The term music director can mean different things in different situations, even within musical theater.  I can’t really explain what all a music director of a symphony does day-to-day, but I can tell you what I do.

I work as a music director for regional theaters and tours.  That means that I’m essentially in charge of all the music-related aspects of a musical theatre production.  I teach the singers their parts, then coach them in the phrasing, pacing and intent of each song.  I rehearse the orchestra and sometimes, in smaller theaters, I even hire the orchestra myself.  I’ve worked as a standing conductor, but more often than not I’m playing in the pit myself, usually the keyboard 1 book.  Sometimes I’m needed to accompany during the rehearsals of a production, but many times a dedicated rehearsal accompanist is hired for that purpose.

The music director, in theatre at least, is usually a middle-management position.  While I’m in charge of managing the singers and musicians, my boss(es) are the music supervisor, director and any higher-ups at the theater I’m working for (artistic director, managing director, producer, etc.).  Once the show opens, the director usually leaves the production and the music director, dancer captain and the stage manager are responsible for maintaining the artistic quality and intent of the show.

That part of the job can be hard.  As a show goes on – especially in long runs – a show naturally shifts and settles.  Actors takes a longer pause in one part, less in another, tempos can fluctuate, and singers and musicians often start to stylize parts to suit their personality.  This isn’t necessarily all bad – one of the wonderful things about theatre is it’s spontaneity and character. But when an actor or musician starts to take too many liberties with the parts, the music director (or stage manager if it relates to acting) is the one that tells them to roll it back.  I’ve learned over the years how to give different people notes about their performance with professionalism and diplomacy, and I believe this is one of the skills that are cultivated by successful music directors.  With musicians it usually doesn’t matter – we are used to getting notes from a conductor.  Actors are different, and it’s usually necessary to give actors notes in private with all the kindness you can muster.  If you are a music director, you know what I mean.

Compensation for music directing can vary widely.  The compensation package usually includes a weekly salary, lodging and transportation both from your city of origin and to the theater from your lodging. In small, regional, non-union theaters and tours you can expect to see music directors start at around 40%-50% more than the base salary of the other musicians in the orchestra.  Broadway music directors make 75% more than sidemen according to the AFM wage scales, which means a little more than $2,600 a week.  Small summer-stocks start around $500 a week, and national tours start around $1,200-$1,500 a week (non-union, with per diem).  Note that music directors are often required to take a 20% pay cut during rehearsals.  Full salary begins once the show opens.

“Lodging” can either be a hotel room or a furnished apartment.  I’ve been very lucky in my career so far and I’ve always been happy with the lodging that theatres have provided me.  Music directors are always given their own room, if not their own apartment.  Some theaters expect music directors to share living spaces with actors or musicians, and while it can sometimes be fun to make new friends, this can complicated the management status of the position.

There are some music directors that are able to manage their people and afterwards go out drinking with them too, but I’ve always found this to be problematic.  I’ve talked to other music directors that say the same.  There is a burden of leadership that good music directors must respect, and for me, that often means keeping a professional distance from those I am charged with managing.  This is probably my least favorite part of the job.

I got my start with music directing at the community theater level in my home town.  When I was a young kid I used to act in the local kids theater program.  As I grew up I decided that acting wasn’t for me, but music was.  It was a natural progression to move into the rehearsal accompanist spot at the theatre company, and after a few years of that I became the music director of the shows.  At that time I was hiring the band, writing the parts, playing the rehearsals, rehearsing the singers – all of it!  At small companies like that the music director often does a lot of the work that would be delegated to others at more professional level theaters.

The jump to professional theatre came after I made the jump to full-time, professional musician.  I quit my day job, spent 6 months playing keyboards on a cruise ship, and when I returned I worked up a portfolio of local clients that I would accompany for.  Eventually I started accompanying for professional theatre companies – first auditions, then rehearsals – and I worked my way up.

After a few years I outgrew the market I was working in and I submitted my name to Broadway contractors in New York.  I got a call soon after to play 2nd keyboards on a tour in Taiwan, did well there and was then promoted to music director for the next tour (this time a North American tour).  After successfully music directing a national tour, it was easy to find more work.  Since that time I’ve worked at regional theaters in Arizona, Indiana, Illinois, Virginia, Hawaii and driven across the U.S.A. dozens and dozens of times in busses and cars and planes. When I can’t find work as a music director, I still find jobs as a keyboardist or accompanist – but not almost always in the theater market.

