By Dean Evans
The role of music director—the person responsible for every musical aspect of a theatrical show or concert—is one that requires liquid versatility, impeccable taste, melodic intuition, and an ability to not only lead but inspire. Always aiming to enhance and elevate a project to its highest flowering, the Music Director’s catalogue of responsibilities is kaleidoscopically comprehensive and requires an equally complex and varied skill set.
Music Director Ian Yan checks all those boxes, and more. An accomplished musician with perfect pitch and a full spectrum of formal training at Manhattan’s distinguished Columbia University (music theory, ear training, instrumentation, orchestration, conducting), Yan’s gift for organizing and executing the MD’s multiplicity of roles, from the nuts and bolts of hiring musicians and organizing rehearsals to the purely aesthetic— writing arrangements, developing a singular musical interpretation and creating a shared sense of ensemble—have established him as one of the most in-demand MD’s in New York City.
“The duties and function of a Music Director depends upon the project that the MD is working on,” Yan said. “A good MD must not only be a very good musician, he must have excellent people skills and organizational skills — the best MDs are able to be efficient with their time and problem solving. I usually look for ways in which I can solve multiple problems at once by solving one.”
That particular knack is illustrative of Yan’s uniquely holistic perspective, one where he assesses the totality of any given creative situation and, always focusing on the whole rather than the sum of its parts, devises an ideal solution—key to his success as a music director. And it’s no small task:
“Whether it be a theatrical production or for a band, the MD is ultimately responsible for leading the rehearsal process and is the person in charge on stage during performances,” Yan said. “This can include preparation of the sheet music, securing rehearsal space and necessary gear, hiring the musicians, and of course teaching the music to the musicians and, in a theatrical context, the cast.”
The Hong Kong-born, Manhattan based Yan thrives on the oft hectic nature of the job, effortlessly bringing forth order from chaos and always maintaining close creative alliances with his colleagues.
“There is absolutely a collaborative nature to being an MD that changes from production to production,” he said. “It depends on the style of music—for a jazz band, it is very collaborative due to the improvisational nature of the music. In a more structured setting such as musical theater, you must develop a tight relationship not just with the band but also with the cast, as you’re responsible for teaching them all the music and making creative decisions such as how certain vowels are pronounced, the breathiness of the voice, duration of notes, when they breathe and so forth.”
It's a constantly evolving, minute by minute process that entails myriad on-the-spot accommodations, everything from key changes to transpositions and, with musical theater, ensuring that consistency is maintained.
“The MD is responsible for giving direction to the band during the performance, particularly for things such as cues in and out of songs, vamps, tempo changes, and other specific cues that are common in musical theater,” Yan said. “You must be able to clearly and effectively communicate to the cast and to the band, especially in musical theatre, where there are often many balls in the air at the same time. An MD gives the direction, along the lines of ‘Okay, when you hear this dialogue cue, we finish the bar, and I’ll will cue you out of the vamp into the new section.’”
Yan made his bones as an MD while studying at Columbia, assuming the position for their Columbia Pops Orchestra, where he really learned the job from the ground up.
“It’s the university’s extracurricular orchestra, entirely student run and performed, and is dedicated to playing a diverse repertoire—film and TV scores, Broadway hits, jazz tunes. video game soundtracks, and many more,” he said. “As MD, I was responsible for reviewing and selecting all arrangement applications, overseeing the selection and audition process for the musicians, training new arrangers in orchestration, conducting, and rehearsal etiquette, and also for arranging and orchestrating full pieces, and running the rehearsals and conducting the pieces in the concerts.”
Yan has used that experience shrewdly, parlaying it into an impressive resume of music director credits, from the New London Barn Playhouse production of musical show “Matilda,” to serving as MD for fast rising singer-songwriter Christina Li at downtown NYC concert venue Terminal 5’s high-profile “Bacchanal” event, along with a host of jazz club dates and intimate cabaret revues. This dedication, drive and versatility highlight Yan’s exceptional range, dedication, and skill—key requisites for any music director. Yan delights in confronting and remedying any unexpected challenge and, as MD, these are almost constantly cropping up.
“You’re always making creative musical decisions on the fly and knowing that everyone is able to do a good job because of my skills feels really great,” Yan said. “Personally, the feeling of playing a good show is the most satisfying and rewarding part of being an MD—putting on a fantastic show is always very gratifying.”