Professor Bullock, I also made sure I could play the right hand alone. 

Next week when I walked into his office he once again took my music and placed it on his desk. 

“Have you learned this piece?” 

“Yes,” I said, perhaps over-confidently. 

“Wonderful. Tell it to me.” 

Alarm bells. 

“Start with the first mark on the page and tell me every single marking that Mozart has written.”

More alarm bells.

Professor Bullock continued: “Until you can do that, you haven’t actually learned this music. Do you think there is a note or mark that Mozart included that was not meant to be examined, understood, connected to, and interpreted by you? We’ll work on something else today, because we’re not working on this concerto again until you have it learned.”

I didn’t know it, but this was my first acting teacher speaking.

“Will you have this piece learned for next week?”

Experiencing the score like that changed everything. Suddenly my focus was on illuminating every detail of the music, and — this is key — there was no room left for worrying about how well I was doing. My full energy was given to the realization of the composer’s intent and my connection to each moment of the music. 

Twenty years later, when I began to teach acting at a university, I found myself wondering how that very lesson might apply not only to musical theatre performance, but to the training of all actors. Might the intricacies and scope of music teach valuable lessons about living specifically, actively, and truthfully on stage?

Master acting teacher Ron Van Lieu, longtime chair of acting at NYU and Yale and currently Professor of Professional Practice at Columbia, has said, “Theatre is a transgressive medium… you’re supposed to disturb the air. You want to provide a visceral experience.”2  

Music, at its most basic level, is created by disturbing the air. Further, it connects the emotional, language, and memory centers of the brain. Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis notes in The Psychology of Music that “music articulates some of the subtlest and most difficult to express layers of emotional experience.”3  Here we see music’s potential to address two fundamental acting problems: It busts through the protections and the holds that trap so many actors by “disturbing the air,” and it builds connections to the deepest reaches of the actor’s inner life by “articulating” emotional experience.

Consequently, I submit musical study is a great tool for the actor. Not only can it free inner life, inform actions, and increase specificity; it also dovetails beautifully with the study of scansion, movement, and energy work, and helps develop the actor’s vocal imagination. The ideas outlined here result in a technique that helps take actors’ focus off themselves and place it onto their partners, that releases actors’ emotional life by increasing the depth of connection to the material, and that allows both singers and “non-singing” actors to discover the music in every text and inside themselves.

Accepting Offers


s with the spoken word in unsung texts, melody and words in musical literature are meant to be employed by the actor as action, or (more rarely) as pure reaction or evaluation. Actions are played in an effort to gain the character’s objective and thus alleviate the driving need in the character’s heart. (Among the many definitions of playing action, I find master acting teacher Earle Gister’s to be most useful: “Playing action is how you want to make another person feel.”4 His approach is particularly effective for musical theatre performers because it immediately takes their focus off themselves and their sound and puts it onto another target — their partner.) 

When actors approach a song, they tend to focus on their own part — the words and notes they will be singing, and how it will be sung. This focus, however, may lead the actor to draw conclusions, make choices, and develop connections that are based on partial, even false, information. Therefore, the first step when starting work on a song is to let the music make offers to you before you tell the music how it is to be performed and what it should sound like. In this way, you recognize — and create a relationship to — the specifics of the music. 

Let’s consider the song “Maybe This Time” from Cabaret (a song originally included in the 1972 film and subsequently added to the 1998 Broadway revival). The first four sung bars in this piece feature the words:

Maybe this time,
I’ll be lucky,
maybe this time,
he’ll stay

Before focusing on the words, it’s important to notice the offers that the melody makes. 

What images, emotions, memories, and thoughts does the melody evoke? There is a simple, almost childlike repetition, ending on a note that hangs unresolved in the air. What do these notes awaken in your imagination and inner life? Perhaps the gentleness of this melodic passage evokes longing or anticipation, a sense of loss, a sense of cautiousness? Maybe the repetition brings up the idea of having been here before?

Meeting a song first through the offers made by the melody allows for specific connections or resonances to occur in the actor. There are no wrong answers when the actor allows and absorbs the music’s initial suggestions.  

Next let’s imagine an appropriate accompaniment for those same four bars, one that features a smooth but rolling legato passage of rising and falling of notes.

If melody and words equal action, how is the accompaniment to be used by the actor? The answer is to allow the accompaniment to inform the character’s inner life, that is, to help inspire the moment-by-moment emotional journey of the character. What offers is the accompaniment making? Perhaps a deep feeling of loneliness, the desire to break free of one’s past, even a sweeping sense of hope?