If you want to be a music director on Broadway or anywhere else in musical theater, there’s a lot you need to know.  Almost without exception you must play piano.  You must understand singing and how to coach singers on diction and placement and the millions of other things that go into voice.  You must be able to conduct and piano-conduct (two similar, but different skills).  You must be able to get along well with others and sometimes work long hours in rehearsal.  Most of all, you must like musical theatre!

There are days that I’d bend your ear with complaints, but for the most part, I like my job.  I know some musicians can’t stand the idea of playing the same show every night, but I don’t mind it.  I’m always trying to play a better show than the night before, and I always find something new to work on.

40 Responses to Job Profile: Musical Theatre Music Director

  1. Charlotte Meakin says:

    im interested in becoming a musical director, im at high school about to start a levels (in england) what would you suggest doing to try to get there? are there courses i should take.

    also.. i am mainly musician, and don’t know much about singing. how would i be able to learn bout the aspects of singing?? is there a seperate singing coach or do you have to do it all??

    charlottee

  2. Hi Charlotte -

    I’m not sure about the specifics of the British education system, but the skills you should learn are primarily piano performance and conducting. You should also take some courses on arranging/orchestra, theory and notation. Make sure that you don’t focus your education on just one kind of music. In theatre you’ll need to be able to perform pop, classical, jazz, latin, rock – you name it.

    As far as singing goes – sometimes there are vocal coaches that are separately hired for the shows, but on smaller budget (read: most) theatre productions the MD has to also be the vocal coach as well. If you don’t know much about singing you should definitely try joining a choir, accompanying for other people’s voice lessons and maybe even taking voice lessons yourself. I did all those things and it helped me a lot.

  3. Robert Neumeyer says:

    Mr. Hahn,

    My name is Robert Neumeyer and I am currently where you once were…music directing for local community theatres and high schools. I got started in acting and gradually realized that I wanted to focus more on the music aspect of theatre. I became a rehearsal pianist and have served as music director in this capacity for the past three or four years. I am currently a freshman composition major at Duquesne University with my applied major in piano performance. I want nothing more than to be a broadway conductor. Whenever tours come to Pittsburgh I try to talk to the conductor about his or her work and sometimes am able to sit and observe the orchestra. I’m also taking an internship at the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera in musical direction. Other than what I’ve been doing, is there anything that you would suggest in terms of networking and future career opportunities?

    Thanks for your help,
    Bob Neumeyer

  4. Emily says:

    I’m currently at the point where I’m trying to jump into the professional part of theater as a musician and music directing and even though it’s frustrating, I can’t imagine doing anything else.

    Often times people don’t understand the difference between theater musicians and other musicians and at times I’ve been baffled in how certain things work out. Your articles are always so informative so thank you thank you thank you for writing. :D

  5. Hello David,
    I have 40 years experience in music theatre mostly playing flute in a pit and some on stage. I have been music-directing and conducting for community theatres for the past 11 years.

    Where do I start to go pro?

    Sincerely,
    Sally Hoffmann
    Bloomington, Illinois

  6. Coty says:

    David –

    I LOVE your informative post on the job of a music director! You have indeed captured the essence of what it means to be the man in the pit. I started out very similarly to you, which gives me a great deal of hope! As a piano major in college, I have been both on the stage and in the pit for a number of shows. Eventually, I’ve discovered how much I love collaborating with a variety of people, and that Music Directing in the musical theater field is where I feel the most “complete”.

    At this point in my life, I feel that I have established myself as a professional Music Director at the regional level. I have directed for several companies and dealt with a wide range of resources (or sometimes, lack there of) and ability within cast and crew. After landing a job as the Music Director at a private Dance Theater school, I feel that I can officially call myself a professional musician and director. Here’s where my experience stops, though –

    If you wouldn’t mind, I would love to ask your advice! What steps could you recommend to making the leap to Broadway (or in that direction, at least)? I am planning on relocating to NYC within a year, but the uncertainty of living arrangements, rehearsal spaces, and leaving my sphere of influence and connections is somewhat terrifying. How did you make this transition, and do you have any suggestions?

    Thanks in advance for any tips you can offer! Once again, I found your “job profile” to be informative, interesting, and entertaining! You hit the nail on the head!

    Coty

  7. @Coty –

    Thanks for commenting! It sounds like you are in the same place I was not long ago. I finally made the move to living in NYC full-time about a year ago and now I’m working pretty regularly. I decided to start writing about the process of moving here. Here’s an article you might find useful:

    Moving to the Big City and Finding Work

    Thanks for reading!

  8. R says:

    Hey, i’m doing research for a college role where i have to act as musical director in setting up a music performance and your site has been really helpful!

