Updated: May 23, 2019
Many students share this sentiment, or already proclaim, “I AM a triple threat!” But, what really makes a triple threat? Being a performer who is an equally strong actor, singer AND dancer takes time, talent and investment. I encounter many students who excel in one of these disciplines, fewer who excel in two of them, and fewer still—more occasionally than parents and students would like to hear—who excel in all three. How can middle or high school students refine their talent and develop technique in these areas? This post outlines a path to work toward becoming a “triple threat”.
I’d like to differentiate between performing, in productions and the like, and training as an actor. In sports terms, performing is the equivalent of playing in a game and training encompasses skill development. Though both necessary, they are components that accomplish different objectives. I’ve encountered many students with ample performance experience, but don’t understand how they, as an actor, prepare technically. On the flip side, I rarely encounter students with ample acting training yet no performance experience.
To become a better actor, you must act. This might take place in a middle or high school drama or theatre class, in an improv club, through acting, scene work or technique classes. Staged productions develop an understanding of some pretty critical “hows”. How to be in a show. How the structured production environment works. How to prepare a role from start to finish. But, simultaneous, training as an actor provides the foundation and tools necessary to succeed in various roles. These tools include exercising the actor’s listening, risk-taking, honesty, flexibility, vocal, physical, mental and emotional development.
The quality of high school acting classes vary greatly, and due to curricular constraints, teacher load, and school size, schools are often unable to offer specific acting technique classes that genuinely “push” an actor. This is where acting classes are a critical addition to a performer’s training throughout a student’s high school years and beyond.
I believe a brief clarification between voice lessons and voice coaching is helpful. Voice lessons work on the technique of singing, usually encompassing healthy warm-up processes, methods, expansion of range, versatility, and use of breath. Repertoire is assigned to develop and increase these and other skills.
Voice coaching is working songs both vocally and performance-wise into the voice. Repertoire might be assigned, or might be specific to an audition, competition, role or performance.
It may be considered old-school, but I continue to question starting voice lessons with anyone younger than 16. Students are rarely physiologically ready before then. There’s just so much going on with kids’ bodies and voices prior to that point, that taking voice lessons can be a waste of time and money and lead to a lot of undoing of bad habits, or worse, vocal issues, later on in life.
Under 16, great things your singer can be doing to improve vocally include singing in choirs and ensembles, performing solo material that isn’t vocally taxing, taking group lessons and receiving vocal coaching on appropriate songs.
If you just can’t live without voice lessons prior to physiologically hitting the 16-year-old mark, the focus of those lessons should be vocal health. Proper breathing, exercises that develop healthy singing habits and development of a well-crafted warm-up are core components of good voice lessons for younger students. Once the student is old enough, additional focus may include working repertoire that further develops age-appropriate vocal strength, flexibility, range, stamina and working songs into the voice for auditions and performance.
Ideally, dance training should start as early as possible. There is a reason kids start ballet classes at 3 years old. Unlike voice, it is “a thing” to start this discipline early. However, I know some fine dancers who started later, had an affinity for it, made great strides and found success in musical theatre. With work, focus and solid training, middle or high school students can become solid dancers. I’ve even seen relative newbies in college succeed, but that’s becoming more and more rare as many competitive programs desire students with previous dance training.
I will say there is a strange misunderstanding out there among high school actors and singers that dancing in one high school show makes you a dancer. It doesn’t. That kind of thinking is not only disrespectful to the art form but won’t set you up for success. This area of training is the one I find most neglected of the three with many singers and actors I encounter.
I’m more and more convinced that "performance" is a skill that exists outside of the three performing arts disciplines. You can’t be a triple threat without the performance component. Exuding confidence, demonstrating poise, owning the stage, connecting with an audience, “selling” it—these qualities are tested and developed within the performance arena. Finding outlets to perform and paying attention to these factors while in the rehearsal and performance process will lead to becoming a better performer.
To be frank, in today’s competitive musical theatre climate, actively training in at least one of these areas is critical. Many successful Broadway performers don’t actually consider themselves “triple threats”, but they usually excel in at least two of the three disciplines. Even on the simplest level, actors and singers who take dance classes exhibit better body control. Actors and dancers who participate in ensemble or in solo vocal activities have better singing and speaking voices. Dancers and singers who learn to act develop skills critical to musical theatre. In order to dance and sing well in musical theatre, one must act.
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