On conducting: Interview with Ram’s Head music director Joshua Chang ’21

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I recently interviewed Joshua Richard Chang ’21, Stanford senior and music director of Ram’s Head Theatrical productions “The Addams Family” (2019) and “Pippin” (2020). Chang is billed to lead an online masterclass on Nov. 13 for musical theater conducting. Driving from San Diego to the Bay to fly out to visit his girlfriend, Chang called from the passenger seat of a friend’s car while on the road. We discussed conducting, his time at Ram’s Head and the state of theater during COVID. 

This transcript has been lightly edited and condensed. 

The Stanford Daily (TSD): Conductors are supposed to be interpreters of the score, but some consider the work of meaning to be already engraved in the notes by the composer and executed by the instrumentalists. What do you consider the role of a conductor? How would their absence affect performance? 

Joshua Chang (JC): It depends on the group. You have some professional orchestras where they’ll offer celebrities or professional athletes an opportunity to conduct a piece. In that case, the orchestra is just following the concertmaster which is the first violin in the section. But in general, the conductor is really important for a lot of different reasons. First of all, their responsibility is to make a group cohesive. They are a reference point to everybody in the orchestra to make sure that everyone is playing on the same beat and the same tempo. They are also in charge of changes in tempo. They need to show an accelerando and ritardando or any other temp changes. It’s important to have that person showing that to everybody.

So in short, orchestras could function without a conductor, but you’d get a more fulfilling and coordinated performance if you have one. In theater, it’s essential because you are not only coordinating timing between the orchestra but also on stage. You’re essentially acting as an air traffic controller when you’re in the pit. You need to organize the timing between the orchestra and the people on stage. And just as an airport would have a catastrophe if you didn’t have an air traffic control tower, the musical would have a lot of catastrophes if you didn’t have a conductor. 

TSD: What makes each section, whether it’s the actors or instrumentalists, distinct in how you interact with them and what they need from you as a conductor? 

JC: Some musicians and actors need more from you than others, and that is something you need to work out on an individual basis. One of my favorite rehearsals that we do during the show process is called the sitzprobe. That’s the first time the orchestra plays with the cast, and when we go over all the music we do around the show, but we hash out the cues and timing of everything. And that’s when I get to spend time interacting with the actors to determine what the cues are going to look like for the songs. It’s fun to be able to work out those dynamics with the actors and establish that connection with all of them through the music and build that relationship and trust. Trust is important. I need to be able to trust them that they’re going to remember their cues, but they also need to trust me that I’m going to have the cues for them ready at the right time and also have the orchestra supporting them at the right time as well. 

TSD: What is your personal style of conducting? 

JC: I try to stick to the books as much as possible, especially in theater, just because that’s what’s going to lead to the most stable production with the fewest errors. I try to be as energetic as I can when I conduct. I don’t know if you saw “The Addams Family” production or saw the monitor in the back of the room, but I was pretty much drenched in sweat by the end of the show … I’m a big believer that the energy that you put into conducting, the orchestra and the ensemble on stage will reflect that back to you. It all starts with you and being able to deliver and convey that energy to your ensemble. It’s especially important when you’re running a show for six productions. People can sometimes get complacent or bored playing the same thing over and over. So, it’s really important for me to keep that energy up and keep it exciting every performance to make sure the energy levels don’t drop off.  

TSD: There’s a rule of thumb that to be a conductor, you should have experienced at least joining an orchestra or at least know how to play the piano. You know how to play the piano … and the French horn. And the violin. And the organ. You’ve also acted in local theater productions in Old Saybrook. How have these experiences come in clutch during your time conducting for Stanford Ram’s Head?

JC: Yeah, I’ve been fortunate that I’ve been exposed to so many different aspects of theater. And they’ve all especially helped with conducting and being able to organize all those things. Like you’ve said, at the very core of it, an extremely strong musical foundation is probably the most important part. My early training in the piano is very key to that. Playing the French horn, I had a ton of opportunities to play in a ton of orchestras. Through that, you get exposed to different conductors and you can learn a lot just by watching them and how they interact with the orchestra, and every conductor is going to have something new for you to learn. 

And on the actor end of it, just being an actor myself a little bit in middle school and elementary school, I understand the rehearsal process, I understand what actors need from the orchestra and the support they need. I felt it was helpful to have that experience to understand the dynamic between the orchestra and actors on stage could be … The orchestra should be the supporting role. And all that has helped me jump in to take up the role of director for the past two Ram’s shows.

TSD: What is the easiest thing to get wrong when leading a huge ensemble like that? 

