Ben McNaboe | Conversation with Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold | Scene4 Magazine | March 2020 | www.scene4.com

Take It Off Their Hands
and Do It Well

A Conversation with Musician
Ben McNaboe

Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold

As the lights dimmed at the Fulton Opera House and the conductor took his place on the podium, turning to bow to the audience before raising his baton and launching the overture to Peter Pan, a white-haired woman in front row center whispered a bit too audibly to her neighbor, “Oh, my we have a young one this time!” 

Music Director Ben McNaboe could not have failed to hear, and he even smiled slightly to himself.  At twenty-seven, he is, in fact, considered “young” in a profession where many of his colleagues are decades older, and in the six years since he left graduate school and began his professional life as a conductor, arranger, musical director and contractor, session musician, and teacher, he has built a resume that is truly impressive, and he stands poised at a very exciting crossroads in his blossoming career.

I ask the soft-spoken, sweetly serious McNaboe if his age has created any barriers for him in building his resume.  “Being younger as a leader has posed challenges I have had to combat. There have been people in an orchestra or a cast who have not always been thrilled to be told what to do by someone of my age.  That was more so true when I was twenty-two, but I have learned to check myself a lot and work to prove myself.  When people don’t know me, it is sometimes natural for them to assume I won’t be able to pull something off. I know I have to establish a track record.”  And in a very short period, Ben McNaboe has done just that, demonstrating not only his artistic excellence, but also his keen administrative skills.


McNaboe grew up in Yarmouth, Maine.  He recalls his first encounter with a piano, which his father bought for the family when Ben was eight years old.  He remembers the curious fascination he felt for the instrument – “I was glued to it “- though he acknowledges “I was such a busy kid that though I took lessons, I didn’t really take them seriously until much later.”  The Yarmouth Public Schools music program was “great” McNaboe says, and he credits some of his early mentors with inspiring him as a musician. “Karen Renton was my elementary school music teacher, and Brad Ciechomski started me on saxophone.  He was a first call musician for the Boston Pops who had even played at President Clinton’s inauguration.  He had been my Uncle Tony’s (a professional drummer) teacher, and he was the first mentor I had who taught me the pride of being a professional musician.  He would invite his students to watch his group perform.  From the fifth grade he drilled me in the discipline ‘to be early is to be on time; to be on time is to be late,’ and to this day, I adhere to that [maxim.]”


Among McNaboe’s other Maine mentors was Kim Grover, who taught him general music and chorus in high school and involved him with musical theatre. It was she, McNaboe says, who helped him make the decision to pursue a career in music. “I had gone to nursing school in Rhode Island for my freshman college year, and I remember coming home after fall semester and talking with Kim about my love of music and musical theatre, but that I was worried I couldn’t make a living as a musician.  And she said to me, ‘Why don’t you do it?’  I went back to college that week and switched my major to music.”  McNaboe finished freshman year in Rhode Island and then transferred to University of Maine Orono where he completed a Bachelor’s and Master’s in music education with an emphasis in conducting.  “It was at U. Maine that I met and studied with Lucas Richmond, the conductor of the Bangor Symphony.” 

While McNaboe’s music education was broad-based, he felt himself drawn to musical theatre at a very early age. “I gravitated to musicals because of the collaborative aspect.  I really enjoy working with members of every department. People who have had me on their production team at a theatre would probably say I am way more involved [in the whole experience] than many other music directors. I love the opportunity to work with directors and designers as well as singers and musicians.”

McNaboe’s interest in musical theatre began in New York City with a performance of Memphis.  “It was a huge moment for me.  I remember sitting there thinking ‘The band is perfect; this is so tight.’ It was an awakening for me!  That budding passion was then nurtured in the Yarmouth schools. Tony-nominated educator and theatre director, Betsy Puelle took McNaboe under her wing, and their relationship continues to this day when they will create a new summer theatre intensive at Maine State Music Theatre for youngsters.  “I stage managed Pajama game,” Mc Naboe remembers, ‘but then Betsy figured out that I played piano.  She was amazing at utilizing kids’ talents to their full potentials.  I began to play rehearsal piano and soon got involved with playing in the pit and other aspects of the musical preparation for shows. She was the person from whom I learned how to work with a director and how to give him/her what was needed.”  McNaboe’s connection to Yarmouth High School’s musical theatre program continued for his six university years, when he would serve as music director for the annual show.


While at University of Maine, McNaboe was active in performing and conducting with orchestras throughout Maine, and he took on the challenges to create, produce, arrange, and conduct several hugely successful pops concerts with prominent guest stars at U. Maine’s Collins Center for the Arts.

