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The triple threat actor and the acquisition of music skills.

HOW DOES THE ACQUISITION of music skills for an actor differ from the acquisition of music skills for a musician? This article argues that the difference largely boils down to how verbal language is used to express the desired concepts in the teaching of music skills, together with knowing what specific areas of music skills are useful for the actor.


Academic institutions across the nation use the term "triple threat" to describe professional music theater training that equally emphasizes acting, dance, and singing. Producing "triple threat" performers in four years of undergraduate training is a daunting task, requiring constant monitoring and careful balancing of the essential ingredients that will produce performers who can sing, act, and dance at a competitive level in the professional marketplace. (1)

David Alt's view of the triple threat actor in the USA is also applicable here in the music theater industry in Australia. The word "threat" is used in this expression in an ironic sense, indicating the actor is equally skilled in three areas.

With specialized training now available, a "triple threat" actor is expected to possess music skills. It is a distinct advantage if an actor can:

1) read music (pitch and rhythm), and have a clear knowledge of the rudiments of music;

2) learn the music to his/her performance role by playing the melody line of a song or a harmony part on the keyboard; this should be coupled together with an aural awareness, showing an ability to both recognize intervals within the melody and sight-sing; and

3) play a basic chord accompaniment to the song that is being learned, so that the harmony (the vertical axis of the music) can be heard in relation to the melody; where there are no chord symbols in the score, the actor should be able to convert the notes in the accompaniment into chord symbols, using music theory knowledge.


I first became aware of a language problem in my early days of working as a professional music director on theater productions. The role of the music director includes coaching an actor in the technical delivery and interpretation of the songs in both solo and ensemble formats. Many actors working in professional musicals in Australia up until around 1980 had no formal music training, so everything taught to them on a musical level had to be in a language accessible for the uninitiated, which meant avoiding a lot of formal music terminology. It wasn't until the 1980s that training in music theater at a tertiary level was established at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA), thus enabling the actor wishing to specialize in music theater to study this art form in Australia.


I have been a lecturer in music theater at WAAPA (2) since 1990, in which position I wrote and devised the Music Skills program (incorporating music theory, aural training, and keyboard) that is taught across the three years of the Bachelor of Arts (Music Theatre) course. Eighteen actors are selected for entry each year into the first year of the program, chosen from literally hundreds of hopefuls auditioning across the country. An actor undertaking the BA is trained to be a "triple threat" actor--one who can act, dance, and sing. All three components are evenly weighted and interrelate. There is a very high standard of entry and the various classes in dance and music skills are streamed into three levels to accommodate the different backgrounds of each individual actor, even though for the rest of the course the student maintains his/her year level.


The Music Skills program (delivered as a University unit) has three subject components involving skills pertinent to aural training, music theory, and keyboard which all interrelate. In this article, I will endeavor to describe the teaching processes that are involved in the overall music skills development of the triple threat actor. I will assume the actor I am speaking about is one that has entered our BA program with no prior music skills and therefore is not streamed at a different level.

Beginner Level

Aural. The aural class commences with a lot of "awareness" exercises, aimed to make the actor aware of what he/she is hearing and involves a range of attributes from pulse to tempo to rhythm to pitch. Once the actor is aware of what is being heard, he/she is encouraged to express this reception in his/her own words to bring the experience into a language level and, consequently, into consciousness. What is sound? What is music? How can we describe what we hear? It is this conscious state of listening that allows the actor to delve into the music to find the answers in his or her own words.

Music Theory. At the same time the aural process is happening, the actor is also undergoing a music theory class per week which, at this level, is a rudiments of music ("nuts and bolts") class. What is fascinating to an actor coming from a nonliterate background in music is that suddenly he/she experiences music as a language. To me, the teacher, the whole process becomes so much more real and attainable if the actor being taught understands that music is language--and the process of learning music is the same process as learning a verbal language. A child learns to speak by imitating sound just as an actor learns to sing a song by imitating what he/she hears sung on a CD (a similar process to how a jazz musician learns by ear). However, once there are the "nuts and bolts" to go with the sound, the actor begins to realize that he/she can actually understand what it is that is being heard. The actor can express aural sensations and delineations in a verbal and/or notational language. The symbols on a page that the actor learns in the first few music theory classes are the language symbols to music, in the same way that letters in our alphabet are the symbols that express our English language.

