By Chelsea Zak
When I was asked to music direct (MD) The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee in high school, I had no idea what that meant. I was an avid musical theatre performer who also loved playing piano and guitar, but I had never understood the role music directors played in musical theatre. However, once I got through the experience, I fell in love with it and have been actively pursuing a career in the field ever since. After four years of studying Music and Drama at Vassar College, I want to share what I’ve learned while pursuing music direction as a college student.
Hopefully these tips will help budding music directors maintain their mental health, practice habits, growing network, and sense of joy as they navigate through college and into the “real world”. Carving a path toward this niche profession is never a clear-cut process, but if you want to learn music direction on-campus, this guide is a good place to get started.
1.) Learn your strengths and capitalize on them
Although I was a performer for most of my life, I played piano at a high level and regularly accompanied my vocalist friends for fun. However, I wasn’t aware that accompanying singers was a marketable skill until MDing my first show in high school.
In college, I struggled to get cast as a performer, but played piano and music directed to continue doing theatre. Once I realized I enjoyed music direction as much as performance, I decided to focus on developing my piano, conducting, sight reading and leadership skills. Not only did I fall in love with this process, but I found that it all played to my strengths and music direction was increasingly in-demand.
MDing campus productions led to niche gigs like playing the campus chapel bells and composing Klezmer music for a dance piece. This year alone, I MD’ed my favorite musical as a senior thesis, conducted at 54 Below, and plan to continue studying music direction post-graduation!
Focus on your strengths: you never know where it will lead!
2.) Learn your “gaps” and start filling them
MDing requires a holistic skill set that spans many genres and techniques. Despite receiving great opportunities, I didn’t always succeed due to my areas where I lacked experience. However, my determination to fill those gaps led to my success later on.
Golden Age scores like Pal Joey may have scared me four years ago, but I managed to successfully music direct a production last summer after many months of practicing!
Along with devoting time to intentional practice, gaining practical experience is key. For example, playing auditions develops musical fluency and conducting orchestra rehearsals teaches you to gesture clearly.
It’s never too late to fill in your gaps, but college is a great place to start! Honing your weaker areas is vital for general competence in this field, and it will benefit your musicianship overall.
3.) Gain experiences outside the arts
One of the best parts of college is the people you meet and the things you experience outside your focus of study.
Make room in your schedule for a few non-artistic pursuits before you graduate. Most colleges require at least some general-education classes, but you should make the effort to branch out into other areas outside of your main focus. For instance, I tried my hand at anthropology, medieval studies, and religion courses to round out my education. The change of pace was exciting and necessary to grow my appreciation for music. I only wish I had done more of this in my four years at Vassar!
Relating to people who don’t share your experiences ultimately improves your artistry. Even if you go to a conservatory, try to get out of your comfort zone once in a while: expand your social circle, classes, and skills to become more well-rounded.
4.) Make practice a priority, but work “smart” and not “hard”
No one wants to admit it, but college environments are breeding grounds for unhealthy habits, neglect of practice, and a loss of love for music altogether. Therefore, it’s essential to continually re-examine how you practice.
Think about it: even the most seasoned musicians are regularly figuring more effective ways to practice. Practicing effectively in college while maintaining a work-life balance can feel impossible at times, but the best way to prevent burnout and keep progressing is to “work smart, not hard”.
Ask yourself questions like:
- What do you get out of your practice?
- How are you setting goals and achieving them?
- How do you maintain your love for music despite the more “boring” aspects of the work?
Whether you’re in conservatory, liberal arts, or another style of program, practicing properly is difficult. However, in time, you will begin to realize how you work best and to see results.
5.) Know your campus community (even people outside music and theatre!)
I owe my most “professional” gig, conducting a new musical at 54 Below, to a campus connection! My friend from composition class connected me to someone in search of a pianist for the reading of that same show a year earlier in NYC, and I simply followed the project’s journey to 54 Below!
However, it’s also valuable to invest in relationships with non-performing arts students. For example, my two “non-theatre” friends directed and stage managed the first full musical I music directed on campus, and working with people I knew on a personal level made the project more fulfilling.