    I was wondering kind of a budget a musical director has to work with, if any, and what kind of things would they be required to get for musicians that would cost, e.g how a stage manager would have to get the props for a show.

    Many thanks.

  9. @R –

    Surprisingly, MDs often are not privy to the musical budget. The number of players in the pit is usually decided by the producers long before the MD is even hired, so those constraints are usually dictated to them.

    I think the reason for this is that the music budget is something that usually remains static in theatrical productions, as opposed to props and scenery budgets, which can often go over. Once the dates for rehearsals and performances are set, and the rate at which the musicians will be paid, the music budget often remains the same from conception to the end of the show. It’s probably one of the few variable producers can depend on, which is why it’s set early and maintained through the project.

    That said, there was at least one show in the past for which I was given a budget (I remember $10k was the music budget for a summer show a few years back). With that money we needed to orchestrate parts and hire the players. In hindsight, though, I think the reason I was involved in the budgeting was because I had a close working relationship with the producers and I began with the project at the very beginning. Again, it is unusual to have that information as an MD.

    Hope that helps!

  10. Hea sun Suh says:

    Hello!
    My name is Hae Sun SUH from Korea. I am 27 years old and majored in piano as B.A.
    I have been working in the field of musical for about 4 years as a pianist or assitant music director and have been involved many different famous musicals in Korea. I really enjoy working in this field but I decided to go into more depth by becoming a musical music director. So I have planing to study for muscial direction in USA but There are a few questions and I sent mail to your homepage( contactsection) ( http://www.davidjhahn.org/)
    Could you read my email?
    Thanks for your time and looking forward to hear from you.

  11. Peter says:

    David -

    Just curious, what does an MD typically earn to do a 29 hour equity reading? Is there a standard amount or is it negotiable?

    Thanks!
    Pete

  12. Tyler Fox says:

    Hey David!
    Thanks so much for this!
    I am a sophomore in high school who feels a definite calling to a career in music. My passion is composition (I write in a wide array of styles for a variety of orchestrations and am currently working on 1984: The Musical), but another interest and talent that I possess is vocal coaching and choral conducting. One recurring advice I’ve received is “be able to wear many hats.” I play piano, guitar, and I sing, but I don’t play a stringed instrument. How important is that for this position? How much time and energy is dedicated to the vocalists and how much to the orchestra? I’ve directed and accompanied several musicals at my school as well as my school choir. How else can I prepare?
    Thanks again for your time!

  13. Danielle says:

    I’m in a masters program right now getting a performance degree in instrumental conducting. My bachelors degree is in instrumental music education. I’ve always loved musical theatre and have been involved with it for over 10 years. I want to try and pursue becoming a pit conductor but have been told some conflicting information. Is it true that you have to be a “good” piano player? My piano skills are…ok – but not great. I’ve been told that I have to be able to be as good as a piano major would be in college; I’ve been told that being a good player doesnt necessarily matter.

    Any advice on those thoughts and the idea of networking? I know I need to get my name, resume, etc out there but am not sure where to start.

    Thank you!
    Danielle

  14. Jason says:

    Response to Peter -

    There is not a set amount for musicians on a 29-hour reading. Generally speaking, they’ll give the music director about $400-500 plus expenses for the week.

  15. @Danielle – In my experience you definitely have to be a great pianist to advance as a music director in theatre. The truth is that very few productions are able to hire a standing conductor, so as you work you way up the ladder you’ll usually be working as a piano-conductor. Even on Broadway, the way to become the standing conductor is to be the associate conductor (usually a keyboardist) and to sub for the conductor on his days off until you get your own job.

    @Jason – Thanks for the reply!

  16. lennece says:

    i’m Lennece Walter, first year BA1 student, major in piano and clarenet. My passion is composition and music produser. sometimes i think i’ve chosen a wrong course. my friend keep on telling me that i’d better study sound engeneering in other to be a profesional music composer and producer.

    I need your advice, MR Hahn.

    • Lennece, my advice is to study everything you possibly can – including business, marketing and finance. Being a musician is the same as starting a business, so learn your instrument and learn how to run your business.

  17. Benita says:

    Hi David,
    Thanks so much for the great insight! So practical :). I was wondering where you learned how to piano-conduct. I’m just starting out in the working world and I’ve already been an assistant music director for some community theater productions. Now I finally have a chance to give official music directing a shot. The gig I currently have lined up is for a fairly small production and I think it would give me a good opportunity to try out piano-conducting, even if only during rehearsals. Any tips? I’m assuming I’ll end up nodding my head a lot during the show to cue entrances and set tempos. From there, I’m a little stuck. Thanks in advance for the advice!