During semester one, a lot of work is done with rhythm charts (worksheets that have notated rhythms all adding up to the same beat value), so that there is always a visual aid in determining the rhythms that are being used (very much like the "seeing-ear" approach, where what we see corresponds with what we hear, and vice versa). Toward the end of semester one, musical intervals are introduced. At this stage, the actor has also been having a weekly one-on-one singing lesson as well as a song repertoire class where he/she is expected to learn a new song every week. The intervals that are seen on a page of a song from a song repertoire class can actually now be related to the intervals that have been learned in the aural class. Initially, tune associations are used (where the opening interval of a song is the same as the interval being recognized) to help the actor hear the interval. By the time intermediate aural is reached (in the second year of the program), the actor should be able to hear the interval as a sound without having to "count the steps" and without having to relate it to a particular song.

The same thing can be said about the rhythm. The actor is encouraged to "justify" what is seen on the page of the song. Is the rhythm on the page the same as the rhythm that is being sung? An element of rhythmic understanding that I call "note-grouping" is brought to the actor's attention. This process essentially involves being able to visualize a rhythm in its beat groupings. Often a vocal line is written with a single note value per syllable. To get the overall rhythmic shape, the actor is taught to write a rhythm by grouping it in a way where one can "visually" see where the beats are. This entails, for example, grouping (joining together) eighth and sixteenth notes belonging to the same quarter note beat value. Beat slashes (showing visually where the beats are) can also be added, so that there is a beat awareness at all times. In fact, this approach is similar to how a drummer reads rhythms--being able to "see" the beats in the rhythmic notation.

Keyboard. The keyboard beginner's class parallels and interrelates with the aural and the music theory part of the unit. In keyboard, the actor is taught to play single line melodies in both treble and bass clefs. The emphasis is, of course, on treble clef--and the actor is encouraged as quickly as possible to be able to "note-bash" his/her own melody line from a song. For the actor, it is such a joy when there is a realization this is actually achievable. How wonderful it is to be able to pick up a piece of music that is not known and to be able to learn the melody line (pitch and rhythm) using the aforementioned skills, or to read/play a song that is already known by ear, letting the symbols on the score dictate what is to happen. I stress to the actor that being able to read music and learn a song from "the dots" should not distract in any way from how a melody has been learned in the past (by listening to it and learning it by ear). What learning the melody by notes does is to provide an additional layer to the learning process--the new language gives an understanding of what is being sung through a state of heightened awareness.

I often provide the analogy of the talking parrot who can imitate sound (the same process as the actor who learns a song by ear). You can't go to the parrot and say, "What is it you're saying?" or, "What is the meaning behind your word?" In the same way, you cannot go to a musically illiterate actor and say, "What is it you're singing? Explain to me the language side of the music." Actors depend on pursuing an emotional or psychological journey and being able to understand the meaning of the text they express in spoken word. The same then should be said about the meaning and the journey of the music.

Throughout the course, the actor is encouraged to integrate many separate strands of training and not to keep each subject area as a separate piece of study. For example, in keyboard, the actor is encouraged to begin "note-bashing" the melody lines of the repertoire songs as soon as possible. In aural, the actor is asked to do interval analysis of any current singing work, and to be able to clap the rhythms of any melodic phrases. In music theory, the actor is asked, for example, to be aware of the rhythms that are taught in tap dancing. Music sheets with fully notated rhythms used in tap dancing, and with the dancing counts written above, are distributed. Integration becomes an essential part of the "triple-threat" training for the actor.

The final stage on the beginner's level for each component is: 1) aural--singing of all intervals within an octave, and being able to do separate rhythmic and easy melodic dictations; 2) music theory--full knowledge of rudiments of music up to and including triad writing; and 3) keyboard--competency at single line melody playing and easy two-hand playing. Scales of C, F, and G major can be played, two hands together in similar motion.

