How to Play the Role of a Musician Convincingly

Professional flautist Jennifer Stinton shares her insights about how actors can play the part of musicians authentically.

By Jennifer Stinton

It's well-known that the acting profession is extremely competitive so being prepared for any opportunities that come your way and having skills that set you apart is always helpful.

I've noticed that it's becoming increasingly popular for aspiring thespians to take drama courses as multi-skilled performance actors, combining acting skills with those of a musician. Perhaps during the lockdown, you've taken it upon yourself to learn an instrument or to brush up on some rusty skills. So when casting directors are looking for the best performer to play a role, and that role is a musician, how can you use these skills to convincingly play the part?  

It's not actually essential for an actor to be a talented musician to play the part well

I'm a professional musician with a background of studying music at the Royal Academy of Music (RAM) as a flautist.

During my professional life, I have been fortunate to be offered some small acting roles playing musicians, one example is when I posed as a busker in the TV drama Hope It Rains (not a great title for a street performer!)

As a musician used to performing on stage it was very a different experience playing my instrument in front of the camera and doing it naturally. It cast a new light on how actors portray musicians in film and theatre.

In the acting world, there are many opportunities for actors to represent musicians. In Sherlock Holmes, Benedict Cumberbatch stars as the inimitable opera-loving detective, who also happens to be a Stradivarius-playing violinist.

Inimitable is the keyword, as to accurately portray this complex character it was necessary for him to train to make his musical performance look real.

In an interview with Time magazine, Cumberbatch stated, "Playing the violin is an absolute nightmare as it takes hours of practising".

Despite not having the luxury of time for professional training as a musician, he describes how he thrives on the challenges that arise in the acting profession and learning new skills that enable him to portray characters in a natural and believable way.

His prime concern is bringing the character to life and exploring their human qualities, and in this case, their extraordinary skills.

As long as the actor's position, posture and expressions look authentic through detailed study of musicians and how they perform, then it is possible to look convincing

Actors already have the talent for performing and the grounding to take on roles as musicians.

In taking on a character who plays an instrumental role, it is vital that there is a genuine response between the actors in a scene. In Little Women there is a wonderful example of this type of interaction between Beth March (Eliza Scanlen) and Mr Laurence (Chris Cooper), where the lonely widower allows Beth to play the piano in his home.

Scanlen played the piano when she was a child and in an interview with Vanity Fair she said to prepare for her Little Women scenes, she was "trying to play the piano two to three hours a day".

Playing the instrument was a prerequisite for playing Beth so in the film when you see her at the piano, it is actually Scanlen playing. This is an example of brilliant casting, however, it's not always essential for an actor to be a talented musician to play the part well.

In Hilary and Jackie, Emma Watson plays the much-revered cellist Jacqueline du Pré despite not being classically trained in the cello. Watson spent several months taking cello lessons, learning to play well enough that she could convincingly mime the motions. The cello was played and synchronised to Watson's movements by professional cellist, and my RAM contemporary, Caroline Dale. 

The use of clever camera work is obviously essential. This can include filming the face in detail, panning out for more technical musical sections or filming the character from behind - although it would be more difficult to achieve the facial shots when portraying a wind or brass instrument-playing musician.

As long as the actor's position, posture and expressions look authentic through the detailed study of musicians and how they perform, then it's possible to look convincing.

From the point of view of a musician, it's sometimes painful to see shots where the music on the soundtrack doesn't match an actor's movements. For example, if a violinist is playing with vibrato in the left hand but the actor's hand looks stiff and static. Even a non-musician would notice if the bow looked awkward or if a flautist did not take breaths in the music, which need to look natural.

Close study with professionals will enable actors to really get under the skin of the musicians they're bringing to life and help to deliver a more authentic portrayal. Equally, musicians who are acting can look more natural by studying the way actors present themselves and how they perform in a film studio or on stage. More integration between the two disciplines can only help blur the lines and create more successful results both onscreen and onstage. 

Jennifer Stinton is an internationally recognised flautist, performing as a soloist at international festivals and giving masterclasses throughout the UK. She has also played as Guest Principal Flute in many of the major orchestras including the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.