Thoughts on Music Directing
WHAT IS IT?
I don’t think anybody knows what music directing is. I often hear/read music director colleagues lamenting that we seem to be easily forgotten: left off posters, omitted from show announcements, and ignored when it comes to awards and honors. But I think part of that stems from the fact that music directing can look so different from show to show (and person to person) that no one actually knows what it is.
Partly, this is due to the fact that formal training programs in music directing are a relatively new thing. Most music directors I know learned the job by doing it, and each of us comes at it with a different skill set. Some are singers who play piano and learned conducting by necessity. Some are pianists who have moved from accompanying to directing. Some are actor-musicians who decided to take a turn at the helm. One music director I know started out as a jazz trumpet player. Several MDs I know come from a performance background and have no teaching experience. Some, like myself, are trained educators. Some love “stick conducting,” and some would much prefer nodding their head from the keyboard. Every music director I know has different ability in and affinity for the various skills that you need to be a good music director:
And then, of course, there is the technology. Programming keyboards or Mainstage software, hooking up a rig, and troubleshooting the bizarre glitches that happen mid-performance [see my blog post from 8/5/18] are all parts of the modern music director’s job, though I do know some MDs who only play shows on piano.
AS FOR ME
I started playing piano before I did any of these other things, so you would think that would be my strongest skill. But I have very limited formal training—none past fourth grade piano lessons, in fact. I can get by with my strong sight-reading and solid sense of groove, but there are many MDs I know who can play circles around me technically. I would put myself in the “gets it done” category. With enough time to practice, I could probably play anything put in front of me, but I will do more justice to a rock score than I will to “Light in the Piazza.” And if it has parallel octaves in it, I will complain a lot and probably play a lot of sevenths. #smallhands
I have always been able to sing, and I have a good enough ear to hit the right notes and stay in tune, even if I don’t always know what I’m doing. Until very recently, I knew almost nothing about vocal technique, but playing for voice masterclasses at Hartt for the past few years has been incredibly educational for me, and this summer I successfully helped an actor through some serious vocal issues that I was concerned might make him lose his voice before we even opened the show. So now I’d say I know some things about singing, and I feel much more confident in my ability to speak about, and help singers through, vocal issues.
I credit my music education training and experience with nearly every other skill that helps me be successful as a music director. Knowing how to play every band and string instrument gives me confidence to be able to reorchestrate or reduce a show. My master’s degree emphasis in conducting prepared me to lead an ensemble, whether I am serving as “traffic cop” to keep everyone together during a complex passage, or saving rehearsal time by conveying information through gestures instead of stopping to talk about it. Teaching middle and high school forced me to learn how to run an efficient rehearsal and teach things so they would stick. Of course, my favorite part about music directing is the teaching. Whether it is a high school singer learning how to make a full sound, a community theater ensemble learning how to follow along in their music, a college student applying strategies for learning new music, or a professional discovering a special moment in a song, I love leading people to something new and better.
Enough about me. Back to the profession as a whole, and this question of WHAT IS IT?
So music directors all have different training, different backgrounds, and different skill sets. But surely we can all agree on what music directors DO?
You’d think so.
You’d think a music director would be involved in casting. But I’ve music directed on shows where I met the cast on the first day of rehearsal.
You’d think a music director would make decisions about tempo. But in several dance shows I’ve worked on, it was the choreographer that told me what the tempos should be.
You’d think a music director might teach the cast the music, but sometimes the cast comes in already knowing the music.
Sometimes a music director plays piano for rehearsals, but there could be a rehearsal pianist who does that.
Sometimes a music director directs the pit, but that could be someone else’s job.
Sometimes the music director hires the pit musicians, but often there is a contractor who does that.
I worked with an experienced actor once on a role he had played several times before. A few minutes into working on his solo song, he turned to me and said, “Do you know that I have never been musically directed on this song before?” It appears that even working through a song with an actor is not necessarily something that every music director does.