Next, examine the relationship between the text/melody and the accompaniment. As presented, the accompaniment of “Maybe This Time” is lyrical and gentle, supporting the lyrical and gentle melody. It aligns with the melody, expanding the sense of emotional life beneath it. 

But, in fact, that is not the accompaniment the composer John Kander wrote! Mr. Kander’s accompaniment is quite the opposite of “smooth and rolling.”

It lives in direct opposition to the gentle melody rather than resonating with it. There is a dark sense of foreboding in its pulsing, thudding insistence, the same note repeated over and over deep in the bass. 

When applied to acting technique, we see this musical information is a rich trove for the actor. Utilizing the two versions of the accompaniment, the false one and the actual, the actor could perform the song in two distinct ways — the first with an inner life that aligns with the melody/text and the second with an inner life that lives in discordance with the melody/text. Both are gifts to the actor, and the latter — thanks to Mr. Kander — provides the opportunity to play an action in a gentle and plaintive way while masking an inner life that is driving and insistent.

The actor who allows the melody and the accompaniment to inform his work will deliver a performance that is specific and, given the struggle against an inner obstacle, emotionally gripping. I can’t help but refer back to Professor Bullock’s question: “Have you learned this piece?”

Here’s another example where the accompaniment beautifully describes conflict between the inner life and the action:

“When I Look at You” from The Scarlet Pimpernel.

Here is the opening verse in its entirety:

Now here it is one line at a time, interspersed with brief descriptions of what’s happening in the score:

When I look at you

(short musical rest in the vocal line, also known as airtime, filled in by the accompaniment with a single wistful high note)


What I always see

(another short rest/airtime filled with a single wistful high note)


Is the face of someone else who once belonged to me… Still I can hear him laugh

(no airtime here — “me” is a held note, continuing through without breath to the next line, followed by an airtime of three high plinks — like the sound of laughter)


And even though that melody plays on 

 (airtime of high melodic notes)


He’s gone.

(lower melodic notes ending with a fermata, or arrhythmic hold, over a rest, prescribing an elongated silence)


Notice how the expectation is thwarted: instead of a rest in the third line, we get a long, held note connecting directly to the fourth line of the song. Further, if we look to the accompaniment for hints to the character’s inner life we can begin to guess why the pattern is broken. The accompaniment following the first two lines of “When I Look at You” feels nostalgic but, at the end of the third line of text, the accompaniment under the held word “me” is a low, painful, dissonant chord.


What memory, image, or emotion is evoked for the character by that discordant sound? How interesting that the character does not give in to that emotion, but instead sings straight through until the next airtime, which returns to the high nostalgic pattern of notes. You can see how recognizing those musical offers and making choices inspired by them adds specificity to the work.

Instrumentation as Emotion


n exploring a piece of music, it is important not only to examine the notes of the piece, but also the instrumentation. Violins evoke different feelings than cellos, or flutes, or saxophones. Isolating instruments in a musical score allows the actor to access even more specific offers from the music, leading to a connection with the metaphorical trumpets and piccolos that live inside us all. Discovering the instruments within us — the orchestra of the body — expands the emotional and physical range of the actor, embracing the music that lies within. 

Something as simple as exploring a recorded accompaniment track without vocals can allow actors to discover the music on their feet, physically connecting to the actual instrumentation of the piece. Invoking this exploration activates the actor’s connection to the instrumentation within the body, awakens the imagination, and even deepens emotional access. 

Remember Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis’ assertion that music articulates layers of emotional experience? Here we see by surpassing text and going directly to the music, to instrumentation and to raw sound, actors may access new truths of character that might not be present if the actor responds to the text alone. Might what is personally awakened — even disturbed — by accompaniment, by instrumentation or sound, connect the student actor to a larger sense of truth, which in turn will spur them inevitably into song? Furthermore — and this to me is a key question regardless of whether students consider themselves singers or non-singers — how can we stimulate the desire to sing, organically and deeply, in a way that completely bypasses the suffocating need to sing “beautifully”? How can we free sound from judgement, and discover instead the sound that reveals deeper truth within?

The “Cans” and the “Can’ts”


usical theatre and singing are not important for me to study. You want to know why? I can’t sing.”

As acting teachers, we would never allow a student to say, “I can’t feel,” or “I can’t play a role like that,” or “I can’t imagine smell.” When an actor says, “I can’t sing,” they’re really speaking from the place of judging and, more importantly, of having been judged. This is unacceptable. All voices are valid and more than capable of bringing truthful and beautiful moments to life. I believe it’s essential that actors find that true voice in themselves, in both spoken and sung text. Acting students have the right to express their voice, to own their voice, and to live stories with their voice, in both speaking and singing. We need to train them so that the voice can be free, flexible, and healthy, while embracing the distinctness that is their sound, a sound that only they can make.

