We have a question this week from Bob, a college student at who wants to be a conductor on Broadway.
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?
Bob, every conductor on Broadway came to the job in a different way, but from what I can observe, a few things they all have in common is talent, training, experience, networking and hustle.
First off, you have to be really good. The Broadway conductors I’ve met have the unique good fortune of having great ears and great skills. They also usually have a great confidence in their abilities, which they may get criticized for, but also respected for. Many of them can not only read and understand complex scores, but write and orchestrate their own when needed. They need to be able to rehearse large groups – and to understand the difference between rehearsing a large group of actors, and rehearsing a large group of musicians (two very different group dynamics!). The importance of personality can’t be underestimated here – the same can be said of the great conductors of symphonies or operas. There is a innate quality of charisma that is very valuable in the field of conducting.
Most music directors have gone to college for music. Popular schools for musical theatre are Berklee College of Music, Indiana University, Northwestern University, Cleveland Conservatory of Music, Manhattan School of Music and New York University. Certainly there are others (Western Michigan is said to have a strong program), but those are the names that I hear over and over in orchestra pits.
What did these conductors study in college? I’m sure I can’t give you an accurate answer on that. Everyone does school differently. The most important skills to leave with, however, are probably piano performance, conducting and orchestration/arranging. Some knowledge of voice or choral conducting would be very helpful, and an even-handed emphasis on commercial music styles (jazz, pop, rock, etc.) as well as the standard classical repertoire would also be useful. Say what you will about Broadway music, but one thing is true – Broadway music steals it’s style from every source imaginable. You’ll need to know your Puccini as much as you your Pastorius and P-Funk. Soak it all up.
You’ll need to live in New York to be a Broadway conductor, and you can expect to live a hard life for a few years while you’re trying to get into the scene. The first gigs you’ll get will be accompanying jobs for rehearsals, auditions or voice lessons. If all goes well you’ll get a chance to sub as last keyboard on an off-Broadway show, and eventually a Broadway production. Maybe you’ll eventually get your own chair in a Broadway pit. Perhaps you’ll become assistant conductor on a show and get to show your conducting ability once or twice a week. Who knows what will happen from there, maybe you’ll make the leap to Broadway conductor on your next gig. That’s how this stuff works.
New York may not be the best place to build experience, though, as there’s so much competition for work in the city. Many conductors have spent years gaining credits in regional theaters, tours and even cruise ships. I know one recent Broadway conductor that spent 5 years on a cruise ships, then several years in New England summerstocks, and more years in a day job, before he was given a chance on Broadway.
Which brings me to a very important point – the best way to get steady work as a musician in theatre is networking, networking, networking. Talk to everyone. Go to parties. Buy people drinks. Make friends. Be a friend. Use Facebook. Care about people. It’s very rare that you’ll ever audition as a musician in theatre. That’s not how we get jobs. We get jobs through friends. You want to work with your friends, right? Who doesn’t? And when you get a gig and somebody asks you if you know a trombone player, you’ll recommend a friend, right? That’s exactly how you’ll be recommended, too.
One sidenote here – remember that networking is not about numbers, it’s about people. It’s not about how many musicians you handed your business card to last night, it’s about genuine relationships. Don’t become friends with people just because you think you can get something out of them later. Just be nice, and sincere and outgoing. If your business card is the only thing that was interchanged between you and another person, I guarantee you you’ll never get a gig from them. You need to trade thoughts, and feelings, and gossip, and friendship first – then they might use the business card.
Conductors on Broadway are also members of the American Federation of Musicians (AKA, the musicians’ union), and you’ll also want to join. There’s not audition or anything, you just fill out a form and mail a check. You can read my article on why musicians should join the union if you like, but again, if you are serious about this career path you’ll join anyway. More specifically, you should join the local 802, which is the NYC chapter of the AFM, even if you don’t yet live in New York. Every conductor on a Broadway show is a member of the 802. You’ll benefit from a subscription to the union papers, access to the member directory and affiliation with an organization that represents the people who’s footsteps you’d like to follow. Just this month, as a matter of fact, here’s an article in the AFM’s paper, International Musician, that features John Miller – a Broadway contractor, musician and MD who’s name you should remember if you want a Broadway gig.
They say luck is being in the right spot, at the right time, with the right skills. That’s the kind of luck you’ll need to get on Broadway. Make sure that you hone your skills of playing, conducting, listening, rehearsing, arranging and networking. Then come to New York and continue the hustle. If you’re lucky and you stick to it, the “right time” will find you.
- How To Become a Musical Theatre Music Director
- Job Profile: Musical Theatre Music Director
- How To Become a Music Director On a Cruise Ship
- Dealing With a Difficult Music Director
You might also like this recent article by Derek Sivers: