Faculty Spotlight: Alan Michaels P'11 '13 '17
Described as both the chance of a lifetime and as one of the most daunting experiences of a professional musician’s career, the opinions surrounding life as a substitute instrumentalist on a Broadway musical are as varied as those who do it. What it isn’t, however, is easy. Working as a trusted standby in a Broadway orchestra is nerve-wracking, competitive and, oftentimes, spontaneous. For the past 25 years, Alan Michaels, director of music and chair of Peddie’s Arts Department, has been doing just that.
A percussionist, Michaels first made his Broadway debut in the 1990 Tony Award-winning musical, "Grand Hotel." Since then, he has been a substitute in "Annie Get Your Gun," "A Chorus Line," "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," "West Side Story" and "Mary Poppins." He has also performed as part of the Radio City Music Hall "Christmas Spectacular" and numerous other off-Broadway and local productions. Last month, he was hired as a substitute musician for the highly-acclaimed revival of "Falsettos." He has since performed the show twice, his view from the orchestra pit giving him an interesting perspective.
“It’s refreshing for me,” Michaels said. “As a teacher and a music director, I often times forget what it feels like to have to follow along with a conductor and get critiques of my own. It helps me have a greater appreciation for my students and for what we, as music faculty, ask them to do.”
Performing as a professional musician also allows him to better understand his students’ needs.
“When I go to a gig and have a conductor standing over me, it reminds me that it’s harder than it seems. It helps me to be a better teacher and a better department chair,” he said.
It also keeps him busy. On some days, Michaels spends a full day teaching and a full evening performing, only to return home to write advisor reports until early the next morning. While 20-hour days may sound exhausting to many, Michaels finds it invigorating.
“It’s certainly a balance, and it can be a challenge, but more often than not, it energizes me. I may be physically tired, but after performing, I gain creative energy,” Michaels said.
According to Michaels, students benefit from his time spent off-campus as well. Having a teacher who moonlights as a professional musician gives students a better understanding of a career in the arts, though Michaels is well aware of the varied skill level of students who sit in his classroom.
“Students in the arts develop fundamental life skills,” Michaels said. “From time management to organization, students, through art, become better in every subject. Music and the arts do that.”
Music also teaches students to put their heads down and work hard, and Michaels leads by example. Professional substitutes spend hours rehearsing, without ever knowing if and when they might perform.
“I have to pretend that I’m playing the show each night,” Michaels said. “I have to run through the music every day because I never know when I’m going to get called. Sometimes, I get a call at five o’clock for an eight o’clock start time. I have to always be on and ready. And, when I play, my timing must be perfect. The margin for error is none.”
Michaels brings that dedication and perseverance to the classroom.
“I was a professional musician first, and then slowly found my way to teaching,” Michaels said. “I love it. Peddie is unique in that we as faculty, and students themselves, don’t put a ceiling on what they can do. For them, it’s limitless.”