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How to Become a Musical Director

The role of a musical director can be a challenging yet hugely rewarding one. Here, three experienced MDs provide tips on how to succeed in this career.

Last updated: 27 October 2020

When it comes to pursuing a career in the music profession, the role of musical director remains a popular and logical choice for some. But while most musicians know what the job entails, the duties of a musical director – or MD as they are known –  can vary widely from show to show.

In general, the musical director works with the rest of the senior creative team on a musical or play to prepare the production for performance. The musical director will hire the musicians for the band, ensure that they are rehearsed, take part in auditions to advise on casting and teach the music to the cast. The MD will also programme the keyboard, conduct the show and often perform in it too, conducting from the keyboard. Some MDs will deal with orchestrations and arrangements, working with the composer and/or musical supervisor.

For young musicians aspiring to become musical directors, it can seem an unfathomable career to break into. For starters, there is no formal application process and while there are numerous career paths, there is no single, definable way in.  Fortunately, there are a number of practical steps that musicians can take to improve their chances of gravitating to the role of musical director.

Prepare a solid grounding across disciplines

One obvious route is further education. The Royal Academy of Music, Mountview Academy of Theatre and Arts and the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland are among the UK colleges offering post graduate courses for those wishing to train as a musical director.

Mike Dixon, an MD whose West End credits include //We Will Rock You// and //Oh What A Lovely War//, believes these courses give students a solid grounding in all the disciplines necessary for theatre MDs. Dixon has worked in television, radio and musical theatre but says it is the latter discipline where the bulk of work can be found. “Musical theatre is the place where there is currently the most opportunity,” he says.

Understand how narrative and storytelling are used in musical theatre

Dixon advises all musicians looking for a career as a musical director to play and work with as many actor/singers as they possibly can. “Get to know the repertoire and most importantly of all work on understanding how important narrative and storytelling are in musical theatre. Find out who the MDs and Asst MDs are in the theatres closest to you and go to the stage door and ask if you can sit in and watch. Most MDs will be happy to help.”

Gain experience of as many musical styles as possible

It’s a view echoed by Dr Stuart Morley, an MD who is currently working on the West End production of //Only Fools And Horses// at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket. Morley advises young musicians to get a good working knowledge of as many musical styles as possible and to write directly to MDs. “Not via Facebook or Twitter, but formally, respectfully and personally  and avoid ‘Dear Sir/Madam’. Ask to sit in the pit and/or shadow them while they work. If you get that opportunity to do this then don’t hustle for work – just watch, listen, ask a few sensible questions and absorb as much information as possible.”

Remember that diplomacy and people skills are as important as musical ability

As budgets get tighter, more is expected of those coming into the business. Most will start as Assistant Musical Directors and be expected to play rehearsal piano, take vocal calls and perform the lead keyboard part.

Good people skills are paramount. In addition to gaining the respect of the musicians in the band an MD must also build good working relationships with the rest of the senior creative team on a musical or play. “A good MD has to gain the trust of everyone they work with,” says Mike Dixon. “I would say it’s about 40% musical ability and 60% diplomacy. That ability to get on and make people feel at their ease is so, so important. That is all part of the skill of getting the best out of people.”

Be flexible and gain as many new skills as possible

Collaboration is also key to developing a career as an MD in musical theatre, a fact highlighted by Candida Caldicott-Bull, a musical director who is currently working on //The Lehman Trilogy// at the National Theatre. She also cites the importance of maintaining flexibility as a musician.

“All MDs are different. Some have great arranging skills, some are also composers, some work well with young people, some are great keyboard programmers, some make great tracks and so on. I would say don’t narrow your options. Find your path but be flexible and continue to gain new skills. You’ll find jobs that are suited to your specific skill set but try to learn something new on each job.”

Networking is essential for aspiring musical directors, and social media channels can be useful. One option is the Facebook group called ‘UK Theatre Musical Directors’ which boasts over 700 members.

Learn to cope under pressure

For those who do carve out a career as an MD, tact, diplomacy and the simple ability to get on with people will carry them a long way.  And like many jobs, there is one further attribute that aspiring MDs will need: the ability to keep your head.

“A good MD also has to learn how to cope well under pressure,” says Mike Dixon. “...operate like a swan in the river where no one can see how frantically the feet are moving and make people feel at ease.”

Dixon also highlights one essential, yet sometimes overlooked, element in the work of an MD: the importance of taking pleasure in the work.

“Enjoy your time music making, I have had some simply amazing times in my career.  The number of bad experiences is negligible compared to the fun, frolic and frenzy of the good times.  Also, never be afraid to admit your mistakes!”