We have many contemporary performance examples of authentic expression trumping perfect sound. One is John Lithgow, Tony winner for best lead actor in a musical for Sweet Smell of Success. He may not be the strongest singer, but it hardly matters; his acting is remarkable, the life he brings to a role transcendent. Had the value been placed on creating a perfect sound, we would have been robbed of the beauty of his true voice. After finishing a song, we might like to hear someone say, “What a beautiful voice!” But how much better to hear, “I was so moved by the journey you took me on during that song.”

Characters Don't Know They're Singing


n a workshop at the National Theatre Conservatory, a student once asked me when she would be able to think of herself as a singer. “It does no good to think of yourself that way,” I said. “It puts the emphasis on sound.” 

Among the undesirable results of focusing on sound are:

  • A homogeneity of sound: in trying to sing beautifully, sound may become general, not specific, nuanced or complex.
  • Sound that is not grounded in action.
  • The provoking need — what I call the “greatest pinch on the actor’s heart” — having less to do with the character’s objective and more to do with the actor’s desire to sound good.

With few exceptions, characters in musicals are completely unaware that they are singing. They are not focused on sound; they are focused on affecting their partner. And to the extent the actor is focused on getting what she needs from her partner, she is not focused on how she sounds.

Admittedly, it’s a difficult path to navigate.

Specificity to the Rescue:
Identifying Musical Offers


o make matters worse, the traditional process of preparing a song is backwards. 

Imagine if regular dialogue was scored like a song: “On this word, you will attack the opening consonant in the upper register of your voice, elongate the second syllable, and crescendo the final syllable of the word to a staccato, finishing in the lowest range of your voice — all at the metronome marking of 112 beats per minute.” How difficult would it be to get actors out of their heads and into the work if that was the way they first met the text? But that’s exactly how it is in singing: The actor starts from a highly specific set of instructions, which are all about product, and from there she must work backwards to turn everything into process. 

Which brings me back to Professor Bullock. One of the hallmarks of his teaching was specificity in all things. Rather than focus on the result, we can encourage students to embrace every aspect of the music in detail, thereby releasing performers from focusing on themselves and their sound. Put another way: When the music and text lead us to highly specific choices and deep personal connection, we find the need to alleviate the pinch on the character’s heart overtakes the need to “get it right” or to sound good. 

Close examination of music can inform the actor’s process in a variety of ways. What follows is a list of musical components, each one a key to greater specificity in their work.

Structure is the roadmap for discovering the events of a song. Every song has a specific form that can be an invitation: acting “beats” are clearly delineated in the change of sections within the music, providing the actor with a structured approach to playing and changing actions. Further, and similar to the use of scansion for illuminating Shakespeare’s texts, a song’s time signature and meter help us understand how to activate each line; deviations in meter, time signature, or key signature of a song point to acting choices that must be made to support and align with those deviations. Lastly, practice in recognizing such events in music often leads the actor to more easily identify similar aspects in spoken texts.

Tempo functions in two main ways, relationship and action. First, relationship: characters are always in relationship to a sense of time. Is that time limited? Is there an urgency to achieve this objective now? Or does the character have a relaxed sense of time — plenty of time to achieve the objective? The examination of a character’s relationship to time builds specificity in the actor; therefore, recognizing the offers of a specific tempo strongly informs the way the piece must be lived. 

Second, tempo is also an implicit component of action. The speed with which we speak is a part of how we attempt to affect others and change them. A great example is the patter song “Getting Married Today” from Company. It’s meant to be sung at a very fast tempo and delivered at that tempo gives a sense of urgency and panic. What happens when you try the song at a slow tempo?  Everything about the song will be changed, from the character’s inner life to the actions being played. Experiencing how tempo works in music will lead to a greater understanding of how time functions in the life of characters in spoken texts.  

Rhythm, the specific timing from one note to another — including musical rests — can inform both characterization and action. In A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Philia, who is in love with Hero but has been sold to Captain Gloriosus, tells Hero her strategy for revenge in the song “That’ll Show Him.” 

When I kiss him,
I’ll be kissing you.
So I’ll kiss him morning and night —
That’ll show him! 

This is perhaps the worst plan ever, which is part of the fun. There is an interesting aspect to this song that gives the actor a wonderful opportunity for making specific choices: the character rarely sings on the downbeat, or first beat of the measure. 