  18. Spencer says:

    Hi David,

    I am currently working as a musical director for community theatres, and I’ve been doing it for about years now. I also want to work as a musical director/condutor for professional theatres. My biggest hurdle that I have to jump is my piano chops. I’m a saxophonist by trade, and that is what I’m studying in college currently. I am ok on the piano, better than a college level class piano course will teach. I don’t struggle at all with teaching vocal parts on the piano,regardless of the number of lines, I can fake my way through accompaniments, and given enough time I can learn mos piano parts. In your opinion, will it be absolutely necessary for me to be an amazing sight reader and be a full-on pianist in order to make it? I know Paul Gemingnani, the master of our craft is a percussionist by trade, so I didn’t know how absolutely necessary is is. I mean, I know it would help, and I am working on getting my piano skills up while I’m in school. I’ve played keyboard 2 books, and things like that, but there are just some things, like JRB music for instance, or Sondheim scores that I feel like I’ll never be able to play full out perfectly. What do you think? Thanks!

  19. Ed Beecham says:

    Hi,

    I have a question that has always bugged me. I work a lot in regional theatre.

    Who establishes/dictates the tempo of a tune? I know that in a dance break that the choreographer will dictate a tempo to the conductor which works with the movements. But, what about a solo or ensemble number?
    So often I find that directors with little or no musical training will be giving notes to the conductor on tempo issues.

    From my training at school in opera this would never happen. It seems rather rough to me after years of musical training….

    Can you help me out?

    Thanks

  20. Brian says:

    Dear Mr. Hahn,
    This is a great website with some truly valuable information.
    I’m a college graduate with a Master’s in Music Education and currently teach K-8 instrumental, choral, and general music at a local school.

    I’m also currently working endlessly at local Massachusetts theaters music directing and have begun working my way across the area and am now working at several theaters. I’ve just finished music directing a version of A Christmas Carol that I composed 13 songs for so that was very exciting and a great portfolio builder. I’m currently and am taking just about any show in my area that I can.

    I’m thinking/hoping that the the more of a variety of community and semi-professional theaters I can work at, the more I can get my name out, gain experience, and develop contacts with directors, actors, and producers.

    However, aside from playing every show to (or exceeding) the best of my ability and getting people to remember my director/performance styles and abilities, are there any other strong steps to getting my name out and slowly more recognized by the “powers that be”?

    Thanks for any advice!

  21. Will says:

    Hi David. Thank you very much for all the info that you posted. I’m an orchestral conductor specialized in classical music, but I love popular music as well. I’m from Argentina and planning to continue my career in Houston, TX. Do you know if Houston has any major musical comedy institutions?

    Thank you very much in advance.

  22. Amanda says:

    Hello David.
    Im a Junior at a high school is Spokane, WA
    My dream is to make it to Broadway and be in the pit orchestra playing Horn. From what I have been told it is a nearly impossible job to get. At school I have been playing in our pit orchestra for the past 2 years and i’m in the local youth symphony so i feel like i’m taking the right steps towards my goal but I don’t know what to do next. What do you think I should do or where should I start. I want to attend a college in New York but my family isn’t made of money so it would be hard to move out there right away after high school. Any advice is appreciated! Thank You so much.

    • It’s definitely difficult, but not impossible. Do you think you could learn the trumpet as well (or piano)? Being able to double on multiple instruments definitely helps your chances of getting Broadway work.

      Your suspicions are right about school in NYC – it’s incredibly expensive, but definitely helps your chances of finding work here. But that pricetag…it’s an unreasonable amount of money. What about City College?

      Also, here is is a series of articles that tell the story of how I got my gig on Broadway. This might help:

      How I Became a Broadway Musician

  23. Amanda says:

    Yeah! i started on trumpet and still play it for jazz band so i know that, and if piano will help then i am defiantly willing to learn how to play. City college sounds like a great idea. I can always start there and later transfer to another school. It sounds like a good way to get to New York, and the link for your article doesn’t work, can you give another?
    thank you so much!

  24. Amanda says:

    P.S. when i click on the lick and it comes up with ‘part 1′ ‘part 2′ ext. and i go to click on those it says error again

  25. lizzie says:

    Hi there

    Wondering if you had an opinion on the salary range for a high school music director (for a theatre dept). I know that obviously there are variable such as school size, cast size, expectations, whether they’re playing the show, etc. Just looking for an idea. Thanks.

