Developing the Deputy

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I had an email recently from some who is currently the assistant musical director of her chorus, asking about how people in her position should best go about developing themselves. She is already taking up opportunities to go to training events, but it was more a case of what happens in between – how does the front-line director develop their team? She finishes her mail:

Having said all that, I do think that some sort of guide for MDs on how to develop their section leaders/assistant MDs would be a useful document. As you know, being able to direct doesn't necessarily mean that you know how to 'teach' directors.

Which I think is a good point. And there’s clearly more to it than a single blog post is going to answer, but I’ll make a start here, and will be happy to develop it further in the future. It’s probably also worth taking a browse round the resources and forums at ChoralNet, as it’s the kind of question that may have come up there over the years. (And even if it hasn’t directly, it’s still a great place to pick up ideas and advice!)

So my first thought was about the job description. The exact relationship between director and assistant will vary in the same proportion that different human beings have different areas of strength and interest. There are two dimensions, therefore, that need thinking about in terms of developing the assistant in their role.

  1. What the assistant needs to be able to do to deputise for the MD
  2. What elements of the overall director role the MD chooses to delegate to their assistant

The key thing here is that in the first set of skills, the deputy needs to be able to replicate their MD’s skills, whereas in the second, they need to be able to complement them. Hence, it’s hard to generalise about the second, since it will depend a lot on the individuals involved. A voice specialist assisting an inspirational motivator will take on different duties from a confident team-builder assisting a meticulous planner.

But in the first dimension, it’s a case of needing the same skills that the director uses to run rehearsals and lead performances. So, skills like:

  • Musical skills (the ability to understand musical content, to demonstrate individual lines, to take things apart and put them back together in troubleshooting, to understand style, phrasing, rhythm, to hear and correct note errors etc)
  • Vocal skills (the ability to diagnose and correct vocal production issues that are getting in the way of the music, the ability to demonstrate in a vocally helpful way)
  • Teaching skills (the ability to devise and deliver teaching strategies so as to help the singers learn the music and develop their skills, the ability to diagnose where people are struggling and find ways to help them)
  • Conducting skills (the ability to lead through gesture, to communicate clearly and efficiently without words, to use their own body in a way that facilitates the singers’ voices)
  • Time management (the ability to get through planned material in a timely fashion, to keep the rehearsal moving at an appropriate pace, to balance the need to follow the plan with the need to be flexible in response to contingencies, to keep everyone working productively)

That’s probably not exhaustive, but it’s enough to give the idea of the breadth of the role. Possibly more useful is to point out what it doesn’t involve. The key thing that the front-line director has to do that their deputy doesn’t is strategic planning and development of vision. The assistant may participate in this via the second dimension of the job, but in the first dimension, their task is to aid the fulfilment of the vision set for the choir in the absence of the director.

But that’s still plenty to do. And the question of how best to go about developing that range of skills is likely to depend on where people most need to develop. After all, when people get appointed to the role they typically have some of the skills needed in abundance, but lack others.

The first thing that comes to mind is that people do need the opportunity to do the bits they’re not so good at. It is hard for a director to delegate bits of a rehearsal to someone who is going to do it less well than they would themselves. But if the assistant is going to do it while the director’s on holiday, they need the practice beforehand – they won’t improve by never doing it. And by the same token, you don’t want to throw them right in the deep end. People don’t learn so well when they’re floundering.

So, three conditions are needed to make this deputising useful for both assistant and choir:

  1. It needs to be a little and often to maximise the opportunities to reflect and enact changes.
  2. There needs to be opportunities for the assistant to receive feedback on what they did. This can be from the MD, or it could be from a designated friend who has been asked to monitor a particular aspect of what they do, or it can be from the ensemble as a whole. Different occasions and relationships and development stages will call for different forms of feedback. Don’t underestimate the value of watching yourself on video either.
  3. It needs to be strategically placed within the rehearsal so that it doesn’t get in the way of wider objectives. For instance, someone who needs to work on voice-friendly gestures shouldn’t be doing the warm-up; much better for them to be handed a vocally-free chorus later in the rehearsal for 20 minutes with the goal of achieving their rehearsal goals while keeping the voices free from extraneous effort.

The assistant may well benefit from a mentor to help them diagnose their development needs and track their progress. This may be the MD, but equally it can just be someone they trust. A reflective journal will help them whether or not they share its contents with a mentor (standard personal development techniques coming into play here of course). And they will undoubtedly benefit from having regular time to sit out and listen, observe and take notes during rehearsal. One of the biggest challenges in becoming a good director is learning how to pay attention to what the singers are up while controlling all your own limbs. Separating out the two processes gives wonderful opportunities to learn.

So, that’s a start on the subject. Not anywhere near the question of how you progress from the assistant slot to running your own show, but that’s a different question which we’ll get to that one of these days.

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