Last month’s blog post took a high level look at Concert Productions: what are they, when should we produce them, and why should we produce them? This month, I’m going to take a look at the more technical and nuanced process of actually music directing a concert production. We’ll examine rehearsals and how they differ from typical musical rehearsals, and the dynamic of a concert performance.
Preparing for Rehearsal
Preparing for the rehearsals of a concert production is really half the battle. With music the centerpiece of the show, it is now twice as important that as music director you are prepared with a plan of action for learning the numbers and coaching your singers. Theoretically, 90-100% of rehearsal time is devoted to music in this setting, so you are required to lead at all times. Leading is made significantly easier when you have a set order of operations for the execution of rehearsal time.
Of course, too much detail on a rehearsal schedule can lead to unrealistic expectations or prevent effective spontaneous learning and exploration of the material. Rather, I heartily recommend dictating what is to be accomplished during the allotted rehearsal time, but not scheduling it out so specifically to the minute (of course, this advice applies to organizations that are not paying their actors, or are simply paying a stipend. If personnel are being paid hourly it is far more prudent to create a much more detailed schedule).
The Rehearsal Room
You as music director are the undisputed benevolent dictator of a concert’s rehearsal room. The music needs to be learned efficiently and satisfactorily, as is usual, but in contrast to a normal musical, the time spent on blocking may be reallocated, at least partially, to more thorough review. With built-in review in the rehearsal schedule at the end of every ensemble rehearsal (and I do recommend the end of rehearsal as opposed to the beginning, simply because new music is more stimulating to the actors), the music can become more firmly ingrained. While the use of the score for the performance of the show may certainly be permissible for the actors (as this is a concert production), the score cannot become a crutch as it is wont to do when the actor always has access to it. Rather, with strong and consistent review, the score will simply become a tool for the actor, an occasional helper. With the music front and center in a way that is unusual with regular musicals, feel free to also spend more time on musical values normally forgotten in the frantic shuffle of moving parts that is dress rehearsal and continued performance. Accurate articulation, dynamics, consistent execution of cutoffs and diction; these values should be constantly reinforced in the padded time available to the music.
Depending on your cast, the rehearsals may take far less time than normal. With the focused energy of concert rehearsals, learning the music may come more quickly to many actors. Without the added pressures of remembering blocking, actors are free to absorb the music as wholly as they can, and this can lead to expedited timing. Do not fall into the trap of simply calling off rehearsal once everything has been accomplished; instead, review prior material, or work with the actor on their dramatic performance of the song (the extra-musical elements, such as motive and dramatic performance). By taking advantage of the time available to you, the music can become what it was meant to be, without all of that blocking/choreography garbage to bog it down (whoops, did I just say that? In all seriousness, though, the blocking and choreography of a musical number can be just as vital to its performance as the music itself. Please do not actually dismiss your coworkers in such a manner).
Concert Productions in Performance
After all of that rehearsal, it’s finally time for the big moment: opening night. In performance, your role as a music director of a concert production is vastly different than your role as a music director of a traditional show. You are inevitably highlighted in a concert; after all, the music is the focus of this production, and you are the leader of the band/orchestra and the singers. Expect your position, and the position of the orchestra, to be emphasized in some way, be it elevation, position, or even lighting. In my experience I have found myself at the same level as the actors, typically playing next to them rather than behind or below them. You must be comfortable with this exposure of your work during the performance of the show, and the musicians you hire must also be comfortable with this setup.
Concert productions also typically afford the actors the luxury of utilizing the score during performance as a guide and aid when performing. As I mentioned before, it is important to prevent the actors using the score as a crutch. This will always result in a poor and unsatisfactory performance. The score is a tool for the actor use, something to steer them right if they lose their way or forget the words, and something to remind them of any notes you have given them over the course of rehearsal. Because of the access to the score, large mistakes of form are less common, so covering for imperfections in performance should easier. However, do not let this lull you to a false sense of security; for some reason, some actors can become overconfident when singing with the score in front of them, and make harebrained mistakes when performing, like missing a note or jumping ahead a beat. Be ready for these sorts of errors, and make sure your orchestra is ready as well.
Concert productions are incredibly rewarding as music director. Much of the recognition usually heaped upon your colleagues falls to you. Of course, the other side of the coin is just as true: absent a director and choreographer, you will suffer much of the blame for any shortcomings. Regardless, concert productions provide a whole new slew of rewarding challenges to overcome, both for you and for your actors, and are a unique experience that I thoroughly recommend you try at some point.
Stay tuned for next month’s post regarding the dynamic between composer and music director when working on a new musical, both from the perspective of the music director and the composer!