My Path to the Podium
by Andy Blanco
I’ve always had a fascination with conducting. In high school, while counting rests at youth orchestra rehearsals, I would watch the conductor with amazement, as the musicians were able to translate the conductor’s movements into beautiful sounds. In college, whenever there was an opportunity to conduct a piece of chamber music, I took it. I viewed conducting as a sort of hobby, doing it for fun when the opportunity presented itself. So when the chance to conduct a Broadway show came along, I jumped right in without thinking twice.
“Have you ever conducted a Broadway show before?” he asked. “No,” I said, somewhat defeated. “Well, that doesn’t mean anything!” he said with a smile.
In 2012, I was hired as the percussionist for Nice Work If You Can Get It. A couple of months after opening night, I was eating dinner with two other conductors from the show and they mentioned that the person lined up to be an additional conductor had just been hired for another show and was now unavailable. I immediately told them that I had always liked conducting and asked them how sub conductors were chosen. They told me that most of the people being considered were keyboard subs. I mentioned that I thought it would be better to find a conductor from the orchestra, who is at the theater every day, rather than finding another keyboard sub to learn the show.
I had subbed on other shows that had percussionists as conductors, so I asked my colleagues what I should do if I wanted to have a chance at conducting the show. They suggested I speak to the Music Director (MD). Immediately after dinner, I went straight to the theater and asked the MD how I could be considered for the extra conductor position. He asked me about my conducting experience and I told him that I had studied a little in high school, took two semesters of conducting in college, and conducted some chamber music pieces for various classes. “Have you ever conducted a Broadway show before?” he asked. “No,” I said, somewhat defeated. “Well, that doesn’t mean anything!” he said with a smile. We both had a chuckle and he told me to prepare two numbers from the show.
A week later, at the end of a put-in rehearsal at the theater, I conducted a pianist and a drummer through those two numbers while the MD sang the parts. He liked what I did and asked me to learn the whole show. After receiving a piano-vocal score and a video of the stage, I was ready to get to work.
While Nice Work... was my first Broadway show as a chair-holder, I had experience being a substitute player on a handful of other shows. I approached learning to conduct the show the same way I approached subbing a percussion book. When learning a percussion book, I usually start by practicing all the licks. Only after I have the licks in my hands will I practice playing along to a recording of the show. This helps to ensure that I learn the notes correctly from the very beginning of my preparation.
Once I felt comfortable running the whole show with the video with no mistakes, I was asked to conduct an understudy rehearsal with only piano and drums in the pit.
When I was preparing to conduct Nice Work…, I began by watching a video of the conductor and marking my score with any cues or beat patterns that were not obvious to me. I wanted to be completely comfortable with the MD’s choreography before watching the video of the stage and trying to put the music to the action of the actors and dancers.
To learn how everything fit together, I met with the MD a few times to discuss each moment of the show, from the first tuning note through the exit music. I practiced conducting to the video of the stage and took note of all the things we discussed. I also had the opportunity to sub out of a couple of shows to watch the performances from the house to further observe the details of the show that were difficult to catch on the show video. Once I felt comfortable running the whole show with the video with no mistakes, I was asked to conduct an understudy rehearsal with only piano and drums in the pit. To my relief, it was so much easier conducting live musicians and actors than trying to line up with the video! The rehearsal went really well and less than a week later I was scheduled to conduct my first performance. Moments before my first show, an usher approached the MD and asked, “Who is that on the podium?” The MD replied by saying I was the show’s percussionist and I was conducting a Broadway show for the very first time. The usher remarked at how young I was and asked how I was given such a rare opportunity. Without missing a beat, the MD replied, “He asked!”
I always pay attention when an understudy is on and keep mental notes of how they pace their dialogue when the orchestra is underscoring. If I haven’t conducted the show in a while, I may look at some spots that contain important cues or subdivided beat patterns.
Since Nice Work…, I’ve been an Assistant Conductor on four other shows, and my process of learning the score is basically the same. Being an Assistant Conductor is also very similar to subbing a percussion book, in the sense that you could be called to fill-in at a moment’s notice. It can sometimes be stressful when the MD asks you to conduct at the last minute and you have to scramble to find a sub for your own chair. Constant communication with the rest of the conductors regarding scheduling has been crucial to maintaining a healthy work environment. I always schedule vacations and commit to weeklong gigs only after I have cleared them with the MD and the other conductors at the show. I’ve never had to turn down a gig because I was needed at a show, but it’s important to support the MD by helping to make sure all performances are covered.
Andy taking a bow, curtain call for Hello, Dolly!
As a sub on a percussion chair, maintaining the book can sometimes be a challenge. When I’m learning a show, I play through the book so many times that it’s committed to muscle memory. If it’s been a while since I’ve played, I might only need to practice the tricky mallet licks. As an Assistant Conductor, playing the show 8 times a week allows me to keep the show fresh without much effort. However, I always pay attention when an understudy is on and keep mental notes of how they pace their dialogue when the orchestra is underscoring. If I haven’t conducted the show in a while, I may look at some spots that contain important cues or subdivided beat patterns. But most of the time, my preparation for learning the show was so exhaustive that I don’t have to brush up too much.
My advice to players looking to "break into the scene" has always been to keep your eyes and ears open for any and all opportunities to demonstrate what you can do.
Being able to step out of the percussion chair and lead a show from the podium is a thrilling experience. I am eternally grateful to Tom Murray, the Music Director on Nice Work If You Can Get It, who gave me my first shot at conducting a Broadway show. My advice to players looking to "break into the scene" has always been to keep your eyes and ears open for any and all opportunities to demonstrate what you can do. Don’t be afraid to be your own advocate. I may never have had these wonderful opportunities to conduct on Broadway if I hadn’t asked for the chance in the first place.
Andy Blanco is currently a percussionist and Assistant Conductor at West Side Story on Broadway. He has previously held positions at Hello Dolly!, An American in Paris, Bullets Over Broadway, Nice Work If You Can Get It, and The Color Purple (First National Tour).
As a substitute on Broadway he has performed in 17 different shows. He also maintains an active freelance schedule by performing with the Metropolitan Opera, New York Philharmonic, and American Symphony Orchestra, as well as many other orchestras, opera companies, chamber ensembles, bands, singers, and composers in New York City.
Andy earned both a Bachelor’s Degree in Classical Percussion and a Master’s Degree in Orchestral Performance from the Manhattan School of Music. He is an Adjunct Lecturer and member of the percussion faculty at Queens College and maintains a private teaching studio in New York City.
Andy is a proud endorser of Pearl/Adams Drums and Percussion, Sabian Cymbals, Evans Drumheads, and Innovative Percussion Sticks and Mallets.