Along with the stage manager(s), music directors drive the train of a musical from the first note to the button of the exit music. They are an essential and critical fixture in ensuring the cast stays together; the musicians know the tempo, and how to problem solve when things don't go as planned.
In the context of musical theatre, here are my top 5 skills that music directors must have to be successful.
1. People & Emotional Intelligence Skills
You're trying to rehearse with a new actor who is stepping into this role for the first time. They arrive at rehearsal but seem unfocused and scattered as you work with them. How do you handle this? What do you say? What tone do you use? Should you ignore it?
Music directors not only are talented and very skilled musicians, but they must have the emotional and psychological intelligence and health to coach and counsel an actor who may be off their game. I've had actors become visibly annoyed with themselves several times. A polite, "how are you doing today?" or "I can see you're bothered by something. Will you like to talk about it?" can be an effective way of helping them to process or work through the emotions they are going through at that moment and being sensitive to their response.
2. Active Listening & Awareness
Active listening & awareness implies being present and aware of situations and musical moments that need to occur at specific times during the show. A late cue, missed entrance, or fermata that is not held long enough or too long can throw an actor off and create a disjointed moment on stage.
One of the lead singers in a show I music directed arrived 30-minutes before the performance and informed us that she had lost her voice and was having a hard time singing; there was no swing or backup performer to take her spot. The performance started, and this performer had to hold out a high E-natural for 8 beats at the song's end. Knowing that she was struggling with her voice, we opted to change the note to make it easier for her to perform. As we were performing the show and this music moment arrived, she decided to sing the E-natural instead of the new note I had given her. Being aware of this and actively listening to her performance, I pushed the tempo with the band to accommodate her at that moment, as she didn't have enough breath or stamina to make it to the end.
3. Time Management & Planning Skills
Running a music rehearsal and prioritizing what to start with can be fun. Do you start at the beginning of a show? The end? Just the ensemble numbers? Perhaps a sing-through of the show to see who knows what? When you have a short rehearsal process, every second during rehearsal is crucial to ensure the cast members learn and process the music and notes you're suggesting. The ability to plan and manage the rehearsal time needed for each song is important and can either help or hurt the process.
On the first day of music rehearsal, I often start with the most challenging song since it will most likely need the most attention. I work through the group, ensemble, and full-company songs and spend enough time on them early in the process. Once the cast has a good grasp on the songs, I call a lead rehearsal to go through all their music moments one-on-one. If I am working on a blend of full-cast and lead music, I will often call everyone at the start of rehearsal and then release the full-cast and keep the leads for the last part of the rehearsal to not waste any of the actors' time and resources.
Being able to conduct, play piano, read the sheet music, and flip a page is a lot to juggle at one time. So it may be tricky for some to be able to pay attention to the action on stage or the dialogue cues, especially if an actor misses a line or starts to sing the wrong verse.
We were in our 3rd weekend of performances during the middle of one of the songs halfway through the show. The cast was used to the music already and was in a groove. The song we were performing was repetitive and wordy. Our lead singer starts singing verse 2, however, she sings the lyrics to the 4th verse. Autopilot takes over; she continues to sing. The stage manager, lighting operator, and I panicked since this performer skipped half the song and put us 15 cues ahead without warning. At that moment, I had to decide whether this performer will decide to return to a new lyric or end the song after verse 4 as written. I decided to end the song and flipped ahead 4 pages to where they were singing in hopes that the rest of the ensemble adjusts.
Moments like this do happen and performers go on autopilot as they perform. The music director and the rest of the cast and crew must be prepared to adapt at a moment's notice and without warning.
Although this isn't the first skill on this list, it is still a critical ability to possess as a music director. To not play with feeling, emotion, or musicality is the antithesis and goes against everything music represents. A famous Beethoven quote: "To sing a wrong note is insignificant, but to sing without passion is unforgivable."
There is a reason we're drawn to music and particular artists. The way they perform, their tone, emotion, inflection and nuance, and sound. All these elements make up musicianship and are vital to being a music director. To articulate and communicate those elements to an ensemble, cast, and orchestra brings a musical to life and gets people excited about the arts and theatre.
There are many skills required that aren't listed. I find that these 5 are imperative for a successful and well-versed music director to possess.