Theatre People Meet David Dabbon
David Dabbon is a composer, arranger, orchestrator, and repertoire coach. He has worked on a variety of projects such as The Mysteries, Love and Information, Sondheim on Sondheim, the Gene Kelly Awards, and the Blumey Awards.
What inspired you to become a composer?
I love creating things. As a kid, I would play in my basement for hours creating all these different stories, building sets, and writing songs. I grew up with a lot of talented friends and would write material with them in mind. When I was in the 8thgrade I wrote a musical that my middle school helped me produce. It was the first time anyone other than myself actually performed something I had written. To this day I love writing for something specific be it a show, a singer, a ballet. It’s thrilling for me to write toward having a performance and for the work to hopefully have a life after that.
What has been your favorite piece you have composed or helped compose and why?
I’ve gotten to write for some pretty cool things, which I feel blessed about. One particular project happened last year. I was part of a piece titled “The Mysteries.” It was a marathon play that was 6 hours long, had a cast of 48, and was made up of over 40 different plays by 40 different playwrights. It was my job as the composer and music director to create music that would be sung and played by a chorus. The rehearsal process was about 3 months long. I only had the night before each rehearsal to write the music for the following day. The entire play was being created as it was being rehearsed, which made it tricky for me to write and edit the work all while being in rehearsal during the day. One of the things that has made it a favorite of mine was the team of people involved from the director, choreographer, the cast, writers, music staff, and technical staff. It was epic, glorious, and exhausting, with lots to be proud of!
What are some of the differences between composing, arranging, and orchestrating pieces? Which do you prefer the most?
They are all certainly different. I have a difficult time even describing the differences to my mom. When I tell her I’m orchestrating or arranging she always says “but isn’t that what a composer does?” I think with both composing and arranging it’s all about the individual’s perspective and taste, but as an orchestrator it’s in support of the composer or arranger’s creation. For all three things the first thing I do is research, research, and research. It could be reading the script, listening to songs of the era or what inspired the work, to asking questions. As a composer I do have to say that the collaboration process is a very holy and special one with a lyricist and librettist. I do love all three responsibilities, though having a good collaborator while being a composer, orchestrator or arranger is the thing I most prefer.
How did you first become involved with the Blumey Awards?
I became involved with the Blumey Awards because I had done a regional awards ceremony in Pittsburgh called the Gene Kelly Awards. I had assisted on those for several years. The person I was assisting was actually asked to head the Blumey’s but declined and recommended me.
What is your favorite thing about your role in the Blumey Awards?
We will be entering the 5th year of the awards and it’s still one of the biggest highlights of my year. I love it so much! Probably the teaching is my favorite. Working with the students and helping them reach their potential is thrilling. My role for the awards combines everything I crave from composing, arranging, teaching, orchestrating, conducting, and coaching. I get to work with remarkable young artists. What more can I ask?
You are also a teacher. How would you say your work as a composer helps you coach actors and singers?
Music is music, and it’s always important to actually make music. A lot of students forget that when learning something new because they want to sing it perfectly. As a teacher I encourage students to sing the work correctly but not perfectly. And as a composer I always prefer someone to sing a song of mine with the heart rather than just the correct pitches. Of course I want both, but if I had to choose, capturing the spirit of my work is why I write it. Each song has its own personality. I taught a course at NYU in song performance. In my second year I had a wacky idea to teach the singers about the tools a composer and lyricist has to write songs. Not all songs out there are actually good. Just like paintings, not all the pieces in a museum are great. It’s important to figure out what makes “your” taste in saying something good or not good. I never would share with students what I thought was solid writing, but I would share tools such as rhyming, form, context, word stress, all these things that as a writer you think about. From there, students were able to understand why some songs seem good at first but then fail. It’s important to know these things because it helps someone identify what might be the most flattering on them, and be able to problem solve tricky sections in a piece of music.
What advice do you have for aspiring composers and repertoire coaches?
Don’t settle and be honest with yourself. Find the things that get you excited and keep you questioning. As a teacher, if a student isn’t doing it right then correct him or her. Don’t let it slip to be nice. It doesn’t serve them well. As a composer, momentum is a powerful thing, and it’s okay to use it. Watch confusing editing and writing; it’s not always a great idea to do both simultaneously, otherwise you’ll get stale very quickly.