Intermediate Level

In the second year of training, the actor progresses to an intermediate level in all the component areas of the Music Skills unit: 1) aural progresses into sight-singing and part singing; 2) music theory deals with chord knowledge and uses both contemporary chord notation and Roman numerals; 3) keyboard involves playing a melody line and being able to accompany this with chords in the left hand (called "method A" playing).

Aural. The actor is given a pile of worksheets that I have collated and called "multipurpose bundles." There are over 150 examples of single melody lines (between 8-16 bars long) that I have written out. All these melodies are from the music theater repertoire. Each melody has keyboard fingering and chord symbols written above. It is called "multipurpose" for three reasons:

1) The melodies can be used for sight-singing practice; the actor is taught to relate the starting note to the tonic triad.

2) The melodies (because they have the keyboard fingering written in) can be used for single line melody practice--the same process that is involved when an actor has to teach him-/herself the melody line of a song to be learned.

3) All the chord symbols can be converted to Roman numerals so that the actor can apply the keyboard shapes that have been taught in keyboard class. If the chord is a difficult one for the level of keyboard being studied, it can be simplified. Passing chords can also be omitted, so it is just the skeleton that is being played.

Music Theory. Here the actor understands that all chords are based on a chord construction formula. This is derived by relating the chord notes to the major scale of the letter-name of the chord. For example, [Cm.sup.7] is 1 [flat] 3 5 [flat] 7. Apply this formula (1, lowered 3, 5, lowered 7) to the C major scale and you get the notes of the chord of C minor seventh ([Cm.sup.7]) C-E [flat]-G-B [flat]. In this example, E [flat] is the lowered third note when applied to the C major scale. Similarly, B [flat] is the lowered seventh note. Another example is E+7 which has the chord construction formula of 1 3 #5 [flat] 7. Apply this formula to the scale of E major and you get the notes for the chord of E augmented seventh (E+7) E-G#-B#-D.

The actor is also taught inversions of chords and how to relate a chord to a particular key, bringing to awareness the area of Roman numerals (see explanation under Keyboard) which then links to keyboard playing. An example of these exercises is found in [Cm.sup.7] in the key of B [flat] major which would result in the chord being notated, in Roman numeral language, as [ii.sup.7], where the lower case version of the Roman numeral designates the minor quality of the triad. Another area touched on is the ability to harmonize a melody with chords (given only a melody and a choice of chords). Again, this skill links directly with keyboard work.

Keyboard. In keyboard, the actor works a lot with music that involves a melody line with chord symbols. The chords are converted to Roman numerals (similar to figured bass playing in the Baroque period of music), where the Roman numeral designates the scale degree on which the chord is built), and for each Roman numeral there is a particular chord shape (inversion) to play in the left hand. The right hand plays the melody. I call this method A (melody in right hand with chords in "common position" in the left hand). Method B is discussed under the Keyboard Advanced section.

The left hand "common-position chord playing" is similar to how an organist (modern style) or many jazz/modern style pianists play with the left hand. This means that the tonic chord (triad) is played in root position (using the fingers 1-3-5). Ali other chords are found by going to the inversion that is closest to this root position shape for the tonic chord. This is achieved by finding a "common-note" in going from one chord to the next, and using the inversion of the chord that allows the finger to stay on the same common note. If there is no common note, the chord to be played is found in the inversion that lies closest to the preceding chord. Chord ii is root position (but has a fingering of 1-2-4 in the left hand); chord iii is a second inversion shape (the fifth finger moves down). Chord IV is second inversion, chord V is first inversion, and chord vi is also first inversion. To get to these shapes involves only finger adjustments and doesn't require any looking at the hands. It eliminates all the lateral movement that so often happens with left hand chord playing, and is perfectly adequate for the actor who wants to hear how a melody line sounds when it is harmonized. It also encourages the actor to keep contact with the score and not have to look down at his/her hands. If this is applied to song repertoire, it means that once the melody line has been note-bashed and learned, the actor can then accompany him/herself singing the song. This is a fantastic skill to have and such an important part of the process. How often does one come across singers who cannot accompany themselves and, even at a basic level, cannot hear how the harmonies fit in with the melody line?

