Profile: Joanne Ho

Published on 26 June 2017

Musical director Joanne Ho took the long and winding road to the orchestra pit.

By DAPHNE ONG

Waving batons and tickling the keys in orchestra pits was not what Joanne Ho started out expecting to do. While she may oversee the music in musical theatre productions and lead orchestras or bands these days, her journey towards a musical-director role was not a straightforward one.

“When my parents brought me to watch musicals as a kid, I thought the people in the [orchestra] pit were the coolest,” says Ho. “I made a drawing of a stage and the pit, and in the pit I drew a box labelled ‘me’.”

Ho grew up learning classical piano, but musical theatre was always on her mind. “After my hour-long piano practice each day, I was allowed 10 minutes to play whatever musical theatre songs I wanted, so in making the most of that time, I honed my sight-reading skills!”

Ho did not consider music a career option initially, opting for a short-lived stint in public relations. Her interest in musical theatre did not wane, however, and she took singing, dancing and acting lessons, eventually enrolling in the musical theatre performance programme at LASALLE College of the Arts. However, that too was not quite the right fit.

As fate would have it, a pianist was needed for the staging of the musical Company by theatre group Dream Academy, and Ho was recommended for the job. Although her maiden experience in the pit was marked by a steep learning curve, Ho felt a strong yearning to be a musical director. She set off for the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland where she earned her Master of Arts in Musical Theatre (Musical Directing).

Singapore welcomed its newest musical director with open arms in 2014, and Ho found herself working on her first professional show just two days after arriving back from Scotland. Her credits as musical director have since multiplied, and she is currently an associate artist with the Singapore Repertory Theatre.

Ho shines in her element while tackling one of the most misunderstood jobs in the industry. “People think I just wave a baton and play the piano,” she laughs. “It’s much more than that. My job lies in how the music supports the story. My background in acting, singing and dancing gives me a better understanding of the genre and makes it easier for me to know what can and cannot be done.

“People seem most surprised by how much collaboration is needed in being a musical director,” Ho muses. “You have to recognise that you are part of a team and we make compromises to do what is best for the show. I’ve heard it said that the director handles a show’s big picture, the choreographer is its beauty, and the musical director is its heart.”

The most common question Ho gets asked about the job is how one becomes a musical director. Predictably, she says there is no straightforward answer. “Though, I think, it starts with good instincts and a love for musical theatre. You have to watch and listen to musicals as part of your daily diet — you must know your work before you can do it.

“That, and a good eye for pouncing on opportunity,” she adds with a wink.

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