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How to hire and work with a music director (and "how to direct a musical 101"!)

  • 1.  How to hire and work with a music director (and "how to direct a musical 101"!)

    Posted 12-28-2018 06:05
    Many of you know I am a relatively new high school theater teacher, and now I'm about to direct my first musical: Big Fish. The music teacher at my school and I have been collaborating on this since last year in terms of choosing the musical, rehearsing with interested students, and holding auditions. But just before the winter break he told me he can't be the music director bc he's teaching another class! I am totally thrown for a loop. We start rehearsals Jan 7 and I have no idea what to do.

    I realize now that I had been counting on him not only to direct the music but also to coach me through the whole process of directing a musical - because I have No Idea what to do!

    So I have a few questions! How do I find a music director? how much do I pay? does the music director also play the piano in the performances or do I hire all separate musicians? what else do I need to know about this relationship?

    And ... now that this is tumbling down around me I realize I've been fooling myself into thinking I know what I'm doing. How do I learn how to direct a musical (in only 2 weeks)??

    Arden Thomas
    Sequoyah High School
    Pasadena CA

  • 2.  RE: How to hire and work with a music director (and "how to direct a musical 101"!)

    Posted 12-28-2018 08:01
    I'm looking forward to what responses you get. This is my first time directing (Annie Jr. for 3rd -5th graders) and I had a wonderful young woman sit in on auditions who ran the music portion feeding the kids lines to sing and was amazing. She has over a decade of experience directing theater camps and I had envisioned her doing the music directing but she shared she's not as well versed in music directing so she's still deciding. I went back and asked what last year's director did and turns out she had high school music students teach kids the songs (from the CD since that's what we use at the performance) then brought in a music director for maybe 4 rehearsals and the show was amazing. This gave me some comfort knowing I had time to find someone and wouldn't necessarily need them the whole time. Not sure if this is common practice but it worked well last year here. I also know the high school kids who teach the music are very talented and take their responsibilities very seriously. Good luck and thanks for posting this question!


  • 3.  RE: How to hire and work with a music director (and "how to direct a musical 101"!)

    Posted 12-29-2018 03:15
    As someone who started by knowing nothing and still probably doesnt know lots about music, I say throw yourself in and go for it. I do 4 musicals a year without a music director. The kids and I have learned so much through trial and error and your group will as well. We went from me looking up sheetmusic 101 online to winning a NYA award for best musical ensemble. It wont be perfect, but everyone will learn. A few years back the kids wanted to do Anything Goes... I didnt know how to tap dance but we figured it out together and made lots of memories. 

    Big Fish is a really fun show. The story is so good that audiences love it, there was never a dry eye by the end of the show. Feel free to contact me for any cheerleading you need.... I also still have tons of costumes, lol.

  • 4.  RE: How to hire and work with a music director (and "how to direct a musical 101"!)

    Posted 12-29-2018 08:00
    First, you CAN do this!
    Here are some things you might want to think of before the kids come back:
    1. Ask your choir director if he knows of any local accompanists you could contact to help
    2. Ask a local church or private school music minister/teacher if they might be interested
    3. Ask other schools in your area what they charge for accompanists and musical directors.  I live in VA, so our rate of $500/$500 might not fly in CA!
    4. Have a rehearsal schedule READY!  The more you can feel organized and in control, the more prepared the students will feel.
    5. Ask the kids in the show (and band/chorus kids) if they can help teach some of the music.  Maybe be a "Student Music Director" and get thespian points or community service hours.
    6. Explore local colleges/universities and see if there are music students (music ed) who want some on-the-job experience.
    7. TRUST your instincts!  And, make definite arrangements for next year so that you're not left in scramble mode :)  When I started, our choir teacher didn't accompany the show; he was just the music director.  Then, we had an accompanist bow out mid-stream, and he said the thought he could manage playing and conducting.  It's been that way for the past 12 years!
    8. Ask your school district if there's an assistant drama coach stipend and see if there's someone on staff who might be able to help you run rehearsals/do production side work/help design or construct sets/take care of the programs.
    9. Ask the parents!  You never know.  Someone might be a music person and be looking for a way to help :)
    Break a leg!  You got this!!!!

    Lisa Dyer
    Henrico VA

  • 5.  RE: How to hire and work with a music director (and "how to direct a musical 101"!)

    Posted 12-29-2018 09:23
    Edited by Ellie McIvor-Baker 12-29-2018 09:24
    I second reaching out to local churches. I am also a new theater teacher and have been posting our fundraising campaign a lot on different social media forums (nextdoor, Neighborhood association facebooks etc.) the number one response I get is "I'm unable to donate but am a former choir director/music teacher/ pianist and would love to volunteer my time to help with music."

    Best of luck!

    Ellie McIvor-Baker
    Theater Teacher and Director
    Portland OR

  • 6.  RE: How to hire and work with a music director (and "how to direct a musical 101"!)

    Posted 12-29-2018 10:59
    I think the first thing you need to do is just calm down and take it a step at a time. Musicals are more complicated, yes, but the basic structure of rehearsing is the same. (Everyone has their own idea of what that is, so I’ll give you mine.)