Roman numeral chord playing. This method also enables the student to be able to "transpose" the chord progression into any key, by using the Roman numerals and the shapes that go with each chord. How wonderful to be able to do that! We can sing in any key, so why not be able to play in any key? It means that the actor can experiment singing in different keys and find out the exact key that suits his/her voice. With the music theory knowledge already acquired, he/she is able to transpose the song and write out a "chart" Perhaps at this point I should clarify how I teach the Roman numeral method. The actor should be able to do the drill exercise I-ii-iii-IV-V-vi in any key. For example, in the key of B major the chords would be B-C#m-D#m-E-F#-G#m. Each Roman numeral has a shape that the actor has learned. If the chord is Em instead of E, it is still a "IV shape" in the key of B major--but the Roman numeral for Em in the key of B major would be iv, as we use lower case Roman numerals for minor chords (and the necessary change of note in the chord would be played). Using music theory, this can all be worked out very easily. An augmented chord (e.g., E+) would be written as IV+, and diminished would be written as [iv.sup.o]

A chord such as E [flat] m6 (E flat minor sixth) would be written in Roman numerals as [flat] [iv.sup.6] ("lowered" [iv.sup.6]) and would be played with the chord IV shape, with the adjusted note for minor and the added 6th note. If Em is the chord and the key of the music is, for example, A minor, then the Roman numeral symbol for Em would be v (and the "V shape" would be used with the necessary change of note to make the triad minor).

The Roman numeral method provides a "chord template" for the song that can subsequently be used in any key, with exactly the same chord shapes and fingering. No transposing required!

Advanced Level

Aural. In aural, the actor is exposed to a higher level of sight singing, and melodic and rhythmic dictation. There is also a lot of part singing, and even exercises that involve singing as if a group was doing backing vocals and singing in three part harmony. It helps the actor/singer become aware of the triad quality (learning to listen "vertically") that is formed in each bar that is being sung. The actor also has to be able to sing all separate parts in turn, going directly from one part to the other on each subsequent repeat.

Music Theory. Ali the chord knowledge the actor has acquired is now transferred to the piano score and the process of harmonic analysis is taught. The actor develops the ability to sift through the notes, "trash" all nonessential notes and to be able to write the harmony in modern chord notation (e.g., [Dm.sup.6]/F) and Roman numerals. This chord in the key of A major would be [iv.sup.6]b (for Roman numerals b = first inversion, c = second inversion, and d = third inversion). Again, see how this links to keyboard playing. Given a score without chord notation, the actor is now able to write in the chord symbols, convert these to Roman numerals and then be able to play the shapes that correspond. It is such a turning point when this stage is reached and it is all so clearly interrelated.

Keyboard. In keyboard, the actor is now taught to play "method B" playing the chord shapes in the right hand for the first time, and a bass note in the left hand. Having "note-bashed" the melody line, learned the tune, and even played it as method A to hear how the chords sound with the melody, the student is now ready to play method B. The chord shapes in the right hand are exactly the same as the chord shapes learned for the left hand, except it is a mirror copy. For example, for chord vi, instead of the thumb moving up a tone in the left hand going from I-vi, the fifth finger moves up a tone in the right hand. These changes are quickly learned. The bass note is the tonic note of the chord symbol, or if the chord is written, for example, as C/E, then the note E would be the bass note in the left hand. The big challenge is to be able to accompany oneself at the same time as the song is sung. It is a very secure process for the actor in learning a song--and a very satisfying one, too. In the earlier stages of method B playing, the chord and bass note can be played together on the first beat of the bar. However, as the actor becomes more confident, different styles of playing are incorporated into the program such as vamp style playing. In common time this would involve playing the tonic and dominant bass notes of the chord on beats 1 and 3 in the left hand, and the chord on beats 2 and 4 in the right hand.