Also during his university years, McNaboe made another important professional connection – one which launched him into the many roles he plays today.  His first interaction with Maine State Music Theatre  came through choreographer Raymond Marc Dumont, who worked with McNaboe on the Yarmouth High School musicals. “Ray asked me to come up to MSMT in 2011 and to sit in the pit and observe Jason Wetzel leading The Wiz.  I was completely hooked!  Jason was excited to have a kid watching/learning from him, and we developed this strong mentor-student relationship.  From that point on I sat in the pit with other conductors each summer.  I was first hired to play reeds for Young Frankenstein in 2015 and the following summer I was hired as Assistant Music Director.”  McNaboe then succeeded Patrick Fanning as MSMT’s Music Director and just this past summer took on the responsibilities of musical coordinator, contractor, and supervisor for the entire program, while conducting one main stage show.


When McNaboe received his Master’s degree and left U. Maine, he made the decision to move to New York. “I felt that being a big fish in a small pond was not healthy for me.  I had to challenge myself.”  And that meant the move to the Big Apple.  For the past two-and-a-half years, McNaboe has been crafting a widely versatile musical career both in New York and in regional theatres across the country.  He has returned to MSMT each summer, has worked extensively at the Fulton in Lancaster, and has taken on n impressive list of projects, donning many different musical hats.

One of the most exciting for him has been his work on the development of the new musical about Judy Garland, Chasing Rainbows, for which McNaboe was engaged as copyist for the recording session of the demos and then brought back as assistant to Music Director Larry Yerman for the last big workshop production of the piece.

Similarly, he has been closely involved with the new Robin & Clark musical, Treasure Island A Musical Adventure, for which he reduced the original seventeen instrument world premiere setting to a ten-instrument setting to be used in several subsequent productions.  Of these experiences McNaboe says, “ One of my bucket list wishes is to be involved with a new musical from beginning to end.  I would also love to be involved in an original cast recording.”


Other recent adventures have included numerous cabaret performances at 54 Below, a production of Mamma Mia at Rahway’s Union County Performing Arts Center and a remarkable and serendipitous encounter which led to the publication of a work he rediscovered by Don Sebasky.  “I was cleaning out storage for The Little Orchestra Society of New York, when I found this handwritten set of Brahms Intermezzi, arranged by Sebasky,” whose many notable works include the orchestration of An American in Paris and who had served as the principal orchestrator for the Boston Pops for decades.  “At that time, Sebasky was in an assisted living residence in Maplewood, NJ.,” McNaboe recounts.  “ I found an old address on an outdated website and wrote him a letter.  I was astounded when he actually called me and invited me to visit him in Maplewood.  I brought the manuscript I had found and offered to edit it and typeset it by computer. Each time I went to work with him, it was like a series of mini lessons in orchestration.  My mentor, Lucas Rich, owns the publishing imprint Ledor, and after I called Lucas, we were able to get the score in that catalog.”

It is that kind of ingenuity, perseverance, and ability to conjure up many different creative and organizational skills that make Ben McNaboe such a unique and multi-talented musician – the kind of Wunderkind who does it all. I ask him to talk about the various ways he harnesses his musical gifts and what each role requires of him : music director, musical contractor, arranger/orchestrator, conductor/performer, teacher.  He starts by describing his task when he serves as Music Director for a show. “It is a very varied set of tasks. I begin with the technical aspects of the music – going through the score, deciding the cut offs, the phonetic diction.   Then I teach the music to the musicians and singers.  There is an artistic arc in coaching the solo singers; I also confer with the director and choreographer and production team to help create a cohesive collaborative effort. And, of course, I conduct and play the show.”  McNaboe likens these responsibilities to “ being a good mini HR department. My goal in any show [I do] is to make sure everyone is getting along.  When I deliver notes, I am very mindful of everyone’s comfort level.   And I try to run at the director’s speed.”  He recounts telling one of his assistants this past summer during rehearsals for MSMT’s Wizard of Oz with director/choreographer Marc Robin, known for his high energy, fast paced rehearsals, “You have to have your hands on the keyboard and be ready to spin around and write notes or annotate something on the computer.”

And then, there is one more requisite to a good music director, McNaboe asserts: “You are the person who will save the day if something goes wrong.  If a performer forgets a lyric or go up instead of down, the orchestra’s eyes go right to me.”  He shares an anecdote illustrating this from the recent Fulton run of Peter Pan.  “There was a night when Peter’s mic went out just before “I’m Flying.” In that split second I had to decide if it was more important for the orchestra to play as usual and not compromise the sound the audience expects or is the storytelling more important?  Because if the orchestra played full out, no one would hear him. I use a wearable talkback mic with a foot switch that only the musicians can hear me in their headphones.  I told them that they should all be ready to drop out when I signaled so, and just drums and keyboards play when Peter was singing.  These are stressful moments, but you have to make the right choice for the audience.”