(Unsung downbeat) When I kiss him,
(Unsung downbeat) I’ll be kissing you.
(Unsung downbeat) So I’ll kiss him morning and night—
(Unsung downbeat) That’ll show him!

It is tempting to focus only on the words and notes but, by recognizing that this character usually doesn’t sing on the downbeat, the actor can make an acting choice that works in alignment with the music and illuminates the character. What is happening during the unsung downbeats? Maybe Philia is avoiding the reality of how bad her choice is; maybe she is building Hero’s anticipation and excitement for her plan; maybe she is not very smart and is literally coming up with each new part of the plan during the unsung downbeat — there are a dozen more choices that can be made. The only terrible choice would be to not recognize the offer of the unsung downbeats and miss the chance to make an exciting and specific choice. 

Pitch is directly tied to action. Back to “Getting Married Today” from Company. Try speaking “Pardon me is everybody here, because if everybody’s here I’d like to thank you all for coming to the wedding” at a medium pitch, a high pitch, and then a low pitch. Each of these versions suggests a different action. Pitches are offers, not just notes to be sung as written. Pitch also supplies clues to the character’s journey throughout the piece. The first sung line of “When I Look at You” from The Scarlet Pimpernel ends with the last two words at higher pitches. Two verses later, the same line is repeated, but with the last two words at lower pitches. What must happen to the character in the space of two verses to move her from a place of questioning and uncertainty to a place of confidence, strongly suggested by those lower notes?

Held notes also communicate action. In speaking, we elongate words — or notes — all the time. If I say to my husband, “I really need you to do this” at a normal rate, I’m using a very different action than when I say, “I reeeaaallly neeeeed you to doooo this.” Held notes also demand that actors connect to an active subtext that lasts for the same amount of time the note is sung, thus giving the note a specific reason to continue. 

Dynamics may illuminate changes of action, stakes, and inner life. In the song “Later” from A Little Night Music, the dynamics direct the actor to explore the inner obstacles of the character of Henrik. Throughout, the song is scored as piano, or soft, except for three measures during which Henrik sings “for God’s sake,” which are written as subito forte, or suddenly loud. These dynamics suggest that Henrik continually suppresses his true feelings, keeping them tightly in check, except in the three measures where he loses that struggle, fully exposing his emotional life before wrestling it back.

Airtime (vocal rests or unsung moments) offers the actor yet another opportunity to be specific and play action. Airtime is the rough equivalent of a pause in regular text, or a beat shift, except that airtime lasts for an exactly prescribed amount of time, requiring that much more specificity on the part of the actor. As David Craig writes in On Singing Onstage, “The ‘Air’ rather than filling the last moment of what you have sung is, in fact, the music that introduces what you are going to sing. It is in this ‘Air’ that you will create the implicit cue that will birth the next sung line.”5  Thus, airtime is best used to carry the actor into the next line of the song; it’s about what happens next and how the character gets there. Airtime can be deadly if it’s used by the actor to simply wait, inactively, for the next line; or, it can be a golden opportunity for the actor to discover the specific need that drives the character to continue with a new line of singing. 

Musical introductions are a specific type of airtime that transport the character from the spoken word into song. It is always the need of the character that initiates the music, which serves as an extension of the character’s inner life. Conversely the character’s emotional life must always be in relationship to, and in alignment with, the musical accompaniment. The transition from spoken text into sung text demands that the size of the character’s need be great enough to earn the use of song. Careful examination of the intro music creates a detailed map of that need and the character’s emotional journey moment by moment and note by note.

 “When I Look at You” (again, The Scarlet Pimpernel) opens with four measures of introduction:

Four measures of vocal rest that carry the actor through three distinct musical moments, beginning with nostalgic high notes, cascading to more somber lower notes and heavier chords, and ending with a fermata, or hold, over the last note of accompaniment. This is an opportunity to ask questions: What makes the character travel so quickly through these musical changes? What does this tell us about the character’s inner life? Why end four unsung bars of rest with a further, elongated rest? What is happening to the character that makes her linger on that extra rest, possibly unable to begin the text? This is a terrific opportunity to make richly detailed acting choices.

Unintended Consequences


s long as we’re examining music vocabulary, and especially in the context of removing obstacles to students’ freedom in their work, there are a handful of words that can work in opposition to that very process. We use them all the time without thinking — and they’re harmless on the surface — but over my years of teaching they’ve rung louder and louder. The word “rest,” for example, may lead the actor to inactivity, to do no more than wait or take a breath during that time. The phrase “held note” can indicate that the body should hold through the sound, without change or development. A “high note” can bring attention and tension to singing that can interfere with physical freedom and bring the actor’s focus to the sound rather than the character’s action. (A high note might more accurately be called a “fast note,” as the sound is produced by the vocal folds vibrating at a faster speed.) 

In A Soprano on Her Head, Eloise Ristad describes reframing the idea of high and low notes by literally turning music on its side to disrupt the visual reinforcement of where the note lies on the staff.6  How might we similarly reframe singing and acting terms to better support the actor’s process? 

Several words used in acting technique are often used interchangeably to mean the same thing: “tactic,” “strategy,” “intention,” and “action.” When students are asked to point to the part of their body that corresponds to each individual word, most students point to their head for tactic, strategy, and intention, but the word “action” seems to engage the entire body. The same can be true for the words “objective” and “need.” Objective often brings students to their heads, while need brings them to their hearts. Using words that help rid actors of self-consciousness — head-centeredness — can fundamentally help to activate them in their work.

Crossing Over to Acting Class


once saw a master class taught by Jubilant Sykes, the accomplished opera, jazz, and spiritual vocalist. He was leading a workshop in the opera program at the University of Arkansas, where he was to work with one of the master’s students on an aria. The student sang through his piece and everyone anxiously awaited Sykes’ response. 

“Wonderful,” he said, elucidating the many excellent aspects of the student’s work. “There are just four measures I’d like to revisit.” 

To everyone’s surprise, those were four bars of rest, which they worked on for the next 30 minutes. Through that work, those four bars of airtime became active, dynamic, specific, emotionally connected, and personally revealing.

Allowing music to make offers is like having an acting coach whispering into your ear, “There’s a choice to be made here.” Over the three decades I’ve taught both acting for musical theatre and straight acting, I’ve consistently observed that once actors can clearly identify the specificity in a score, they can easily see where choices should be made, when actions will change, where key events of the piece take place, and the journey of the emotional life of the character. By training actors to see such specific offers in music, they automatically become more adept at finding those same specifics in spoken text, growing more aware of the inherent musicality of language and discovering a sense of musicality and size in their bodies.

Another benefit I’ve observed: It’s so difficult to fully get the focus off singing and onto partner that, when the actor works on straight texts after training in this technique, playing action feels simpler and clearer. More broadly, in the dynamics of performance training, by giving actors a task to focus on that is so complicated and challenging as singing text, it becomes infinitely easier when they return to the spoken scene. Opening the imaginative world of the actor through singing expands emotional connection and breadth of choice, as discoveries like “I have a tuba inside me” are carried over to unsung texts.

Finally, since I’ve been free with my use of musical vocabulary in this essay and referred a lot to musical notation, it’s important to note that this work is accessible to all actors, including those who don’t read music. Anyone can learn to see patterns and changes of patterns in music, and hear the specific offers made by the music, with or without formal musical training. 


I sometimes wonder if musical theatre class shouldn’t be the first class that actors take. Examined in detail, music serves as a template that clarifies and illuminates the craft of acting. This technique supports actors in their work on spoken texts by encouraging and developing:

  • Connection to objectives and need
  • Ease of playing action
  • Greater vocal and physical freedom
  • Thoroughness in script analysis
  • Specificity in choices
  • Increased access to emotional life
  • Ability to clearly identify changes in action and events
  • Expanded imagination

Referring to incorporating musical training into the acting curriculum, Saint-Denis said, “In short, the musical quality became almost instinctive.”7  I would add that, for the actor training in this way, the playing of action, focus on target, fluidity and size of inner life, and specifics in every aspect of the work may all become instinctive when back in the acting studio. 

My hope is that this approach will help actors hear the music in texts and inside themselves, increasing their focus, specificity, and personal connection in the performance of any role.

[The author wishes to extend special thanks to vocalist Grace Taylor, as well as to Jason Burrow and Mary Larkin Furlow.] 


  1. Michel Saint-Denis, Training for the Theatre, (Taylor & Francis, 1982), pg. 109.
  2. Ron Van Lieu, National Alliance of Acting Teachers Congress. Herzberg notes from June, 2018. New York.
  3. Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis, The Psychology of Music, A Very Short Introduction, (Oxford University Press, 2019), pg. 91.
  4. Earle Gister, Teacher Development Program, The Actors Center. Herzberg notes from June, 2003. New York.
  5. David Craig, On Singing Onstage, (Applause, 1990), pp. 120-121.
  6. Eloise Ristad, A Soprano on Her Head, (Real People Press, 1982), pg.  91.
  7. Michel Saint-Denis, Training for the Theatre, (Taylor & Francis, 1982), pg. 111.

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