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A conundrum of numbers: the complex, hidden role of music assistant in musical theater

If you ask most folks what important roles are involved to put on a musical, they’ll likely mention the composer, conductor, director, and maybe choreographer and costumer. But in major productions, there are many other positions that are essential to making the musical happen.

In my recent conversation with Brooke Trumm on Zeitgeist Radio, we discussed a critical position that is overlooked not just by the public, but often from within their own industry: the role of music assistant.

Entry-level my ass

“There’s no time! Things just go up so fast. And changes happen so fast that you really want to be able to focus on your one task and it would actually be impossible for you to try and even do two of the roles.” - Brooke Trumm

The role of music assistant is considered by many in the musical theater scene an entry-level position. One job posting for music assistant begins: “We are looking for a highly-organized candidate with a strong work ethic and a passion for music. Must have the ability to multi-task and stay calm and proactive in a high-pressure & fast-moving environment.”

The next part of the job outlines supportive roles “including but not limited to entering show deals into our booking program to generate contracts and itineraries, collecting signed contracts & deposits, ticket counts, and finals from promoters, processing artist payout statements after a show or tour plays, coordinating tour announce and onsales, interacting directly with artists and their teams to update them on all pertinent details relating to their tour(s), calendar management, and more.”

Ok, that sounds like a lot, but so far this position looks like something an entry-level candidate could do.

But then it continues.

“The music assistant may also be responsible for coordinating with the sound and lighting departments to ensure that the music is properly balanced and integrated into the overall production. They may work closely with the stage manager to ensure that the music cues are properly timed and executed during performances.

“In some cases, the music assistant may also serve as a substitute conductor or music director if the primary conductor is unavailable.”

Hold the phone.

As Brooke says, “it is not a low pressure job. it is a high pressure job that is not entry level and you need a lot of education in order to do it.”

And so far we've only covered the tip of the iceberg.

Keeping Score

The more professional the production, less likely the music assistant may need to help with things like lighting or cues… but the more likely it is that they will need to manage the score. This is a monumental task that is impossible without a high level of education about music theory, orchestration, and intense familiarity with musical editing programs.

See, the music in a musical isn’t stagnant! In other genres a composer may “finish” a work, publish it, and that’s that. But in the world of musical theater, “pieces aren’t done, they’re just left,” says Brooke.

The music in musical theater productions can be complex, with intricate harmonies, difficult rhythms, and challenging vocal parts. As rehearsals progress and the play is in action, composers add, delete, or change notes or even entire sections. For one of Brooke’s recent projects, “literally up to my last 30 minutes of work I was fixing things.” That means that literally 30 minutes before curtain time, she was making changes to the score!

Keep in mind too - if the composer adds a few notes, those need to be added across all parts. The score encompasses every instrument in the orchestra, every vocal part, and is used by choreographers too. So one "simple" change means the music assistant needs to make sure the changes are added and provided to the entire ensemble.

A conundrum of numbers

Brooke shared one thing I found particularly interesting about the process of numbering measures. See, written music is divided into “measures.” These are essentially small, consistently-sized reference points that look like musical “boxes” and give everyone (performers, conductor, choreographer…) the ability to quickly reference a particular spot in the music. For example, a conductor or choreographer may wish to rehearse “measure 50” and everyone can quickly identify the box labeled 50.

But what if, as rehearsals progress, the composer makes changes? What if they decide to delete a few measures because it doesn’t serve the show any longer? What if, say, they delete measures 16-20?

What would be measure 50? Would it move? Is it now measure 46?

Alternately, what if the composer decides a song isn’t quite long enough? Let’s say they think the production needs 4 extra measures after measure 18.

Now where is measure 50?

With the intensity of changes happening during a production, “re-numbering” is a big no-no! A composer may remove a section, but then decide to add it back later. Changing the numbers each time would be incredibly confusing to everyone. So in our example of deleted measures above, measure 54 would stay the same but the earlier measures would go 14-15-21-22, skipping right over the deleted measures.

In case measures are added, it would go 18-18a-18b-18c-18d-19.

Sound like a lot to manage? It is… and this is all done by the music assistant!

Eventually many factors may lead to the team deciding to fully re-number the score. In her recent show, Brooke’s team only re-numbered once. “It was a discussion with me, the orchestrator, and the composers, making sure we were all on the same page before we sent it to the copyist.” (Copyist is another different and fascinating role!)

The Recognition Problem.

Music assistants are an integral part of the production team, and their work is critical to the success of the show. They are under pressure to perform at a high level and to ensure that the music is executed flawlessly during performances. However, the industry has some resistance to recognizing music assistantship as a legitimate career.

Often the role of the music assistant is often viewed as a supporting or secondary role to that of the music director or conductor. As a result, some may see it as a lower-level position, rather than a distinct career path in its own right.

Additionally, the music assistant role is often filled by younger or less experienced musicians, who may be willing to work for lower pay and fewer benefits in order to gain experience and exposure in the industry. As we've explored above, this can create a perception that the role is more of an entry-level or temporary position, rather than a career path.

Another factor may be the lack of formal training or certification requirements for music assistants. Unlike other careers in the performing arts, such as acting or directing, there are no formal degree programs or licensing requirements for music assistants. However, as you’ve seen there is still a lot of training required to perform the duties of the position!

Music assistants are working to establish the role as a legitimate profession with defined career paths and advancement opportunities. In February of 2022, a group of theater musicians published the Music Assistant Standards of Practice, with the goal of making their jobs more sustainable. You can read the Standards here:

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