Recently, McNaboe has also done the musical contracting work – the recruiting and hiring of the musicians - for some of the theatres he has worked for, most notably MSMT and the Fulton.  “It is the best feeling in the world to put together a good band where everyone is jiving, playing together, and enjoying themselves.” McNaboe sees his work at theatres where he has a continuing relationship as building an orchestra.  “I know a ton of people, and I love networking.  I make an effort to hear performances, go to recitals, and listen to who is out there.  We love working with many of the same people, but I also like to try to bring in some new blood to so that we insure the musical future of the theatre.”  Again, he illustrates with an example from this past summer’s concert at MSMT, Lettin’ the Good Times Roll with Chicago divas E. Faye Butler and Felicia P. Fields.  At first the musicians I hired were not into the improvisational style that these singers and their music required.  I was very stressed, but I knew I had hired musicians who really knew what they were doing, who were really smart, and I would have to trust them.  I went into the booth to listen, and they nailed it!  I was crying and so happy to have both ladies compliment their work.”


Another musical task for which McNaboe demonstrates an affinity is arranging.  He says he dabbled in his first attempts in high school and continued at university by putting together the two big pops concerts and their repertoire.  He has gone on to create the arrangements and new orchestrations for large-scale new projects like Treasure Island has worked on classics like Wizard of Oz and  Singin’ in the Rain.  Currently, he is engaged in preparing all new arrangements and orchestrations and publishing these for the catalog of fifteen children’s theatre works by Marc Robin and Curt Dale Clark.  McNaboe says the key to re-orchestrating a classic is to understand what the director wants.  “Do they want the production to sound as much like the original cast albums possible or do they want me to reimagine the score with a different flavor?”  Fortunately, modern technology has made these tasks a great deal easier than they have been in the past, and McNaboe avails himself of software like Finale and Sibelius to produce the new scores.

Lastly, McNaboe is active as a teacher, both in his capacity as music director and in the classroom itself.  “I love working with young artists.  There is something exciting about someone who will try anything you ask them.  I enjoy doing master classes where you coach thirty-two bar cuts, help the students find a story in those thirty-two bars, and get your hands “dirty” with them, coaching them to make new discoveries.”   He says that teaching the interns in MSMT’s Educational fellowship program is “the best part of my work at MSMT. I remember when  Jonathan [Bryant] and Alicia [Babin} (both 2019 MSMT Performance Interns) came in to a professional audition for Titanic, I found myself crying. It wasn’t about their singing; it was because I was so proud of the work we do at MSMT.  It hit me like a brick wall how proud I was to be a part of their being at this audition.”

It is these feelings of collaboration that ultimately fuel Ben McNaboe’s artistic passion. And it is the primary reason, his musical journey has led him to the theatre.  “When I work at a theatre, I am very invested as a whole part of the team.  In many cases a music director becomes a forgotten person, once he has taught the show, but I prefer to stay involved.  I go to any production meetings to which I am invited, and I love being on board with the whole thing.”


Of his vocation, McNaboe says,  “The thing I like most about being a conductor and a music director is that my whole job is pulling the best performance out of those instrumentalists and cast members, engineering in my head how each person may respond, and finding out how I can get them to reach their highest potential.  As a conductor, I don’t feel as if I am performing.  I feel as if I am supporting the performance. An orchestra is one of the layers of magic in performance, and being unseen in the pit sometimes enhances that sense of magic. Sometimes I have to say to myself and to an orchestra, ‘This moment is not about us.’  As a music director, I make it my biggest goal in any project for the music department to be a complete non issue to everyone else involved. We have to take it off their hands and do it well.” 

Well, not JUST “well,” as Ben McNaboe modestly asserts.  What he is saying perhaps alludes to one of the greatest of all creative truisms in the theatre: make that which is complex, difficult, remarkable – even extraordinary - seem so reassuringly natural and effortless.


Video:  Conducting U. Maine Pops Concert

Video: News Center Maine Interview


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Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold's new book is Round Trip Ten Stories (Weiala Press). Her reviews and features have appeared in numerous international publications. She is a Senior Writer for Scene 4. For more of her commentary and articles,
check the Archives.

©2020 Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold
 ©2020 Publication Scene4 Magazine





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