Tuesday, 13 August 2013

What is the job of a musical director

Last Sunday I blogged about the job of the music coordinator. Panic ensued in some places after reading the post, mostly from people who confuse the job of a musical director (MD) with the music coordinator. Ok, so if the coordinator is not the director, to make things easier for you, I researched a bit about what is the job of the musical director, or MD.

I started my research with google. The old saying is, if it is on the internet, it must be true. I think it must have been Confucius who said it. Here are some opinions about what the job of a musical director is, and my opinions about their opinions.



  • A music director may be the director of an orchestra, the director of music for a film, the director of music at a radio station, the head of the music department in a school, the coordinator of the musical ensembles in a university, college, or institution[1] (but not usually the head of the academic music department), the head bandmaster of a military band, the head organist and choirmaster of a church, or an Organist and Master of the Choristers (a title given to a Director of Music at a cathedral, particularly in England).

Mmmm. Musical theatre is not included there. Maybe we should not relax, as we do need one - or maybe wikipedia is, well, remember what Confucius said.


  • The role of a music director is to conduct and compose music, as well as hiring and firing of musicians. He/she is in charge of the overall musical performance including ensuring that the cast knows the music thoroughly, supervising the musical interpretation of the performers and conducting the orchestra.
  • The role of a musical director is to teach the songs, coach the actors and direct or monitor the orchestra. A musical director can as well be in control of symphony orchestras, choirs and the musical content of a show or musical awards. The range of their responsibilities however differs depending on the size of the group they are working with.

This one is more to the point and relevant for musical theatre. Compose the music? More than 98.3% of all musicals are revivals and productions of existing musicals. Even those who are originals list a different composer than MD. Go check the Broadway Internet Database. As the old Chinese proverb goes, 90% of all statistics are just made up on the spot.


  • Music directors are responsible for making the creative decisions associated with a live performance.
  • Musical directors will conduct a group or orchestra. This involves having a clear idea about the performance of a piece of music and leading a group of musicians to realise this idea.
  • The director or conductor may carry out the following functions:
  • Sets the pace of a musical performance and ensure that everyone plays or sings the right notes at the correct speed
  • Interpret the musical score and whether musicians or singers should perform softly or loudly
  • Balance instruments and voices against each other in a performance
  • Lead rehearsals so that every piece is properly rehearsed in preparation for the performance.
  • Musical directing - Musical shows in the theatre have a musical director. Their job is to conduct the musical element of the show, directing both performers and the offstage musicians

This list seems more complete and very relevant for theatre. Maybe Confucius was right. You just have to continue looking.


  • The Musical Director's job is to teach the actors the music during the rehearsal period of a show. They train the actors in technique and teach notes, rhythms, and expression of songs in a musical theatre show.

This is the shortest and the simplest. I know some MDs who stuck with this definition, even though, in my opinion this is the job of the vocal coach, who is usually appointed by the MD, but very often, the MD will perform this task herself - amongst all her other duties.

Enough for the most trusted resource. Let's see if some other opinions exist in printed resources.

Staging a musical by Matthew White

The musical director (more commonly known as the MD) is, of course, responsible for all aspects of music in the show. Not only will the MD work with the actors in the rehearsal room, but he or she will be fully in charge of the orchestra, or band, and will rehearse these musicians separately until the 'sitzprobe' (i.e., the sing-through involving both actors and musicians; see Chapter 10). For this reason, there will often be an assistant musical director who can be present in the rehearsal room, while the main MD is busy working with the band. In detail, the MD is responsible for:

  • Organising (with the help of the producer) a pianist for auditions and
    rehearsals. Attending auditions and advising the director on the casting of the singers.
  • Teaching the cast their vocal parts and helping to solve any musical problems which the singers may have.
  • If required, making a rehearsal tape for the choreographer of all the dance music in the show.
  • Selecting the band or orchestra (in larger productions this may be done by a 'fixer'), and rehearsing the musicians.
  • Conducting the band or orchestra in performance.
  • Organising vocal warm-ups for the cast during the run, and ensuring that musical standards are maintained. This may involve calling the cast for extra vocal rehearsals.

This book by Matthew is a very valuable resource for anybody interested in any aspect regarding the staging of a musical. He clearly knows what he is talking about.

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Amateur Theatricals by John Kenrick

The music director’s responsibilities include …

• Taking part in the audition and casting process, helping assess the musical ability and potential of each performer.

• Recruiting and supervising all musicians, both professional and volunteer. Finding the right people can be a challenge on a tight budget, and pit musicians (whether paid or volunteer) can have egos that more than match the ones onstage.

• Recruiting and supervising any other musical staff. When a rehearsal pianist and/or vocal coach is required, they should report to the MD.

• Scheduling and running effective orchestra rehearsals. The trick is determining the number of these rehearsals based on the budget and the musicians’ level of talent.

• Coordinating the rental, purchase, and distribution of all sheet music, including orchestral and vocal scores. In most organizations, this is handled in partnership with the producer and director.

• Running effective vocal rehearsals for the leads and chorus. It is up to the MD to be sure every song in a show meets its musical and dramatic potential.

• Creating recordings of dance music to be used in dance rehearsals. This can free up the MD or rehearsal pianist for vocal rehearsals.

• Obeying all relevant copyright laws. Rehearsal recordings, photocopying of music, and any changes to the score must be handled within legal guidelines. When in doubt, consult the rights holders.

• Making sure the piano is tuned and well cared for.

• Conducting all major rehearsals and performances. When the curtain goes up, the performers must rely on the MD to set the pace and sidestep potential disasters.

• Maintaining any space reserved for musicians, including the pit and backstage. Cleanliness and safety mean as much here as anywhere, especially with the ever-increasing presence of electronic equipment. It is also the MD’s responsibility to be sure these areas are cleared and cleaned after a production ends.

• Supervising the ongoing use and final return of all rented scores, including cleanup. This tedious task can best be handled by inviting the musicians to a “cleanup” party, handing out erasers and having them clean up their scores before food and drinks are served.

I am a fan of the idiot's guide series, and often these books provide a very valuable resource.


There are many other good resources on the subject. You can have your own opinion on the subject and you can have another opinion if you are of the opinion that I am opinionated, but in final conclusion, I want to suggest that, if you are serious about being a MD, do not rely on what you read in a single paragraph on the internet. Go and buy one of these good books around. I have quoted from two very good resources, but there are many others. Books are very cheap, compared to what will happen to your reputation if you screw it up because you had no idea of what your job really is.

Finally, some advice to prospective producers and directors. Always make sure that people know from the start what you expect from them. Refer back to my article on basic management principles (principle No 2).

Happy directing!



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