    I only rehearse 2 hours after school, 4 days a week until about a month out. I typically start rehearsing after Martin Luther King Day for performances mid-April. That gives me about 10-11 weeks of rehearsal and enough extra time to make up for any snow days that occur (I make each Friday a “catch up day” if needed).

    The actors learn all music and dance in the first 2-3 weeks, alternating days. Starting in February I block all scenes that are strictly dialogue in addition to any songs that are just blocking. I’ll mix in at least one dance review and music review in each week in February as well. I usually spend one week blocking each act of the show. That usually takes me to close to the end of February where I begin stumbling through, reviewing blocking, interrupting to fix, and layering in the dance numbers. Finally, March rehearsals are 3 hours and are for running (off book). I’ll start spending a day running each act and then finally put the show together when the time is right. I’m lucky and get to be in my space three weeks before show, so I can start teching and working with my set the last week of March.

    With the set, plan time to respace as necessary (particularly for dances) and focus lights, so you can have dress rehearsals the last 3 rehearsals before your opening night. Some teachers do a traditional long Sunday tech- I do not. I try to adjust lights as much as possible outside of rehearsal so I only need to fix problems I notice while actors are there and don’t waste rehearsal time. If you have an orchestra, you’ll want to schedule a rehearsal during tech week to just run through musical numbers and dances to make sure timing is right and the actors know what conductor cues to look for. You should plan mics for that rehearsal (and all following) so the actors don’t blow out their voices trying to outsing the orchestra. If you’re using a track or just an accompanist, they’ll already be good to go and you can ignore all that.

    Sorry I rambled on, but I think you probably saw similarities to your play rehearsals- particularly once you start blocking and running, it’s the same basic process. Rates for music directors vary based on your area, but mine receives about $2000 in a stipend from the school. It’s the expectation at many high schools that the choral teacher is responsible for this obligation as part of their position, but maybe that isn’t the case for you. Duties are accompanying and giving input at auditions, teaching/reviewing the music at all planned rehearsals, and accompanying during dance rehearsals (this is important as many recordings do not match the score for dance breaks) and runs. If you are using tracks, then the music director does not necessarily need to accompany but they should still be involved throughout to fix any singing issues/forgotten harmonies. I also recommend finding a knowledgeable choreographer to take care of your dances. Many use student choreographers, and while this is great to give them leadership, they can be ambitious for the average student actor’s dance ability. An adult choreographer can help rein them in and guide them. It’s more important to go simple and really clean, than it is to try something that will never get in sync.

    One last tip- I really try to do a detailed scene breakdown and organize my rehearsals in the beginning so I’m utilizing each student’s time most effectively. I’ll group scenes/songs together each day based on common actors needed and give unneeded actors a day off as much as possible. The kids appreciate it and it saves me the headaches that come from idle hands. If your rehearsals are during a class, you unfortunately won’t have that option.

    Anyway, I hope that helps! Break a leg!

    Mr. Benjamin Cossitor
    Instructor of English/Drama
    Altoona Area High School
    1415 6th Ave
    Altoona, PA 16602
    (814) 327-9076

  • 7.  RE: How to hire and work with a music director (and "how to direct a musical 101"!)

    Posted 12-29-2018 13:40
    Arden, we all feel your pain! My first musical was a huge learning curve...because I had no musical director until just before production week. He had the audacity to criticize the musical numbers for their lack of harmonies!
    Here are some of the things I learned:
    Ask around your area for their suggestions for musical directors and what price to negotiate. I paid my last musical director $2,000. He came once a week until closer to production week.
    Have the kids rehearse at home from the cd, if it's available.
    Spend the first 2-3 weeks learning the music, if you have a music director more than once a week.
    Block the scenes around the musical numbers.
    Do you need a choreographer? That person can block your musical numbers once the kids are comfortable with the music.
    If you don't have or need a choreographer, blocking the musical numbers yourself isn't necessarily as difficult as you might think. Consider your big pictures, and treat the group numbers like scenes and the solos as monologues. Keep them simple.
    Find the appropriate time to rehearse transitioning your cast into and out of their musical numbers.

    I hope that this helps, somewhat.
    Best of luck!!!

    Nancy L. Bernhard, retired
    Salinas High School
    Salinas, CA

  • 8.  RE: How to hire and work with a music director (and "how to direct a musical 101"!)

    Posted 12-29-2018 20:20
    You have been given excellent advice. Know that anyone reading your post is pulling for you. As someone else said - You CAN do this. You are going to do your best, and that is good enough!

    I wanted to let you know that I found a retired choir director of the school to be the best music director I have ever worked with. She comes three - four nights to rehearse with students. She is an amazing pianist, and insists on playing piano for the show as she feels she knows how to accompany the singers better than anyone.  We do not use a music CD, so I hire a Pit Conductor, who rehearses with the student musicians. These two people are paid by the theatre boosters. Not sure you will have money to pay an outside person, so that is something to investigate. Starting out, you may be able to get a former choir teacher to volunteer their time, as a way to get the program going.  As far as orchestra, I have seen musicals done well with just a piano.

    Good luck, and know that we are all here if you have any more questions, or issues.

    Valerie Farschman, Drama Director
    MLS Theatre Company, Troupe 1422
    Marion L Steele High School
    Amherst, Ohio