David Dabbon: Composer, Conductor, Arranger, Orchestrator, Inspiration to the Rest of Us
Pavarotti once said, "It's like an injection of hormones to work with a great conductor," which is certainly the experience of working or training with David Dabbon. He has an unusually charismatic and profoundly inspiring energy that shoots right into the veins of his colleagues and students. It's that 'je ne sais quoi' about Dabbon that distinguishes him also as a composer, dance arranger, conductor, and orchestrator.
Dabbon has served as a conductor, dance arranger and/or music director for several of New York's most noteworthy companies such as Playwrights Horizons, New York Theatre Workshop, Atlantic Theater Company, and Roundabout Theatre, and alongside such greats as Les Waters, Ramin Gray, James Macdonald and Jerry Lewis. Dabbon’s work as an orchestrator has been played in some of the world’s most renowned concert halls, from the Sydney Opera House to Carnegie Hall. He is also responsible for many excellent recorded orchestrations for Broadway and Off-Broadway, including the musical Sondheim on Sondheim (Grammy-Nomination OBC), as well as music for film and an original ballet for the Dallas Black Dance Theatre. When he's not creating his own work, he travels the globe giving master classes in music/vocal coaching, his influence as far-reaching as Australia, Europe and all over America. As a teacher, he cuts straight to the heart and mind of his students to tap into what may be blocking a student's progress and success. As Erica Swindell of Broadway's Once put it, "Coaching with David Dabbon is like taking a fun journey to your individual gifts as a performer."
I was able to catch up with David through email to gain insight into how he, one of the most gifted, hard-working and downright kindest people working in show business, got his start and what he would say to artists of all ages.
When, why and how did you realize your life would be in music?
I didn’t know I was actually going to go into music. My goal growing up was to be a director/choreographer, but I began composing at the age of eight. I was pretty much a self-taught pianist. I was a dancer/actor and loved music. I loved how it made me feel, the rhythms and drive when I danced. When I went to college at The Hartt School of Music in Connecticut to study Musical Theatre, I was writing a lot of music and coaching singers. The faculty found out I was writing and teaching students and said that it seemed like I had a strong passion toward music. I looked into the idea. It really excited me, so I made the switch to create my own degree.
Many people train in music for years before mastering or even understanding musical composition and musicianship, so how does one teach oneself such a complex thing?
Looking back I can say my goal was to always find a connection to my “home,” what I knew best. From there I could launch. The moment I decided to switch to music I had the urge to surround myself with the best that I could. I found internships, had mentors, asked a lot of questions, and problem solved the best way I knew how. I took more classes but when it came time to graduate I wasn’t ready to move to NYC. I then decided to study music in depth. At the time I felt I wasn’t strong enough to get a Masters in piano and I didn’t want a degree in composition, so I figured conducting was the best way to study music.
Studying conducting I would be encouraged to learn about structure, styles, singers, instruments, music history, working with large groups. When I went off to graduate school at Carnegie Mellon I was really stuck. I had a teacher back at undergrad that was discouraging me to play piano because I wasn’t “good enough.” My mentor, Robert Page, at Carnegie Mellon realized I was really blocked and suggested I combine my music and dance. He suggested I think of music as I did dance. Since then things began to click again and open doors.
Often musical genius-types like yourself (you’re not allowed to argue, I've witnessed your genius personally!) are impossible personalities. Not you. How do you stay grounded, humble, patient and kind to those you work with?
(HA HA! THANK YOU, HEATHER! THAT MADE ME CHUCKLE - DD) I guess the best advice someone ever gave me was to stay genuine. Knowing what you are feeling at all times is key! And if you don’t know what you are feeling figure out what is making you confused. Really get to know yourself so that when you communicate it’s always from a direct and solid place.
Do you still dance or want to?
I do dance still. Not as much as I want to. I usually take class when I’m feeling stuck. Funny story, last year I signed up for a dance class and in the midst of taking the class I met the teacher who was looking for a composer to commission a ballet. A couple days later we chatted again and I got a call about a commission. So you never know where random things from your past will lead you.
What is your ultimate dream project to work on?
My ultimate dream project is connected with working with people who I really love and excite me so much. Anything with a team of people I just love seeing every day would really rock my world!
You have a reputation for being a song coach who addresses the psychological and emotional state of the singer, not just the voice. Does the mind affect the voice?
The mind absolutely is associated with the voice. It’s all about focus and of course technique. One big reason why people love music and singing is because of its intense sense of expression. But expression only happens when the mind and heart are free to share. There are students I have who think they can’t sing but have a fantastic voice. The little mind game of doubt creeps inside their heads and really hinders how they sing. As a teacher I really want to give students the support they need so they can focus and achieve what they deeply feel.
What is your advice to aspiring musicians/vocalists and composers?
Something that I have heard growing up but never resonated with me until recently which is “Be Yourself”. I always thought “Be Yourself” was a given because you can’t really be anyone else no matter how hard you try. I thought it was a toss away statement. Now what it means to me is to never assume anything about yourself. It’s the choices and limitations I have that make me be “Me.” Taking the time to actually listen to yourself is really hard to do. The other thing I’d encourage is to keep creating and ask questions. Don’t settle and reminisce too much, I think it stops growth.
If it weren’t music, what would your dream job be?
Anything with stability is great! (I’m laughing.) I don’t know. Our industry is really really tough. Many times I just want to run away and teach at a small school or start a bed and breakfast or something else. I can’t say it’s a dream job, but the fantasy of it excites me from time to time.
Whose career would you most like to emulate?
No two careers are ever similar which makes it hard to figure out. I think as a kid and young adult the dreams we have are so vivid because of what and who have inspired us. I really do try to picture what my perfect week would be like and it involves so much. For example writing, creating, teaching, eating, vacationing, seeing family, quiet time, high stress, meeting new people, seeing friends…I really love it all. I’m not sure who has done all this yet and I'm excited to build my own path for it.
You've worked with some of the greatest in the business, Marvin Hamlisch, Audra McDonald, Stephen Sondheim, Jerry Lewis - any other heavyweights you've dreamed of working with and why?
A best friend of mine, Benjy, has this great quote I love, “We are one of the only industries where you can grow up reading and hearing people in the field, then get older and actually get to work with them.” There are so many people that the traditional world might not call “heavyweights” or “famous” but I knew their names when I was a kid and then have gotten to work with them. Those have actually been the dream people for me. And when they have a very distinctive voice and leave you a voicemail…always makes me smile.
What would you change about Musical Theatre, if anything?
LOL…Maybe ticket prices
To learn more about David Dabbon or to contact him for private lessons or other engagements you can find him at www.daviddabbon.com