At this point, I feel I should acknowledge that this essay will definitely NOT provide an answer to the question of what a music director does. (Sorry!) Even music directors don’t agree on what our job entails! So all I can write about is what music directing means to me.
WHY I LOVE IT
One thing that my brain is good at is making connections between the big picture and the small details, and I think this forms the crux of my approach to music directing. Actually, I think that is part of why I love theater. The tiniest details—a piece of jewelry, a colored light, a bit of set dressing, or even a precisely timed breath—all contribute to one unified story. The audience may not even notice those details, but they make a difference. I went to see a student in a new play last spring, and afterward she was telling me about a decision the costumer had made to put everyone in the cast in muted colors except for the leading lady. This choice had completely slipped by me, but upon reflection I understood how powerfully it had affected my feeling about the vibrance of the leading lady, and how special she seemed right from her first entrance. This kind of detail work is something I love to do in my own process. I love going through each note and marking in a score and talking about them and making decisions about them, so that nothing happens by accident. As another example, last summer was my second time music directing “In the Heights,” and we were rehearsing Nina’s eleven o’clock number “Everything I Know.” Partway through the song, the music pauses briefly as Nina goes through a box belonging to Abuela to find a folder. The last time I had done the show, I simply waited for the actress playing Nina to take the folder out of the box, and then I started up the music again played through the rest of the song. But in this rehearsal, I heard the director and actor discuss something that endowed the folder with much greater meaning, and I knew that I needed to support the weight of that moment through music. By taking a longer pause, and then beginning the music much more quietly and deliberately, I was helping to tell the story that this director and this actor wanted to tell.
This brings me to the second thing I love about music directing: collaboration. I would go so far as to say that collaborating is the main reason I do theater. When I work on a piece that doesn’t involve collaboration, I might as well be working an office job: I show up on time, log my hours, and go home. While I have some introverted tendencies, I most often get my energy from being with a group of people, especially a group of people working toward a goal. I love talking—even arguing—with a director about the meaning of a moment, or working with a singer to make sure the music is telling the same story as the words, or finding a cut of a dance break that has the exact energy and arc that the choreographer is looking for. I have no interest in “staying in my lane.” (I can do this if the director prefers to work this way, but it’s not my preferred way of making art.) I want to jump around to all the lanes so I can get a better look at everything that’s happening, and so I can figure out how I can help make it better. To take the metaphor a step further than it should probably go, I want to paint zigzags all over the asphalt so there are no lanes and we can all just play in the middle of the road together.
Not every director likes to work this way, but when I find one who does I am always excited. My favorite collaborations have been with creative people who don’t feel territorial but who have a strong vision, communicate it effectively, and have an interest in listening to others to help refine that vision and bring it to life. If I am working in this kind of atmosphere, then I welcome a director coming up to me and saying, “What do you think about taking this song slower? I’m trying to establish _______, and I think if we go too fast the audience might not get that.” I might respond something like, “I see what you mean, but I think we lose the energy of the song if we slow down too much. What if we took a slower tempo in the verses and then kicked it up in the chorus?” This made up example is in contrast to an interaction I might have with a director who is not a collaborator, which would go something like this:
DIRECTOR: This tempo is too fast.
(I don’t like confrontation.)
In all seriousness, I think the whole reason we make art is because it connects us to other people. And, like most things (life, for example), a piece of art is richer and deeper when it comes out of many people working together. I will always seek out collaborators who share this belief, and I will work to create an atmosphere that fosters creativity and collaboration.
The playbill says “music director” next to my name, so I guess that’s what I am, but I still have no idea if I’m doing it right. This job can be any number of things on any given day, with any given cast, on any given show, in any given production. That’s probably another reason why I love doing it: I can never get bored. I know I’m always a little nervous before the “first day of school,” and I know I try to get better at it each time I do it. To me, those are both signs that I am in the right business. If I ever figure out how to do this job, I promise I will come back to this blog post and update it with my newfound understanding.