I had been so worried about being on par with the other performing arts students on campus, but this helped me rediscover the joy of doing what I love and set me up for success in future projects.
6.) Challenge the urge to compare yourself to others
MDing might be a niche profession, but you probably won’t be the only one on your campus. I compared myself to many performing arts majors (and non-majors) with different abilities and personalities, and I hope you don’t make the same mistake.
The strengths and weaknesses of those around you are not reasons to put them on a pedestal or demean them, but they should serve as learning experiences. Observe how those with different approaches might navigate a task and decide what works for you and what doesn’t.
You cannot be best friends with everyone, but still approach every person with an open mind and heart. Replace judgment with curiosity and empathy.
7.) Get off your campus
As a college student, I have not ventured beyond my campus nearly enough. After all, if art imitates life, you have to go out and live a little!
Even if your college town seems small, there are usually many cultural institutions, malls, and entertainment to explore. Seeing concerts and theatre productions off-campus offers insight into performing arts in ways that campus performances do not, and you never know where you’ll find a networking opportunity.
Ultimately, it will be rewarding to step outside your academic bubble.
8.) Find your why based on positive experiences
Why do you want to direct music?
Running a show can be stressful, people can be difficult, and you will be tested. On top of that, finding work depends on tons of networking while proving yourself to be a competent and reliable collaborator (easier said than done!). It’s an emotional rollercoaster as you try to steady yourself amidst the many highs and lows that come with a career in the arts.
On your best day, it’s essential to identify what will keep you going on your worst day. Carry your positive experiences through your negative experiences, taking stock of your specific moments of personal fulfillment as an MD – that’s how I found my why. If good experiences outweigh the bad ones, they will motivate you to continue on your path!
9.) Hone your people skills and learn to manage your emotions
For MDs, people skills are a must. In many rehearsal rooms, you will interact with difficult personalities or need to problem-solve under pressure. Certain productions you work on may be tortuous experiences, but taking the responsibility to manage your emotions and control what you can control as you lead amidst chaos is how you get through them unscathed.
Not only will losing your composure publicly lead to discomfort for you and others, but it is an unsustainable way to navigate this job. Managing your own mental health goes a long way in creating a peaceful and productive artistic environment, especially when others do not manage their own needs.
Check in with yourself, take breaks, eat three meals a day, drink water, exercise, and take care of your mind and body. If you need to, leave the room for a few minutes in order to manage your stress. Trust me, no one in their right mind will hate you for creating a temporary inconvenience in the name of your sanity (and theirs). Think about it: every rehearsal process would be far easier if every person took their self-care seriously!
10.) Ditch (or address) what does not serve you right away
My obligations to every student group, lessons in voice and piano, and mountains of homework while trying to maintain some semblance of a work-life balance made me miserable. I eventually learned to stop people-pleasing, which was doing me more harm than good, but I could only do it by weighing the value of everything in my life.
You should do the same: ditch (or address) problematic things and people right away. Small problems usually snowball and end up directly affecting your mental health, which, in turn, directly affects your artistic development and overall college experience.
Your needs, values, and personal goals should be paramount! Quit things if you want more free time. Find resources or people to help you manage schoolwork. Make more connections if you want a better social life. You are the only one who can change a difficult situation – it all starts with identifying the problem and tackling it, and don’t be afraid to ask for help as you do.
It’s a hard pill to swallow, but taking action against these difficult situations will change your life.
Overall, the student MD experience is not talked about nearly enough or soon enough. In reality, there are so many avenues and opportunities both on and off college campuses to pursue it as a craft. I hope these guidelines can encourage you to give it a try (especially in the safety net of your educational environment) and set you up for success!
If you’re a student, you can find a like-minded community and make connections in the Student Maestras Facebook group. If you want to explore more topics in-depth, please browse Maestra and MUSE’s extensive resources and consider applying for the next round of the Maestra mentorship program, joining the Maestra Directory, signing up for the email list, attending a free live Virtual Technical Workshop, and browsing Maestra’s extensive Maestra Replay library featuring many classes specifically on music direction.
Feel free to reach out to me directly and tell me what you found most helpful, or if you have further questions!