Since graduating from Berklee in 2006 and moving to L.A., guitarist Drew Taubenfeld has served as musical director for Meghan Trainor, Selena Gomez, and fellow alumnus Charlie Puth B.M. '13, among others. When we talked to him over the phone in June 2017, he had just started working with soul singer Leon Bridges.
Life in L.A. as a Musical Director
Growing up in Baltimore, Maryland, Taubenfeld attended Guitar Sessions one summer and soon enrolled at Berklee, where he studied professional music. About a year after graduating and moving to L.A., Taubenfeld landed his first major gig, playing guitar with Demi Lovato. "Back then, there were a lot of in-person auditions happening, and that was one I was lucky enough to land," he says, noting that now, online content on Instagram and YouTube serves as the de facto cattle call for musicians in L.A. "It's really important for people just moving to the city to develop or invest in content," he says, suggesting to musicians who aren't yet lucky enough to have links on the Tonight Show to film really good video content with high-quality audio that showcases their particular skill set.
Taubenfeld, who established the company DKM Live with partners Max Bernstein and Kevin Cofield to help put shows together for artists, says that as a musical director, he handles everything from hiring musicians and running rehearsals to building set lists and sorting out backing tracks.
"I think technology has become an indispensable part of the role. I always thought of the role of musical director as more string arrangement, horn arrangement, being a conductor almost, like an old-school big band leader," he says. "I really love all those things and am happy I learned about them in school, but I do less and less string arrangements and more Ableton Live and Digital Performer show setup, transitions, making sure tracks are sorted and the drummer has all the samples. You're basically translating electronic music to a live band, and that's a process, to make it sound like it's not just a CD playing and musicians can play this stuff live. I'd say that's a big role as a musical director in 2017."
Performing for President Barack Obama and Tom Hanks
Taubenfeld describes another aspect of his musical life as a utility player for recordings and performances, covering not just guitar, but banjo, pedal steel, and dobro. In 2014, he landed the opportunity to play the Kennedy Center Honors, playing the title song from the film That Thing You Do to honor Tom Hanks for an audience that included the esteemed actor as well as President Barack Obama. "That was pretty surreal," he says, adding that Hanks "actually got on a typewriter and wrote a personal note to everybody in the band, thanking us for performing. I was really stoked to get that."
Advice for Alumni
Taubenfeld suggests that young alumni interested in a career as a musical director "learn all you can about technology, and ask a lot of questions from people who are already doing it to try to see how these shows are being put together." He suggests watching a lot of concert DVDs and YouTube, paying attention to what's happening, such as details like when the artist leaves the stage to change clothes, and how they’re covering their time; this helps to garner knowledge of how details of stage productions evolve through the years.
"For anyone who wants to do this, at the end of the day, our job is to make singers happy to play music, on and off stage," Taubenfeld says. "For anyone still in school, focus and hang out with singers, play with them, and back them up, because when you leave school, that’s who you’re going to be working with."