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The Working Actor

Don't Start, Tipping the Scales

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Don't Start, Tipping the Scales
Dear Michael:

I'm a 44-year-old male, and I was just wondering if it's possible to start an acting career at this stage in the game. I don't have any experience in the acting industry and don't have a lot of money to spend on starting a new career (i.e., acting lessons, headshots, etc.). I know that I will have to do these things eventually, but how can I start out small without having to invest too much money or time up-front? Am I wasting my time trying to pursue a new career, or is it still possible?

—Just Wondering, Glen Ridge, N.J.

Dear Just:

This is such a coincidence, because I too have decided to make a midlife career change. I've decided to become a professional artist. I mean, I don't have any training or experience or anything. I don't really have the time or money for art classes right now, or even paint or whatever, but I've been to some of these art galleries, and a lot of the stuff looks to me like anyone could do it. Sure, I've never painted, and I'm starting kind of late, but I'll never get anywhere focusing on the negative, right? You have to believe in yourself, go for your dreams. And I won't need to worry about money either, because I'm also going to buy a lottery ticket.

Yeah, Just Wondering, I think you're wasting your time.

The reason a professional acting career looks accessible to you is that you're only aware of the actors who are working—a minuscule percentage. You don't see the others, so it looks easy. But I promise you, most who train, study, sacrifice, and dedicate themselves unreservedly to this pursuit still face relentless disappointment and rough odds. And you're starting late, without experience, training, or the ability or willingness to invest time or money. Under those conditions, you'll probably peak in community theater. Even there, the competition will be stiff.

You're asking what your chances are and how to get in without risk. If the chances are slim, and the risks great, what then? You'll move on, right? Then do yourself a favor. Save yourself a lot of frustration, disappointment, and expense. Audition for your local church's annual Nativity play, and leave professional acting to those who feel utterly compelled to pursue this challenging, daunting, beautiful profession against unbeatable odds.

Dear Michael:

This is my first time writing to Back Stage, because I can't find the answer anywhere else. Although I'm very familiar with musical theater and have done many principal roles in different areas of the country, I'm stumped by audition notices that indicate a specific role's vocal range using a letter-number combination. For example, it might say "E3" or "A5." Of course I know the letter refers to a musical note (duh!), but I can't make any sense of the number, even though I'm fairly sure it's intended to refer to which octave above or below middle C the note belongs to. These numeral notations just don't seem to match up with what I recognize as male or female vocal singing ranges. Can you please explain it clearly, because (in subscribing for well over a decade) I have never seen this matter discussed in Back Stage—not even in issues specifically dedicated to the many facets of performing musical theater.

—What's With the Numbers?, New York City

Dear WWN:

We love getting questions on professional topics that haven't been covered, so thank you for that. To tell you the truth, I too have been baffled by this vocal range code, in spite of being a musical theater performer myself. And so, accepting your challenge with relish, I forwarded your query to my friend, Broadway conductor Larry Goldberg ("The Drowsy Chaperone," "Les Misérables," "The Producers"), who responded with a satisfyingly detailed answer. Here's what Larry had to say:

"This is a very good question about an issue that is understandably confusing. You are correct to surmise that the letter refers to the particular note name (A through G, with or without a flat or sharp attached), and that the numeral refers to a particular octave. Musical notation on the five-line staff is capable of representing musical pitch very precisely, but in the context of normal text, such as an audition notice, the use of musical notation is impractical and indecipherable to those who do not read music, so a system to represent musical pitch using only letters and numerals was devised. Unfortunately there is more than one system that uses this format, with the numerals referencing different octaves, which is understandably a source of confusion. However, in this context, it's safe to assume that the system being used is the one commonly known as Scientific Pitch Notation, a standard instituted by the Acoustical Society of America in 1939. Here is what you need to know to understand this system:

Middle C is defined as C4. (This is actually rather intuitive if you use an 88-key piano keyboard as a guide. Middle C is actually the fourth C on the piano, counting up from the bottom.) Note that even though the lowest note on a piano is an A, and A is the first letter of the alphabet, this system uses C as the octave starting point, so each C is the beginning of a numerical octave. So, the lowest C on the piano is C1, and the notes above it are D1, E1, etc., up to B1. The next note is C2, and so on up the keyboard.

Using this system, the heart of the female voice is approximately E4-E5. Below E4 gets into the low alto range, and above E5 gets into the high soprano range.

To complicate matters further, the male voice is written in treble clef, an octave higher than it sounds, so a male voice reading a middle C would actually produce the C3 pitch. Nevertheless, I would expect written notes or ranges to go with the actual pitch of the male voice, not the written pitches. The heart of the male voice is approximately E3-E4. Below E3 gets into the low baritone range, and above E4 gets into the high tenor range, much like the female voice an octave higher. However, context is important for accurate interpretation: If I were to encounter an audition notice for a male role stipulating a range up to F5, I'd be pretty certain they really meant F4 (the common high limit for baritones), unless the role was Mary Sunshine in 'Chicago'!"

Thanks to Larry for breaking down the code for us. Now, if I could only get my own intonation to be that scientific.

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