JC: One of the worst mistakes you could make is playing music at the wrong time. Which I have done. Luckily, it wasn’t music that was cue sensitive. It was just some backup music that got played at the wrong time, but that’s the kind of thing that’s a conductor’s nightmare because if you get out of sync with what’s going on onstage or if you somehow provide cues through the music that’s not supposed to happen at that time, you could throw everything off and there’s no great way to break that shift once it starts spiraling out of control. You can’t be like “take it back to measure 30.” I haven’t dealt with any major train wrecks, but there were definitely some moments where I was like, “Oh wow, that could’ve been bad.”  

TSD: When conductors aren’t performing or rehearsing for concerts, they’re studying — scraping through score sheets, analyzing past performances, listening to music; what are your methods for brushing up on the craft during quarantine? 

JC: Yeah, all of that is spot on. Conductors study as much as any other musician. It’s really, really important that they have an understanding of the music inside and out. Not only do they need to know each of the instrument parts but also how they interact and contribute to the greater fabric of the music as a whole. So, I have a process that I go through when I study scores, usually while listening to music, I mark things that require attention, whether it’s tempo changes or important instrument cues or entrances for actors, or any other stylistic things that happen. A lot of that, too, is going through the physical motion of conducting. It’s really important that what you hear in your head is conveyed through the orchestra and that happens through your gestures and not only your arms but your whole body and your facial expressions, too. So a lot of times I’ll just be in my room, in front of my mirror, conducting with my score in front of me with my headphones in. 

Outside of that, I practice conducting privately with Paul Phillips, director of orchestral studies at Stanford. So I go through that process for the scores that I study in my lessons with him, and it’s a similar process to how I approach the scores in theater versus classical orchestra music.

TSD: Have you stayed connected with him during quarantine? 

JC: Yes, I’m still taking lessons with him. I’ve been fortunate enough to do that. It’s been a lot of fun. What usually happens is that I will play a piece we are studying on my computer and then share my screen and audio with him so that he could also listen to it as I’m playing. I’ll be conducting the piece and he’ll be watching and listening to me. He’ll play along on the piano, which is fun. The only downside of it is that I am following the recording and the set-up instead of the ensemble following me, which is not ideal but it’s not the end of the world. It’s usually how I would practice by myself at the end of the day anyway.

TSD: The music conducting workshop at Stanford will also be virtual. How did the idea to lead the workshop come about and how will it be structured?

JC: To be honest, the idea wasn’t mine. I was approached by Trenton Chang who was organizing the series, and he asked me if I wanted to do it. I was very flattered. Trenton and I performed together in a couple of different musicals together. He was Keyboard One in “The Addams Family,” and he was also an assistant producer. He was also music director for Gaieties last year and “The Whiz” the year prior through another organization. 

As for how the format’s going to work, it’s all going to be on Zoom, of course. I’m planning on teaching some conducting fundamentals in the beginning; some basic conducting patterns for different time signatures; how to control the orchestra with your left hand. And then we’re all going to conduct a piece for the musical. My hope is that, in a similar way that I do with Paul, I can share my audio with everybody so they can all hear it and everyone can conduct along and apply the skills that we learned during the first section. And then I’m hoping to give feedback on people’s conducting performances. It should be a good introduction, and I tailor it to all levels of conducting. So whether you’ve studied conducting before or are an experienced orchestral member and observed a lot of conducting or if you have no experience with conducting music-wise, I’m hoping that everybody can get a little something out of various aspects of it. 

TSD: Theater and the arts have taken a hit since COVID. Are you sensing a pent-up demand for performances at Stanford, or in general, even if they aren’t offered to audiences in person? 

JC: It has certainly been sad to see so much of the arts being cancelled due to COVID.  We were a couple weeks from opening “Pippin” last year when everything got shut down and everybody, myself included, was incredibly disappointed that we wouldn’t be able to showcase our hard work. With all of the struggles that are occurring in the world at the moment, music, theater and the arts in general are sorely missed. I am a firm believer that the arts can be therapeutic and a uniting force for humanity, which is why it’s particularly tragic that they have disappeared in the times when perhaps the world needs them most. So yes, I think people are longing for artistic performances within the Stanford community and every other community, as well. They need these performances now more than ever as a way to escape from the real world if only for a brief period of time.  This is why online performances, such as Gaieties this quarter, are so important as ultimately the goal of any performance, whether online or in person, is to uplift their audience so that they leave a little more fulfilled than they came.

TSD: What are you doing after this call? 

JC: After this call? Well, we have another six hours on the road. I have a CS p-set due tonight, so I’ll be trying to code on the drive.

Contact Christine Delianne at delianne ‘at’ stanford.edu. 

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