Improving the lives of Music Assistants, music departments,
and musical theatre as a whole
by Andrea Grody
I spent the first five years of my musical theatre career as a Music Assistant. Over the course of several readings and productions, I built the relationships and experience upon which my continued career as a Music Director and Supervisor stands. And yet the position of Music Assistant is extremely fraught.
Working as a Music Assistant is one of the best ways for an early-career Maestra to enter the musical theatre industry, but it’s a position marked by confusion, overwork, and underpay. These challenges make it inaccessible to many talented young artists and financially unsustainable for young professionals without external financial support.
Over the past two years, a group of musical theatre musicians — a mix of current and former Music Assistants, Copyists, MDs, and Music Supervisors — gathered regularly to discuss the issues facing Music Assistants with the goal of making their jobs more sustainable. Our conversations culminated in the creation of a Music Assistant Standards of Practice, which was released publicly in February 2022. This document is the first step in a continuing movement to address issues not just with Music Assistants, but within musical theatre music departments as a whole.
In this article, I’m going to share highlights from those conversations and discuss:
- What the current problem is and how it came to be;
- What we’re doing to make it better;
- How you can help; and
- Why this is important not just for young music makers in musical theatre, but for the entire musical theatre industry.
What is a Music Assistant, and what do they do?
Music Assistants have been an integral part of the Broadway musical development and production process for decades, but the responsibilities of this position have been the subject of confusion almost since its inception. Today, most Music Assistants are hired by Music Directors and Supervisors, and their work encompasses two primary areas:
- Maintaining piano-vocal (P/V) scores. This includes incorporating script and score changes as they are made throughout the process, collaborating with stage management or the writing team to ensure the script and score remain in sync, and distributing these changes to the relevant cast, creative, and production team members.
- Music department support. Music Assistants help the entire music department with an assortment of administrative tasks, like taking notes and tracking/organizing information as a show is made. They also facilitate communication with other departments and collaborators, like Orchestrators and Copyists, in a variety of ways.
What’s the problem?
The way we make musicals has changed over the past several years, and Music Assistants are now expected to do an increasingly broad range of highly-skilled work far beyond a reasonable workload for one person. For example, many Music Assistants have been asked to:
- Transcribe a composer’s work, either before or during a production or rehearsal process;
- Prepare orchestral parts for workshops that are increasingly fully orchestrated;
- Play rehearsal piano, teach vocals, or record practice tracks for cast members;
- Program Ableton, Mainstage, or other specialty software; and
- Orchestrate or arrange music for a reading, workshop, or production.
There is nothing inherently wrong with any individual person doing these tasks. However, most Music Assistants asked to do this specialized work complete it without any additional compensation — even for work specifically covered by a union contract — and without regard to the time commitment involved.
It turns out the Music Assistant position is suffering from an identity crisis:
- It wants to be an entry-level position for new musical theatre musicmakers, but the expectations of Music Assistants are so high that many young professionals can’t meet them right out of college.
- It wants to be like an internship, an opportunity for young musicians to observe and learn, but the position has become so essential that there isn’t enough time to focus on education when the tasks at hand must be completed.
- It wants to be a highly-specialized job, but without better pay and clearly defined working conditions, it’s not a sustainable career path for most artists.
This means that only Music Assistants with substantial pre-existing access and training are able to do the job, and only Music Assistants with external financial support or limited life needs are able to keep living while doing the job. The structure of the position is limiting access and excluding an enormous number of talented artists.
Why does this matter?
If musical theatre music departments are inaccessible to new talent, the entire industry will suffer. A field that cannot support developing young professionals will not benefit from their enormous talent and future contributions when older generations move on. It is up to these generations to ensure entry-level positions are truly accessible.
More broadly, it’s important to hold our entire industry to the standard that all workers deserve to be respected and compensated appropriately for their work. Musical theatre is working to move beyond its long history of expecting early-career artists to work for free or for disproportionately low wages. Not only does supporting Music Assistants help us take steps towards our field’s shared goal of an improved professional landscape, but it also inspires our peers in other creative fields to stand up in similar ways for their early-career artists.
Why is this hard to fix?
Each musical’s music department is completely different. While every musical shares some core needs, the exact type and amount of work can vary enormously between projects, and the division of labor depends on the specific people hired throughout the department. Music Directors and Supervisors also have very different styles and needs, so every music team has its own structure. This makes it very challenging to set working standards that can apply across the entire industry.
As I discussed these issues with my colleagues, I was surprised to learn how different their experiences with and expectations of Music Assistants were from my own. Distilling those many ideas down to a base structure that supports the wide variety of creative processes within musical theatre required many of us to rethink our own habitual working structures.
