What I Learned as a First Time Music Director*

*This is in regards to music directing community theatre.

I had the opportunity to music direct the ultimate show of teen angst, Spring Awakening, over winter break this year at a small community theatre in my area. While it was a great experience that taught me a lot, there was plenty about it that was frustrating. These are some things that I learned during my time in Spring Awakening.

1.You can only do so much. 

I lucked out. The kids I worked with were extremely talented and kind. But at some point, there is only so much you can do. You can tell someone to practice all you want, and you can go through the same part over and over, but if that person isn’t willing to put in the extra work, there isn’t much you can do. You can’t practice for them.

2. Don’t be afraid to say “No.”

I’m not sure how often this comes up usually, but I was asked to be in the show in addition to music directing it. My advice if that question ever comes up is to say “no”. While not impossible, it is really hard to music direct a show you’re in. It compromises your ability to direct immensely. Maybe this particular question isn’t the one that you’ll experience, but know when too much is too much. Take a breath, assess what is expected of you already and determine if whatever is being asked of you falls into your job description or will be an overwhelming amount of work. Say “no” if you aren’t 100% for it. Say “yes” if you want a challenge. But don’t be afraid to consider the outcomes and kindly decline if it is too much.

3. Get out of your head. 

I spent a good portion of the first couple music rehearsals obsessing over if I was doing a good job. My piano skills are limited, so sometimes chords are slow-going. I kept thinking I was seeing looks pass between cast members who are used to their efficient high choir directors teaching them music and comparing myself to what I assumed they expected. But it didn’t do me any good to worry about what they thought of me. And it certainly didn’t do them any good when I fumbled over notes because of my nerves. So don’t worry. You can’t please everyone, you can only be satisfied with your own work. Focus on that, and you’ll get through it.

4. Be nice, but be firm.

It is important to remember, especially with community theatre, that the people you are working with are young. They are not professionals. (In my case, neither am I!) In my experience, they responded best to kindness. That doesn’t mean that you can’t pull a firm hand once in a while though. Your job is to keep rehearsals on track and learn the necessary music, while still keeping the ensemble engaged. I would entertain their spurts of distraction for a little, giving them a small mental break, but I would soon gently guide them back to the task at hand. While, of course, all ensembles are different, this particular group reacted well to by firm kindness in getting them back on track. I never had to yell. At most, it was “Guys, come on. We have to focus.” Anger is a powerful tool, but it loses its punch if used consistently.

5. Take your time with those who need it.

Entertain questions about the music. Ask multiple times if there is anything else they want to go over. Always help when a cast member is asking for you to help them improve. In community theatre, they are not only there to perform but also to learn. You are there to teach. Make time for those who need extra help, whether they ask you to help or not. Don’t push them to perfection, but push them towards success. There is a difference. Especially when working with young people, who take criticism so differently from adults, it is important to be a friendly guiding hand and not someone who makes them feel insecure about their mistakes. As a music director, I feel it is important to always encourage, never tear down.

Overall, my experience was a bumpy one. But I learned a lot, and I know I’ll be able to apply what I learned to future endeavors, whether music related or otherwise. If given the opportunity to music direct, take it. It’s a learning experience worth having.

Watch a promo video made by one of the cast members, Madison Rae.

*Warning: Language, Sexual Content*

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