Tag Archives: music

Adventures in First-Time Music Directing, part 2


When we last saw our musical heroine (LOL), I was battling against my own problems as well as trying to get the cast members interested and invested in their performance. With the show literally days away, we were still struggling.

Running Out of Time…!

Despite several rehearsals with me attempting to conduct the music and my friend directing, it seemed like Seussical was just not coming together. The cast as a whole had a hard time staying on-task; they were getting just as discouraged (and as tired) as we both were, having rehearsals that felt like they lasted days, without any significant improvement to show for it.

Act 2 of Seussical especially was very difficult, with its more demanding musical numbers and stage wizardry. But the strangest thing? As Act 1 slowly got polished, Act 2 languished, and several times my friend even mentioned just performing Act 1 and leaving out the second part altogether. It was a drastic idea…but with so little time to go, either cutting the show down to the performable parts or scrapping it altogether were looking like our best options.

The Surprise

I fervently did not want this to happen; my friend and I had worked too hard, and a few of the cast members had worked too hard, to let it all go down the drain. So, on the Monday before the first show, I came in ready to “inspire the kids to work hard,” having practiced all my best pep talks.

But when I came in, I learned the news: in the time since our last rehearsal, my friend had had several conversations with many of the cast members, who were actually thinking of quitting the performance because “it was going to be a disaster.” My friend’s amazing (and galvanizing) response was something along these lines: “Go ahead and quit; we will do the show without you.”

Apparently, over the next several minutes, word got around to the rest of the cast that the show would still go on even without some of its leads. They had thought that the threat of them quitting would somehow tank the show completely; they had now found out to the contrary. Much begging and negotiating followed, and somehow by Monday all the cast came back absolutely ready to work and to do their best!

The Last Week of Rehearsals: A Complete 180

The afternoon rehearsals on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday felt like we were working with a completely different cast. Lines were learned, songs were practiced until mastered, and some cast members even put down their phones for the first time since I had begun to work with them. Best of all, the cast began to work as a team, listening to each other, even helping each other with lines, songs, and costumes.

Riding this tidal wave of sudden success, I also learned how to conduct them better, especially when we rigged up a lighted music stand so that the actors could see me conducting from the back of the tiny auditorium. At last, it felt like I could communicate with them and help them stay on-task; at last, I felt like I was doing my job and helping them to do theirs. As a result, I gained their respect and trust, which had been lacking since the beginning because I hadn’t yet proven myself to them.

Performance Weekend

The dress rehearsal performance on Friday, followed by the two shows on Saturday, were whirlwinds of activity (and my shoulders and arms had never been so sore! LOL). I got to enjoy the show as well as help to keep it together; I could have burst with how proud I was of the cast’s hard work.

Despite sound and lighting issues (one of the light panels self-destructed during the dress rehearsal, and a speaker blew during each of the Saturday performances), we managed to keep it rolling and keep it professional. Part of the dress rehearsal performance was done with the house lights up, for instance, and yet the cast kept going. And, when the speaker blew halfway through the second song of the 3:30 Saturday performance, I saw several of the cast members’ eyes widen; I kept conducting, they kept singing, and we finished the song a capella while my friend and the tech crew hooked up the new speaker. The cast carried it off beautifully each time, learning and displaying the true meaning of “the show must go on.”

The show was a good success for the drama department, bringing in not only parents and friends, but much of the community as well. Many people were impressed with how professional and pulled-together the show was, and it created a new awareness of the drama department at our local high school (which has been more sports-focused in recent years). All in all, we were flushed with victory after a long and hard-fought battle, and I felt honored to have even been a part of it.

What I Learned

This experience was quite educational for me, in some negative ways and positive ways. I learned that I’m probably not going to be a concert pianist any time soon, but that I can do some musical things, like conducting, that I’d never tried my hand at before (literally or figuratively). I also learned that doing a perfect job is less important than being consistent and persistent; I became less concerned with how perfectly I was “performing” for the students, and instead concerned myself with being a role model for a good work ethic, continuing to try until I was successful. (Believe me, that was HARD for this OCD perfectionist to abide by!)

I know that I didn’t do much to help the show be its best; my friend really accomplished that by motivating her students in the only way she could reach them. I saw how much they respected her for her no-nonsense honesty, even when the truth was temporarily harsh on them. But I do know that I helped encourage and give help where it was needed, and for that, I can be grateful and proud, too. For once, I wasn’t the star of the show, but it didn’t matter–I got to help.

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!