Behind the Curtain: Eric von Ahlefeldt

By Stella Joseph-Jarecki (Enquiries: stellamusicwriter.wordpress.com)

I had the chance to speak to Eric von Ahlefeldt, a music director and pianist who has worked extensively in the community music theatre scene in Geelong. Most recently, Eric was due to be assistant music director of CentreStage Geelong’s production of West Side Story, which will hopefully be staged at a later date.

When did you first begin MD’ing shows? Can you name some of the shows you have worked on?

I first began MD’ing shows in 2015, when I was twenty-two. I started out with small cabaret-style shows (small casts/minimal accompaniment, usually just piano). Eventually I started to gain a reputation for providing reliable piano accompaniment among the local theatre companies. This reputation, combined with having a positive attitude and enthusiasm for every project I was offered, meant that a number of opportunities to accompany rehearsals were coming my way. This eventually grew to gigs as an Assistant Musical Director to more accomplished MD’s, and eventually to MD’ing larger scale musicals myself.

Organisations I have MD’d or Assistant MD’d with include: GSODA Theatre Collective, CentreStage Pty Ltd, Theatre of the Damned, and GLTS. Some of the shows have included: Little Women, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Little Shop of Horrors. Two shows that were due to go ahead this year which have been postponed are West Side Story and Priscilla: Queen of the Desert.

What have been some show highlights over the last couple of years?

Each project brings with it unique and memorable challenges. Some have been hilarious, some have been incredibly daunting, but all have been a part of the growing experience. The biggest highlights for me have been from productions that brought the music out of the pit and on to the stage. The highlights below have been from shows that I have MD’d as well as productions where I have been in the band/orchestra.

Getting dressed in 80’s glam rock style to be part of the on-stage band for Rock of Ages.

Playing the piano onstage while playing the role of Oscar the Pianist for 42nd Street. Depending on the scene, I would have to run back and forth from the stage and the side-stage pit.

Playing the role of the MC in Chicago from the onstage baby grand piano, which I was also playing in the orchestra. An amusing challenge of this was that I had lines to deliver while simultaneously playing the piano. I also had a small mirror next the music stand so that I could see the conductor who was positioned behind me.

For Song Contest: The Almost Eurovision Experience, I learned to roughly play a little bit of the theremin, which I had to run onstage and play in the middle of a song for a few bars. While wearing an alien mask. You really do get the unexpected with some of these shows.

The most recent highlight was having the opportunity to conduct the full 29-piece orchestra in our final rehearsal for West Side Story. I am hoping to get the opportunity to do it again later in the year if the show successfully goes ahead once the COVID-19 situation has passed.

What are some of the biggest challenges/ learning experiences you have encountered through being in the trenches of the entire rehearsal process?

One of the biggest challenges an MD has to overcome is that of scheduling. When you are MD’ing a musical, some of the tasks you are in charge of include: putting together a cast, teaching a cast their vocal parts (this includes one-on-one work with leads as well as large harmony-heavy ensemble numbers), collaborating with the director and choreographer to ensure you are all following the same vision, rehearsing and assembling the band, and conducting for the run of the performances.

Essentially, there are too many variables in the air over the three or four month rehearsal period for an MD to not maintain a strict sense of scheduling.

Becoming a more organised person has been a real learning curve for me over the years and something I feel far more confident with now. The last thing you want to do as an MD is find yourself unprepared or backed into a corner that is difficult to dig yourself out of. Especially when the production is sticking to a strict timeframe, or when you are conducting in front of a live audience.

Any pieces of advice for aspiring Musical Directors out there, on how they can sharpen their skills and put themselves forward for opportunities?

The first piece of advice I would give to aspiring MD’s is to put yourself forward. A lot of working opportunities for the music side of community theatre, be it MD or pit musician, come from personal connection. Every MD will tell you they started as pit musicians and this is the best place to begin. The majority of musicians I call upon to play in the pit are musicians who I’ve played alongside before, who I know are capable of doing an incredible job and who I have a lot of fun playing alongside. Once your foot is in the door it becomes much easier. Personal connection is key, and no one will call upon you to be a part of the music side of a production if they don’t know your skills and your enthusiasm to join.

The next piece of advice for any MD (or pit musician) is to be a reliable one. Not showing up to a rehearsal without any explanation, is an excellent way to not get called back as it can throw many aspects behind schedule.

The next piece of advice feels like an obvious one, but it is important to know your music prior to rehearsal. If you are running an ensemble vocal rehearsal and you are not 100% sure of how the piece is meant to sound/ the context of the song in the show/who is onstage and offstage, etc, you will be setting yourself up for problems further down the track. Know. Your. Music.

In addition to this, the more intimate an understanding you have of the score, the more you will inspire your cast. The ensemble will work harder if you have a specific vision for the sound, something to work towards beyond just ‘here are your notes’.

The final piece of advice that I would give to aspiring MD’s is probably one of the most important, and that is to approach every new show/cast/production team/band with an enthusiastic and positive attitude. The personal relationship that an MD maintains with their cast and team cannot be understated, especially when it comes to the actual performances. You may have people in your cast who are taking part in their first show, or someone who has scored their first lead role.

Performing onstage is going to be quite intimidating and nerve-racking for some of your cast, and they need to see a familiar and friendly face when they look into the pit. They need to know that the MD/conductor is ‘in the trenches’ with them and has their back. The conductor should be someone they can look at and feel instantly more relaxed. I’ve always said the perfect MD should be someone who can strike the perfect balance of raising the standard of what’s expected, while simultaneously lowering the overall tension of the experience, which as I mentioned can be a daunting one for much of the cast. Community theatre is too personal-based to be making any enemies and is simply not worth it in the long run. Be friendly to each other.

What is the most rewarding thing about being the Musical Director and seeing a show come to life?

There are so many rewarding aspects to being an MD that have kept me doing it for as long as I have, the first one being my own personal musical development. Every musical brings new styles, new genres and new opportunities to implement your own personal touches to many areas of the music. Being able to see your own skills adapt, grow and fine-tune from show to show is certainly one of the most rewarding aspects.

Another element is the people you get to work with. My personal experience has shown that community theatre is one of the most caring, understanding and accepting communities of people to be around. It is so rewarding seeing friendships form, and an army of people work together towards a singular goal, to create the best production that they can.

And finally, getting to see the growth of these people throughout the rehearsal process. Whether it is one cast member’s ability to hold a harmony that they couldn’t at the beginning of rehearsals, or seeing someone who was deathly terrified in their audition go on to shine onstage, or seeing someone who doubted their own acting abilities draw a boisterous laugh or mournful sob from the audience. Seeing my castmates grow in confidence is easily one of the most rewarding aspects.

Any dream shows you’d like to tick off your bucket list?

Quite a few! Some of the shows I have wanted to tick off the bucket list for a long time include: The Phantom of the Opera, Catch Me If You Can, City of Angels, Into the Woods, The Last Five Years and The Prince of Egypt. Among many others!

What are some of your musical goals for the next few years?

My goals are really quite simple. Mainly to continue doing what I’m doing, as it’s what I enjoy doing more than anything. I want to continue working on as many different shows as possible, grow contacts with as many keen musicians as I can, and to get to work with as many theatre companies around Melbourne as possible.

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