    (e.g. Music director for a high school show like Guys & Dolls that rehearses 2-3x a week for 2 months.)

  26. Dishon says:

    Thanks for the glimpse into your life. Every time I see a show on tour or on a Broadway stage, I always wonder how my life would have been different if I had followed the path of a musical theatre keyboardist/ music director instead of a music educator. I still do get to play and music direct some amazing community theatre shows. I just finished up a run of Songs for a New World and next June, I get to play and co-music direct Next to Normal. Still though, I sometimes wish playing keyboards and music directing were my full time job.

  27. Callie H. says:

    Thanks for this article – I’m glad to know I’m not the only person that aspires to be a music director. I’m gaining undergrad experience by playing in pit and being assistant music director for my school’s summer theatre program.
    Two questions for you, David:
    1. Do you think having a choral music ed degree would be beneficial for a music director to have? I can’t decide if I should get that or a bachelor of arts in music.
    2. Do you know anything about the MM in musical theatre/opera conducting at Arizona State?
    Thanks!

  28. Nick Rosaci says:

    Well, I’m not David, but this is what I’ve learned:

    In the music world, unless you want to teach in an institution, nobody cares about what degree you have, only what skills you have. So, instead of asking what piece of paper you need, you should be asking what degree program is going to give you the best knowledge for what you want to do. Personally, I changed from a music ed degree because I wanted to spend more time playing than on child psychology and learning how to play instruments I would just forget at the end of the semester. When I teach, I just teach them how exactly I would do it, and it’s been very successful. In my opinion, knowledge of music goes much farther than knowledge of how to teach it. However, if you’re planning on being a band or choral director in your day job, you should get the degree.

    Since I’ve been out of college, nobody’s asked me what my educational background is. They just want to know that I can play. My landlord is one of the top (and highest paid) drummers in the Orlando area…and he got his degree in theology.

  29. winston says:

    Hi David,
    Do you sit when piano conducting? I know standing has more of an energy frobut it puts my back out leaning on one leg to use the pedal. How do you manage this?

  30. Dawson says:

    Hi Mr. Hahn,

    I just graduated from a High School in Alabama and am planning on attending the University of South Alabam. I would love to one day be a conductor on Broadway, or at least for a Symphony. However, I’m not entirely sure what to do. I’ve been in both marching and symphonic band at school for 6 years and will be doing marching band for college along with any other ensembles I can (trumpet, symphony, etc). I play the trumpet and have been for all 6 years, as I was the trumpet/upper winds section leader for 5 of the 6 years, so I do have a clue as to what I’m doing on that note. However, I can’t play piano, but will definitely be learning before college to get a step ahead for piano proficiancy for music ed. Also, I have already begun teaching/conducting instrumentalists. I was my band director’s teachers assistant to the middle school concert band this year. I have been in the choruses of a couple of our school musicals and have had minor roles, but none of which were singing roles. But I do sing. I have been in choir at school for 3 years (excluding the previous 6 years of elementary choir), children’s choirs at church from age 3 to grade 6, youth choir at church from grade 7 to 12, and I even became the youngest member of the adult choir (which is adult for a reason) when I was in 8th grade. Also, I’ve had some experiance at conducting/teaching choir, as I held rehearsals a couple of times when our youth choir director at church was either late or could not make it. I was planning on getting my Bachelor’s in Music Ed. just to have a base job to start off with. However, I’m not sure where to go after that. Of course, being from the south, there isn’t a whole lot of money to spare to just up and leave for NYC. I’ve read your “How I became a Broadway Musician” article, but am still puzzled as to what I should do. I’m sorry I’ve rambled so, but I just feel like you can help me more the more you know about me. Thanks, and your advice is GREATLY appreciated!

    Sincerely,
    Dawson

  31. Kris Gilbert says:

    Greetings!

    I have been the music director (piano conductor, we have no standing) and pit musician at a local community theater for over 40 shows – and we are about to open “Spring Awakening”. I’ve played piano for 32 years, and I can play all woodwinds (flute is specialty but I frequently double on woodwinds in jazz bands etc.), trombone and even drums. By day I teach High School Band, Jazz Band, Marching Band and Music Technology. I have my Masters in Composition.

    I’d love to take this to the next level, but I have concerns about moving, traveling and family. What is the typical length of a run, is it manageable with family, and do most MD’s have additional jobs to make ends meet?

    If you had asked me 10 years ago what I would be doing – i never would have guessed I’d be an MD at a local theater. I have grown to love it and it is a real passion of mine, as it gives me the opportunity to work with adults and children.

    Thanks again or the great website!

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