How do you conduct a 60+ person cast? Check out this conversation with Music Director and Arranger/Orchestrator Steven Tran to learn more about what it takes to make waves for Seattle Rep’s Public Works’ musical adaptation of The Tempest, on stage this Friday!
What is the role of a music director?
A music director is the point person for all things music! They interpret the musical vision of the composers and arrangers, teach the music to the cast, and rehearse and conduct the band. They also collaborate with the director and choreographer to tell the story on stage in the most compelling way possible.
How do you approach music direction for a large cast like the 60+ performers featured in The Tempest?
Think summer camp counselor, motivational speaker, cheerleader, and more! With a cast and a show at this massive scale, I always try to be as energetic and joyful as possible with the hope that my energy and joy feeds into their performance.
In Public Works productions, folks come from all backgrounds of music education and experience. How do you approach your job in this environment?
Although music and singing can be a highly technical skill, at its core, the act of shared music-making is innately human. I find that teaching music in Public Works is all about empowering cast members to find their voice, regardless of prior experience or self-judgment about their own skill level. Something I like to remind the cast: when voices come together, it is the individual differences of timbres and the slight imperfections in tuning that create the massive choir sound.
What is one of the most challenging aspects of being a music director?
There are often a LOT of different things to juggle. At any given moment, I need to deliver notes to a cast member, create transition music, and let the guitarist know about playing a certain part mezzo piano. Did I mention the keyboard programmer needs the patch list for this new song because we just changed it in rehearsal? Also, some folks need to re-learn this harmony! That’s just a typical day for me.
Adding to all of that, on this show, not only am I the music director, but I am also arranging AND orchestrating the score. Arranging means I am writing new vocal parts, melodies, and feels to the song to breathe some new life into them. Orchestrating means I then write the parts the band plays and pick the sounds the keyboards will make. Oh, and of course, I'll also be conducting the band during performances. Having so many plates spinning is certainly a challenge!
For folks interested in pursuing music direction, what do you think are the most important qualities to be successful?
While music directing requires an immense baseline of technical music skills (accompanying, sight-reading, conducting, transcription, and so on), I think the most important qualities of a successful music director are the soft skills of leadership and collaboration. In theater we all have to row together in the same direction and, as a creative team member, the music director is one of the people at the fore of the ship. Being able to communicate with folks of all backgrounds, having a keen sense of theatrical storytelling, and being able to lead a room are just as important as being able to conduct a band.
You have worked on every Public Works production. What does it mean to you to be part of the Public Works family?
Each summer when I join a Public Works project, I am reminded of the power of a shared artistic process in creating community and sparking immense joy. Public Works has been a steady source of uplifting and affirming energy in my career. It's been so joyous to get to know these community members and see familiar faces year after year. I started as an intern/assistant on Seattle Rep’s Public Works production of The Odyssey in 2017, and to be able to grow personally and professionally in the program has truly shaped my perception of why certain kinds of artmaking are so vital.
Catch a glimpse of Seattle Rep’s Public Works ensemble being conducted by Steven Tran throughout the run of The Tempest, on stage August 25- 27, 2023 in the Bagley Wright Theater.