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What Is A Music Director And How Do I Become One?

Music directors are found in lots of institutions, from symphony orchestras to recording bands to local arts groups and churches, to radio stations. The role means different things in different contexts.  But since you guys love the strings, we’re going to focus here on the role of the music director with an orchestra.

A music director is responsible for the overall quality of not just individual performances, but also ensuring consistent quality and guiding the artistic direction of the entire organization. However, managing the artistic direction is just the first part of the job. Music directors are also managers, managing and organizing performers, resources, rehearsals, and performances. 

The music director also has bottom line accountability. The choices the music director makes regarding the organization’s artistic direction and the music being performed must appeal to the organization’s market so concert-goers and donors are excited enough to open up their wallets. 

As you can see, as much as two-thirds of the music director’s job is only tangentially related to music! It’s a leadership role which means music directors deal with a lot in addition to the music itself. Some musicians don’t want to move into roles that take them away from focusing on the art and performing. That’s fine. If you’re someone who wants to be an active leader in the arts community and wants to take on additional responsibility, while remaining a core part of the artistry, then working your way up to music director may be the direction for you. 

Skills of a music director 

Let’s break up the skills expected of music directors by their three main areas. 

Mastery of technical musical skills and knowledge is a baseline requirement. As an artistic leader, a music director should have deep experience and knowledge of numerous instruments, and music theory. Having deep knowledge in related disciplines like art, humanities and history enhance the artistic vision a music director can bring. Invariably, an orchestra’s music director is also its conductor, which means having well-developed instincts for interpretation, as well as the power and leadership to inspire the response sought from the musicians.  The career path to becoming an orchestral music director is to become a conductor. There’s no entry level music director position to take first. 

Organizational and administrative skills to handle the myriad details of scheduling auditions, rehearsals, specifying who needs to be at where and when. Understanding where and how money is being spent while staying on budget. 

Sense of what the market and community want to hear. Setting an artistic vision and selecting music is job one of the music director. An effective music director must know the community and audience tastes, while also staying current on musical trends and musicians. The very best of music directors can create a season or program that entices the audience with what they love while also expanding their musical palate. 

The skills required by all three dimensions of the music director’s job are communication and collaboration. The music director must work with other artistic and managerial directors, like stage directors and vocal directors. There are also other business managers, like producers, heads of the organization, office and admin staff, marketing managers, and development managers. Then there’s the performers, rehearsal and backstage staff, and key people at outside organizations like unions and grant-giving organizations. 

The music director also typically has a public role, promoting the organization and music education in the community. Depending on the size of the organization, the community might be the local county, or it might require meeting with the international press. In other words, music director isn’t a role for someone who likes to work independently and quietly behind the scenes.  

Becoming an orchestral music director takes some planning and ambition; both skills if you have now that will serve you well once you reach your goal. 

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