By Cheryl Colley

We can all understand the language of music. It has the ability to evoke powerful emotional responses—both chills and thrills—in us as listeners and we can all agree that music has a massive impact on our lives.

The gently wonderful musical Once is a show all about making music. The adult members of the cast play at least one instrument during the performance and are on stage virtually throughout the show creating the music in front of us, singing and telling the story. Note that I said “playing at least one instrument”. These musicians/actors have mastered their various instruments through dedication and practice.

Two members of the cast – William Duignan and Tom Knowles – spoke to me about their experiences of learning to play an instrument. “Playing and succeeding at a musical instrument gives you a huge sense of pride and achievement, especially when you manage to perfect a passage you’ve been struggling with for weeks.”

William plays guitar and ukulele in Once. “Choosing to play an instrument is the beginning of a journey - one that is exciting, but often filled with struggle and hard work. I started learning guitar when I was thirteen at high school mainly because I wanted to be in a band and look cool. I soon found out it’s very painful on the fingers and I spent a lot of time soaking my hands in bowls of iced water!” 

William continued to share that “with the support of my guitar teacher who told me it’s OK to be bad to start with, I kept practising. By the third year of learning, I had that ‘eureka’ moment when I thought ‘I’ve got it. I know what I’m doing’. Then I was able to start writing my own songs and pick up the ukulele as well. Zach Condon of the band Beirut, who is a great ukulele player, is my hero. I did try piano too, but I couldn’t quite rewire my brain to be any good at it. The guitar is my thing and I’m always striving to develop and get better.”

Tom says he plays any rhythm instrument that can make ‘a hell of a noise.’ In Once he plays guitar, bass guitar and mandolin. “The process of learning to play an instrument is not always easy. It involves not only your mind but also your body. You have to learn fingerings and chord shapes, develop technique and memorize new information.”

“I suppose I was rather fortunate in that I come from a musical family and learned to play almost through osmosis. At home, there was a music room full of instruments – piano, guitars, tambourines, tin whistles, trumpets and even a flugelhorn. I’d get sent to the music room for ‘time out’ and with such a choice of instruments, I started trying them all out and creating sounds. I’m self-taught in all the instruments I play and I can also write my own music for the piano.”

“I was asked to play the mandolin for Once, which is not an instrument I was very familiar with. But I am a ‘fake till you make it kind of guy’ so of course, I said I could do it. I have found the mandolin is a very rare instrument and not very many musician/actors know how to play it. It was even hard to find one to learn on. It also has very small frets and I have fat fingers” explained Tom.

Both William and Tom say that music pulls and weaves people together with its common language. Though it may be easier to pick up an instrument when you’re young, anyone can learn if they practise enough, they add.

We are sure that like William and Tom, many of you among our Friends of The Court Theatre will have stories to tell of your experiences with learning to play a musical instrument, either in your younger or older years. Whether your story is joyful or painful we would love to hear it.

Email your story to by Friday 3 June. Who moves or amuses us the most will be in to win two tickets to Once.