The Dilemmas of Depping

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I had a message from a friend recently that looked like a blog post waiting to happen. In fact, she was rather hoping that it was a blog post that already existed, but as it happens she’s the first person to ask me this. But it’s one of those situations that you know other people will also have to deal with so worth us having a think about it for future reference as well as the immediate need.

Her question was this:

This new group I've joined, the MD has confided in me that she's not well and is going to be away for some considerable time between the June and December concerts while she has, and then recovers from, an operation. She wants me to mind the shop for the (not yet fully specified) time she's away. Do you have any pointers for how to keep things going musically and striking the balance between contributing something useful while I'm in charge and changing/breaking stuff so she can't come back easily?

My first thought was that there was likely some experience out there to draw on, so went and asked in a couple of social media groups where musical directors hang out. Interestingly, most of the responses came in two categories:

  1. Now is not the time to introduce changes, your job is to keep the ensemble in a holding pattern
  2. Lead as your own authentic self; you can’t be somebody else, so you have to be you

Which are actually the two imperatives already built into the question. How to be true to both principles, and their practical implications needed a bit more thought.

There seemed to me to be two dimensions to this: working methods, and the music itself. With working methods, the group will have certain accustomed frameworks that you’re probably going to want to keep in place – both to get the benefit of the embodied knowledge and experience they store, and to mean you’re not feeling you have to reinvent the wheel. But within those, if you bring a different selection of rehearsal activities to the party because they are ones that you know and are confident using, that’s to everyone’s advantage.

So, things like ensemble seating plan, rehearsal timings, expectations for prior preparation, balance of sectional and full rehearsals are probably the things to leave in place. How you go about rehearsing the detail of the music – the creative work that goes on in real-time response to what you hear on the day – is where your individuality as a musician will be valuable. You only have access to your own ears and your own imagination when deep in the flow of the music, so that’s what you’ll use.

With regard to the music, when you are rehearsing something with the intention that someone else will conduct it in performance, it helps to know how they will want it to go. It is worth spending an afternoon with the current MD before she’s goes off for her operation, to walk through her music choices and thoughts about them. There’s the vision level – why she picked them, what she likes about them, what she wants both ensemble and audience to get from the programme. And there’s the specifics: what are her preferred choices for tempo, rhythmic flavour/groove, stylistic approaches. Are there any reference performances that she either loves or hates to help steer you towards her concept?

The clearer an idea you have of the musical intentions behind the repertoire choices, the easier it will be to hand back to the MD when she is able to return. Of course, it will still have the different feel of being conducted by a different person, but if the basic artistic/stylistic concept is in place, then the concrete motor skills people have developed to realise it in rehearsal will still serve them well.

The other point that this question brought home to me, in the light of the conversations discussed in my previous post, is why a certain level of orthodoxy in conducting technique is valuable. The general rule of thumb is that the less rehearsal time you have with a group, the more standard your patterns need to be; if you are working with a group long-term you can be freer to develop a more idiosyncratic technique in dialogue with the group. But you never know when you might need someone to dep for you for extra-musical reasons, and these situations are easier if the dep coming in and the leader handing over have broadly compatible gestural languages.

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