Five paradoxes of music direction

Music direction is a profession full of contradictions, inconsistencies, and incongruities.  But this is not surprising: someone has gathered a whole lot of creative people in a room together, given them some incentive, and told them to create something beautiful.  It’s fun, but it’s also chaotic, and it’s risky.  And it’s different every single time.

Here are five of the leading paradoxes of being a music director.  I’m sure you’ll recognize them.  Feel free to add your own!

1) Good music direction is marked by extreme preparedness and thorough knowledge of the material, but being prepared or knowledgable is not always possible.  Being a quick study, or having excellent sight-reading/score-reading skills is therefore a huge advantage.  But of course, nothing takes the place of ample prep time and intensive study.

2) The director is always right; the composer is always right; the choreographer is always right.  And the actors, too, they’re always right.  The producer, too.  (Actually the producers are the right-est, as they are your real bosses—the ones who write your checks.)  In fact, pretty much everyone is right more than you are, and even when you are right, it really doesn’t matter that much.  Interestingly, everyone in the rehearsal room and theatre will rely on your great musical expertise— and then later ignore it, asking you to somehow handle the music differently.  Think of it as a compliment—“Oh sure, Joe’ll figure it out somehow…”

3) It’s impossible to get a job unless you have a job, a place where you can showcase your abilities. This conundrum is not insoluble—you simply have to concentrate on landing any sort of job that can get your foot in the door.  It only takes one.  Entry level is just fine.  Use any connections you might have, respectfully and without imposition.  No matter what position you hold, if you do your job well, someone will take notice, and give you a better job down the line.  Corollary: You may work your entire life to be a music director, then someone with virtually no experience as a music director at all will win the job that you so desperately wanted.  I know, it stinks, and sometimes it really hurts.  Been there.  Ok, now deal with it and move on.  No one said life was fair.

4) The best music direction is usually the one that goes least noticed. Whatever conspicuousness—or visibility, or impressiveness—a music director has should arise only from the dictates of the material being performed. The same applies to orchestration.  Discerning ears may well admire the skill of a music director or orchestrator, but that appreciation will not detract from the overall experience. Less discerning ears will just “love the music.”  It’s as if the music came out of nowhere, like magic… you as music director create the illusion, and the music may bear the stamp of your personality.  But your actual identity and presence are kept out of sight, unless called for as a part of the storytelling or presentation.

5) And, of course, the biggie: music direction is perhaps the most essential element of a musical, other than a singer/actor.  And yet— it is perhaps the least appreciated, or the most taken for granted, position in the organization of a musical.  (I did just say music-al, right?)  Along those same lines, less-than-ideal music direction might be mitigated by a great cast, a killer band, smart direction, and excellent design.  And even the finest music direction may be overlooked because it is disguised by less than ideal performances, poor direction, or shoddy design—or by the writing itself.  The reward, as good music directors know, is the music, the show, the wonderful people you hang with and work with, and—let’s keep this one going—a paycheck that reflects the effort!

Cartoon by Pablo Helguera.

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