Adventures in First-Time Music Directing, part 1

Today, I’ll share with you the first part of the story behind why I had to stop posting here for almost a month. I had to devote quite a bit of time to helping with the production of Seussical at my local high school–but instead of being a performer or being directly involved with the making of the music, I was working as a support to the cast, directing the music from the back of the small theater. For the first time in my life, I was working from behind the conductor’s stand.

I Didn’t Start Out as Music Director, Though!

I have no formal training in conducting/directing; in fact, when the high school drama teacher (also a friend of mine from our school days together) contacted me in the fall of 2013 about helping with Seussical, she wanted me to help perform the music, playing the piano alongside several student musicians. I accepted the task gladly, willing to help out where I could.

Bit Off More than I Could Chew!

I have more experience with playing the piano than I do with directing, but as I found out, the Seussical music was far harder than anything I had ever attempted to play. I struggled with even just learning the right-hand or left-hand parts, let alone trying to put them together. Reading piano sheet music has always been hard for me, since I naturally learn music quickest by listening to it, but even as hard as I applied myself, the music did not become easier with practice. In fact, it seemed to get tougher the harder I practiced. There were literally nights I openly sobbed at the keyboard after an hour of fruitless practice, feeling utterly unable to play anything on the page.

Lost in this fog of failure and disappointment, I actually did not attend several rehearsals which I should have. I was deeply ashamed, thinking thoughts like “I’m good at music, so why am I having trouble with this? Those kids need someone more dependable; I’m awful, I suck at this.” I feared showing up and having my out-of-tune blunderings audible to everyone–I wasn’t supposed to be this awful at playing the piano, and I certainly wasn’t going to allow the horrible “plink-plunk” junk I was doing to be heard. (Yes, I was a coward, but a perfectionistic coward.) Eventually, the stress of trying to learn and play this music even threatened my health temporarily.

Issues, Problems, and Setbacks, Oh My!

Little did I know the number of setbacks we were about to experience; my music and health difficulties were about to be the least of our troubles. For instance, there were several different versions of Seussical music out there; I had one version on sheet music and CD, the school had another sheet music version, and yet another soundtrack was available through YouTube, and all of them were different in various places. Very frustrating trying to sync up 3 different versions of music! Plus, we lost several days of rehearsal to snow days, and half of the original cast members ended up dropping out entirely, leaving my friend scrambling to cast new actors and teach them their parts.

When I finally did attend a rehearsal, I learned that the new cast was having just as much trouble singing the music as I was having trying to play it. In the end, we reevaluated our stance on the music, and we decided to use pre-recorded music instead, since that’s what the students could rehearse with best (and since all the other musicians had dropped out due to the difficulty of the music). My new task, then, was to direct the music, helping the cast members stay on the beat and keep their vocals synced up with the recorded music.

Learning on the Fly

Like I said, I’ve never had any formal training in conducting or directing. I have, however, had almost 20 years’ experience singing in choirs and being directed–I have watched many conductors work, and so I thought I could potentially do much better by the music directing than I had done by the sheet music.

But I knew I couldn’t struggle on alone, not with so little experience. Thus, I consulted as many music directors as I knew, as well as remembering the impromptu conducting lessons my high school choir director had given during my time there. Instead of holing up and trying to do it mostly on my own, as I had done earlier, I reached out and asked others for help, and I got lots of really helpful advice in return.

The first couple of rehearsals with me directing the music were a little bit rusty (OK, a lotta bit rusty), as we tried different ways of lighting my hands so that the students could see my movements, and as we worked with them to help them learn their parts. Often we both struggled with keeping the students’ attention focused on their work, with gossip, disinterest, and cell phone distractions running rampant. Sometimes I messed them up because I didn’t know their version of the sheet music; sometimes my attention faltered and I ended up behind. But I had to swallow the shame I felt at not performing perfectly and keep trying; after all, the show was scheduled to go on in mid-March!

What Happened Next?

Did all these setbacks and struggles spell doom for the production? Did the show even go on? Find out in the next installment on April 19th!

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