Why Basic Musicianship is Imperative in a College Theatre Program

  • Keegan Tucker

College. The place many of us work toward during our younger years. We put so much stock into our post-high school education and the knowledge we gain from the collegiate setting. After all, for most of us, this will be the time we receive our maximum amount of field specific education that will help us build our resumes and expertise so that when we walk across that stage at graduation, we are set up for a successful career path toward our dream jobs.

However, since returning to school as a graduate student, I have noticed that some theatre programs are doing their students a disservice. I find myself continually asking questions like, “Why don’t the theatre majors have to take basic music theory or piano skills as part of their studies?” or “Why aren’t such classes offered as electives to these students?” I understand that not everyone is going to school for musical theatre or even for performance-based theatre degrees; however, for those individuals looking for a life on the stage as an actor or behind the scenes as a stage manager (or even a director!), I feel it is vital that your theatre program allows you the opportunity to partake in such classes.

Students who enroll and attend basic musicianship classes are taught valuable skills in reading music notation, and have the opportunity to develop a better understanding of the musical language specific to a vocal/piano score. These tools are necessary for embarking on such shows as Phantom of the Opera, Joseph...Dreamcoat, and Les Miserables (pop-rock operas that have more singing and less spoken dialogue.) Basic understanding of note names, note durations, time signatures, key signatures, and rhythmic figures  all work together to form a well-rounded singer-actor equipped to take on a musical production.

Group piano classes or private piano instruction also help set up a theatre student to better prepare him/herself for the audition room or music rehearsals. The skills learned in piano specific coursework allows the student to teach him/herself the melodic line of their audition cuts, clearly notate their audition cuts so that the audition accompanist is also set up for success (which in turn sets the person auditioning up for success), or work through vocal/music material before entering a rehearsal for a production. For those pursuing a career in stage management, these piano skills can also be applied to calling a show. Being able to read a score and communicate in a “musical language” is useful when having to relay cues that are music specific or when needing to talk through notes that may relate directly to the music director/conductor.

I highly encourage you to find room in your school schedule or your weekly schedule (for those who may have already graduated into the world of “career”) to sign-up for a music theory class, group piano class, or private piano lessons. The more we can expose ourselves to other arts and learn that art’s language, the better we become at engaging with other artists and at being artists ourselves.