Sunday, October 13, 2013

Lawrence "Larry" Gilliard, Jr., actor and clarinetist


“Once the music has got you, it never lets you go," said Larry Gilliard, Jr.—an acclaimed actor who debuts tonight on The Walking Dead.


Mr. Gilliard has appeared on television in The Wire, Army Wives, Friday Night Lights, Law and Order, CSI, Southland, and Homicide: Life on the Street; in films including Straight out of Brooklyn, The Waterboy, Gangs of New York, and Cecil B. Demented; and in Pulitzer Prize-winning play Top Dog/Underdog.

Mr. Gilliard trained in clarinet at The Juilliard School before leaving in his final semester of study to pursue acting, where he found more opportunities for self-expression than in classical music. After a hiatus, he returned to the clarinet, using the skills acquired in acting training to enhance his musical artistry. 

He recently shared his knowledge in the seminar “Acting for a Better Audition” at the University of Maryland Clarinet Day. Following the seminar, he also performed at the closing concert.

Mr. Gilliard's lecture encouraged students to think about what art is, and encouraged them not to abandon creativity solely for the pursuit of perfection.

He demonstrated this point by leading students in a variety of acting exercises (pictured below) to hone their listening skills in different ways than they are accustomed, instructing: “What I say means nothing; what I mean means everything.”



That is, the notes on the page are not enough to convey feeling to an audience, which is what separates art from, say, a child’s drawing. 

Nonetheless, Mr. Gilliard stated that it is integral to know the music well enough so that you can get past thinking of the technique and start expressing yourself: “Listening is the foundation of acting and music. Once I know my lines, I can listen.”

Classical music, sometimes criticized for a perceived disconnectedness from the audience, is described differently by Mr. Gilliard. He believes that musicians have an advantage over most actors because of the opportunity to communicate directly with the audience: “I’m acting for a camera with a million eyes and you get to play in front of [people].”

Mr. Gilliard encouraged the students to think of a narrative or image to help convey what they feel about the music: “The composer gives us a roadmap. Add your own story, scene by scene, because a lot of times, we don’t know what the composer’s was...Rain falling down a building—that’s so much more interesting than a decrescendo.”

Finally, once you have that vision, commit to it, wholeheartedly. Mr. Gilliard described an experience at an audition where he was unaware of his surroundings, he was so deep in his vision for the scene: “I don’t know what I did when I was in that scene, that story. You don’t have time to think, ‘I was flat or sharp. I screwed up.' If you go to your story, you cannot go wrong. Trust.”

He even had a useful job interview/audition tip for any field: “Don’t ever go in asking for something. Go in offering something.‘This is what you get if you pick me.’”

Following the seminar, I had the opportunity to speak with Mr. Gilliard one-on-one about his dual life as an actor and musician:

AM: You mentioned the isolation, and being limited as far as expression with the clarinet. I’m wondering if you feel like the classical training contributes to that.

LG: Well, you know, it’s necessary to achieve a certain level of professionalism and technique. You have to spend time with your instrument, the notes, the music, and with yourself, too.

But I think now it’s important to teach the younger kids that you can also express yourself. So they’re coming up with both—learning technique but also that there’s a time and a place to be expressive and not worry about the notes. 

What does this piece mean to you? How does it sound? How does it make you feel? What do you think about it when you hear it? So that they can be a little more open. A lot of musicians before us weren’t taught that.

Classical is very structured and it’s very easy to just get locked into something. It could end up cutting off your creativity because you’re so focused on, “Oh my God, it’s Mozart. I have to be perfect. It has to be Mozart.” 

And it does, but there’s still room for creativity even with Mozart. If you take that Mozart and you make it something that you can relate to, it’s still going to sound like Mozart to everybody out there, but it’s going to mean something different. It’s going to mean something for you. It’s Mozart, so it’s the Classical period and you have to play it in a certain way. You don’t have to make it into a Romantic piece just to be expressive with it. You just have to make it mean something to you, so that there’s some feeling in it.

AM: How do you fit practice time in around your acting career?

LG: I just try to make time to practice, even if it’s an hour or two a day. I haven’t played consistently in a long time, so I can only hold the instrument for so long and my embouchure isn’t as strong as it once was. I can only play for a certain amount of time before I just can’t play anymore. I have to take a break. So I just make time to practice and that’s it.

AM: Did you stop ever for a long period of time?

LG: Yeah, I played maybe twice a year. I’d pick it up and just play some notes because I was learning acting and working as an actor. I would hear clarinet on the radio and then I’d pick my horn up and just play a little bit…and of course it wasn’t very good, but…

AM: Do you have specific tips for getting back into shape after time off?

LG: The thing is, you never forget. If you’ve played for a certain amount of time, it never lets you go. So once you leave, you can always come back and start with your basics and work your way back up. Because you know what it should feel like, what it should be, and it’s still in your body. It’s just a matter of reworking the machine.

I haven’t played professionally in a while. I’m hoping to do more of that. Like I was saying, it comes back to you. Now I think I’m getting into a place where I’m feeling like I want to play more. I’ll continue acting, but I just want to play more. So today, this gives me an opportunity to get back out there.


Many, many thanks to Mr. Gilliard for participating in the interview and to Mr. Robert DiLutis, University of Maryland Professor of Clarinet, for helping make it happen. It was truly an honor, a pleasure, and an experience I will never forget!

First photo credit

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