The objectives in the Music Skills unit state that after the three years of training the actor should be able to: 1) demonstrate skills in score-reading, music analysis, and theory; 2) demonstrate efficiency in relatively complex sight-singing and dictation; 3) demonstrate keyboard skills that include the ability to provide keyboard accompaniment for self and others. Its culmination should see students equipped with music skills adequate to support a career as a professional performer in music theater.

Where does all this lead the actor? After three years of intense training, the graduating "triple threat" actor is ready to move into the profession and be "self-sufficient" with his/her skill training acquired from all the separate strands of the course. Throughout the three years, the actor has had a one-on-one singing lesson (mainly involved with technique) as well as a weekly song repertoire class where a new song is learned every week. The dance classes are many--classical ballet, jazz dance, tap dance, and song and dance (where the actor has to be able to sing and dance at the same time, exactly how one works in a production number in a musical). There are acting classes and voice classes, and the weekly "performance pracs," where the actor performs in front of his/her peers (usually a song in a particular style) followed by feedback from staff. The second and third years are involved in productions, and all their music skills come to play here. Rehearsal weeks for productions are few and intensive--with singing, dancing, and acting integrated as a single performance mode. Also, at least two of the musicals per year are with a full orchestra. Whether or not the task involves singing, dancing, or acting, or any combination of these three, the actor is encouraged to perform the task as a triple threat actor processing lineally on all three levels simultaneously. The dance classes are there to enable the actor to express him/herself through movement. Even if it is a monologue in an acting class, physicality comes in to play. The same can be said regarding the actor's music skills. The triple threat actor should always be aurally/ musically aware--whether he/she is singing, dancing, or acting. When an actor sings, he/she is acting. Spoken text and sung text work are treated in the same way, and there should be no difference when an actor is speaking or singing. Both communicate--and all these skills in the program produce this unique triple threat actor who performs in a seamless way using and assimilating acting/dancing/singing skills as one. This is the total picture!


Teaching music skills to actors crosses many areas of formal music training. The relevant segments pertinent to the music skills training of the triple threat actor are assimilated into a language that can be related to and understood. Whoever teaches music skills to an actor needs to have a clear understanding of this particularity as well as how an actor thinks and processes the journey involved in communicating a role. The teaching delivery should be as "hands on" as possible. It is also expected that the teacher has a thorough working knowledge of music theater repertoire, so that any music skills being taught can be directly related to repertoire. The end result is an actor who can utilize music skills as part of an actor's language and craft--incorporating these skills into all areas of performance.


(1.) David Alt, "Triple Threat Training Program's Weakest Area--Reading Music: Reinforcing Sight Reading in the Voice Studio for Singer/Actors," Journal of Singing 60 no. 4 (March/April 2004): 389.


Derek Bond has been a Music Director in Perth, Western Australia since 1978, having worked on more than 28 professional theater productions through 1990. Musicals included Annie, Irene, and South Pacific, all at His Majesty's Theatre, and Piaf starring Judy Davis at the Playhouse Theatre. Since 1990, Derek has been a Lecturer in Music Theatre at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (Edith Cowart University), which involves both teaching and being Music Director for student productions. WAAPA has the reputation of being the premier performing arts institution of its kind in Australia, and the music theater department is renowned for its excellence in both teaching and productions. Highlights of Derek's WAAPA productions include Stephen Sondheim's Follies, Grand Hotel, and Chess. Derek's qualifications include Associate Diploma in Music (piano), Bachelor of Music (University of Western Australia), and Diploma of Education. Derek taught music in Sweden for two years (1985-1987) at Sigtunaskolan Humanistiska Laroverktet, the prestigious school situated just 50km from Stockholm, where the current King of Sweden was educated. He is fluent in Swedish, and has a Swedish wife and son.

During his freelance years Derek also worked as a pianist in various forms. Piano is Derek's main instrument (he also plays piano accordion), and he has performed for all types of functions ranging from solo piano concerts, to solo piano at weddings and restaurants, to television work, and also band work in the area of cabaret. His repertoire is large and varied--but is mainly "easy listening" (from light classical to ragtime to Billy Joel).
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Author:Bond, Derek
Publication:Journal of Singing
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2010
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