The job of “Musical Director” can take a lot of forms. Audiences see the finished product but they are not privy to all the behind the scenes work. A big event has many hands-on-deck. I here give you a little snippet of what is involved in being MD for a show such as “Concert in a Convent Garden”

Piano Money

Meetings and negotiations start a year in advance. The size of the budget determines the number of artists and which artists can be employed. The type of artists used affects the type of music one can offer. A Rock singer will need a Rock Band accompaniment and an operatic tenor will need some form of classical orchestra. The Musical Director has to be the translator between the needs of all the parties and has to have their own vision for the project, but be able to adjust it to the needs of the event. But in the end it all boils down to the money. Artists are booked a year in advance, and the MD has to decide on the exact accompaniment required and logistics for these. Is the stage big enough for a choir or do we use a smaller choir and more microphones? Does the music require a large drumkit or can we do without it and make space for more chorus? The MD’s knwoledge of the music, the styles and acompaniment requirements are essential in these discussions.

The team starts to develop a concept, a poster and programme layout – and all this happens in close negotiations with the artists – that would be the MD’s job.

Concert in a Convent Garden 2016 Flyer

Finding sponsors and negotiating advertising rates etc is not usually the MD’s responsibility, but all people help. The MD usually has industry contacts that can help with advertising, such as MEZZOFORTE MUSIC who can advertise, or radio personalities who can give a publicity punt.

Sheet music

Then starts the massive job of collecting the scores from which the musicians will play. The picture above represents the “first draft” of three concerts. The MD has to take into considerations any royalties payable to copyright organisations , all the issues of legal and illegal photocopies, procurements of parts from orchestral or online libraries or the trusted “beg, steal and borrow” method.

Score markings

Each musician’s part is marked and prepared by hand individually. Cuts and alterations – which there inevitably will be – are done by hand, in more or less artistic fashion. Rehearsal time is precious and expensive and there is not time to mark parts when everyone is ready to rehearse. This librarian work can take many many hours but is simply essential for a simple song to run from beginning to end without disrailing.


From all the cuting and pasting and copying one’s head starts to spin! Sometimes one can do this on a music editing programme but this is expensive to do, so while the manual method is a pain, it certainly is cheaper.


All the parts are then filed for each musician so that they can get on with the business of making music. This sextet will be playing 1300 pages for their concert. Each was cut and filed and prepared by hand.


Anette Ekhberg and Albert Combrink learning repertoire at the Kim Kallie Performance Academy.

Then starts the work of preparing the repertoire with the artists. Some MD’s shortcut this phase, expecting artists to learn all their music on their own, claiming “professional expectation” from their artists. This is true, but at the same time, a good MD gets to know the individual artists, their voices and their quirks. If you know where your soprano wants to take a breath, you will be a better accompanist to them. The MD has to manage the soloists and the accompaniment band or orchestra, so absolute familiarity with the scores themselves is a given, plus absolute psychic connection with your artists, so that you can support them to make them shine. Every pause, every breath, every cue is noted. If the MD brings in the orchestra while the soloist is still holding their big note – trust me: it will not end well!

Albert Combrink Rehearsing

The accompanying ensemble rehearses without the soloists. The orchestra is what goes on under the hood of a car, and the engine needs to be tuned till it’s purring before bringing in the soloists.

Albert Singing

But rehearsing without the soloists can be daunting as there is no guide track for the accompanists to follow. So it helps if someone sings the tune. Who else but the MUSICAL DIRECTOR! ok, to be fair it is usually squealing, yelling or yelping, but it provides a skeleton track to keep the train on the rails. In some repertoire there are many changes of tempos, expressive pauses on certain notes, or simply “help the soprano not run out of note on this note” moments  and the MD has to be the conduit between the singers and the accompaniment ensemble.

Suzanne Martens

Suzanne Martens (Violin)

So of course the orchestra has its own intricacies: bowing (starting on an Up Bow or Down Bow has huge practical and musical implications) who plays what, who turns the page while someone else holds the note, and  host of technicalities specific to each instrument, is communicated by the Concert Master. Some MD’s think they know this stuff. A wise one knows when to get out of the way and let the experts “talk amongst themselves”. The MD communicates through the Concert Master and it is important that the two are in tune. Sometimes there is no conductor and Piano/Conductor/Music Director roles are rolled into one. That is when you respect your Concert Master and will kiss their feet (in pretty red sandals too) for keeping the octopus legs relatively contained and moving in the same direction.


All technical liaison falls under the MD. How big exactly is the stage? How much space does a Double Bass ACTUALLY take up? In the picture above you see crates of musical equipment, all carried in by hand and discussed and negotiated individually. Some instruments use “pick-up” microphones and others use a standing mic, and some instruments require stereo mics. The MD has to know his tech rider backwards. You can not be short of a mic on the day! Also not the piano chair 10 cm away from the edge of the stage – guess who is LIVING ON THE EDGE? Yes, the MD! Also note the umbrellas. For an outdoor concert one can not have expensive music instruments cooking in the sun. The glue and lacquer can be damaged and you do not want a R100 000 insurance claim on your hands.


There might be Radio or TV appearances for publicity. These sound lovely and glamorous but sound check for Expresso is 5 am, there is no rehearsal, the stress is enormous, and since YOU want THEM to promote your show, there is often no remuneration involved. Fine Music Radio has been very supportive, giving us a full interview in their Arts Diary and Cape Talk is also doing in interview with me.


Bongiwe Nakani, Johannes Slabbert and Albert Combrink with Ikamva Youth Learners at OCG 2015

Some events, such as “Concert in a Convent Garden” have an outreach component. Here, learners from Ikamva Youth joined our dress rehearsal and received some music education material and interaction. That means the MD has to run the one and only final dress rehearsal while entertaining and engaging a youth audience. Many hats to wear but powerful blessings to bestow on the wearer.

Albert Combrink La Motte (25)

There will be cocktail parties – before and after. To beg sponsors for money, to thank sponsors for money, to inspire the committee, to tank the artists. You have to smile and make small-talk at people with great intentions and not a clue what you actually do, but it’s ok, because if the heart’s in the right place and the ship is steered by a solid chairperson, there is hope for the future!

Albert Combrink

Then the MD might also act as the MC for the evening. They know the programme and the artists the best. Reading the audience as well as providing essential information that add to their absorption into the programme, falls directly under the MD.

Albert Combrink

If there is no dressing room – and there often isn’t – one might be required to use the piano instead to straighten one’s bowtie!


And with that, IT’S SHOWTIME FOLKS!