There also isn’t any collective accountability for fixing this problem; no unified authority protects Music Assistants. While the musicians’ union (Local 802 AFM) represents many theatre musicians, the biggest power-holders in music departments — Music Supervisors and Music Contractors — work outside the union, even though they are often active union members themselves.
That said, we had to be sure our advocacy wasn’t infringing upon the union’s existing authority over other music department positions, like Orchestrators and Copyists.
What have we done so far?
As I mentioned, we hit our biggest milestone so far with the release of Music Assistant Standards of Practice in early 2022. This document aims to facilitate the natural creative fluidity of a musical’s music department while ensuring that everyone’s time and labor are acknowledged and compensated fairly.
In the Standards of Practice, we:
- Describe the current Music Assistant situation and explain how our current problems came to be;
- Clearly define the core job of a Music Assistant, including the typical working hours;
- Propose a pay structure that mirrors existing pay structures within the industry and that recognizes the ways Music Assistants generally work; and
- Separate and describe the many tasks that Music Assistants are often asked to do that should be compensated, and sometimes credited, separately. For tasks that merit as-yet-undefined compensation, we propose pay structures appropriate to the level of work being done.
The Standards of Practice is designed for:
- Music Assistants who need guidelines for new work or help understanding whether the work they are currently doing is within reasonable working standards;
- Music Directors and Supervisors who are supervising Music Assistants and are therefore responsible for their professional wellbeing;
- Producers and General Managers who are hiring music departments and need help understanding what their artists needs and how best to support those artists; and
- All music department members who are unclear on how certain tasks are meant to be divided among different members of the music team.
The document was released under the collective umbrella of Maestra, MUSE, and ASMAC (the American Society of Music Arrangers & Composers). I’d like to specifically thank the ASMAC community for hosting our conversations and the fellow Maestras who contributed significantly to this document.
Making a document is all well and good, but the words are useless if they aren’t put into practice. Our next steps for the document are:
– Sharing it. We want to ensure early-career artists have access to this information and are aware of what is and isn’t reasonable for them as they start working in the industry. It’s equally important to engage with established artists across music departments who have the power to effect change on their existing project. We’re doing this through our collective networks and those of ASMAC, MUSE, and Maestra.
– Using it. Putting these standards into practice will require rethinking workflows and budgets for many projects. Most of the people with the power to put these standards into practice, both on the creative side and the producing/general management side, will need support and encouragement to change existing habits in their own workflows. Our best tools here are one-on-one conversations between those of us who made these standards and colleagues on various projects.
If you are working on a project and would like support understanding or implementing these standards, don’t hesitate to reach out to us at [email protected].
– Challenging it. This is a living document, and it needs to keep evolving as our industry evolves so that it can stay relevant as a collective reference.
There’s much more for us to continue fighting for. For example, we hope someday that Music Assistants can become part of Local 802 AFM and gain access to union benefits like health care and pension. Through continued outreach and engagement, we can lay the foundation on which future campaigns in that vein can be built.
Our greatest challenge may be staying engaged with these issues around our working schedules.
During the COVID shutdown, many music makers used to working in isolation connected with each other for the first time and shared the collective knowledge necessary to incite change across our industry as a whole. We must commit to doing that work even as the theatre industry returns to a more active pace.
What can you do to help?
If you are a Music Assistant or aspiring Music Assistant: Refer to this document as you discuss work offers and whenever you have questions while you’re on the job. Use it as a neutral resource to address any challenging issues that come up while you discuss the terms of a work offer. If you are working on a project and being asked to do more than you feel is appropriate, share this document with the supervising MD or Music Supervisor, and ask them to help you find a solution that allows you to do your job within reasonable limits.
If you are working with or hiring a Music Assistant: Be mindful of this person’s time and labor, and be mindful of your power in the situation to recognize when something is happening that shouldn’t be happening. Take responsibility for learning what is and is not appropriate to ask of a Music Assistant, and if something seems wrong, speak up and ask questions.
If you are not in a music department: Know that everyone’s success is tied to your own. Learn more about this important part of the industry, and continually extend your awareness beyond your immediate colleagues. Keep your eyes open if you’re ever working on a project where there may be an overworked and underpaid assistant who needs an advocate, or even just a friend.
The more we learn about each other’s work, the stronger our community becomes, and the more we all benefit from each other’s collective knowledge and talent!
Want to learn more?
Here are other resources available for aspiring Music Assistants:
- Maestra Virtual Technical Workshops
- Some stand-out offerings for aspiring Music Assistants include:
- Maestra/Muse Music Assistant Experience
- Maestra Mentorship
- MUSE Mentorship
- “The Musical Theatre Music Team”