Becoming a Director, Part 1: In at the Deep End

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This is the first of two posts that emerge in response to conversations at the recent LABBS Directors Day about the process of becoming a director. This one focuses on the experiences and needs of people who find themselves parachuted into the role without much warning; the next one considers what you might do to prepare to ready yourself for the role some time in the future.

I hope that for those people who found themselves becoming directors when they thought they were just going along to help out it was a comfort to discover how normal this is. While for the individual concerned it is definite shock to the system, sometimes involving a life-changing degree of overwhelm, as a route into the role, it is very common.

The other, related method of becoming a director when you didn't plan to is when you sing in a choir which loses its director and you step in just to keep things going until they find another, and then they don't.

Now, when you find yourself in this position, it can be scary (mild understatement moment). You find yourself floundering around, doing everything by the seat of your pants and wondering how you are getting away with it. So you may, like some of the delegates at the directors day, crave a ready-made structure, a development plan to follow to help you into the role.

Now, I've spent some time thinking what that might look like, and I'm starting to wonder whether in fact that's actually the most useful thing to offer at that point. There are two issues. First, the point that Andrea made about not knowing what you don't know - any one-size-fits-all approach is going to be only partially useful for any one individual. Second, at the point you are deep in the immersive experience of doing something for the first time, you have very little attention spare to process new input.

Actually, structured guidance on the role is something that is most useful either before you start, or after a few months, when the initial panic has died down and you have a fund of experience that needs organising and making sense of.

For those initial few months, though, the primary challenge is how to maintain enough reflective space to stay in the learning zone rather than the panic or thrash zone. Things that might help you do this include:

  • Keeping a reflective diary to help process the experience
  • Finding a peer group to support you - friends who already direct, your quartet, or the director of a choir you sing in are the most commonly cited source for this
  • If the ensemble has a robust management infrastructure, this can be invaluable to support a new director. (Of course, a choir that has lost its musical leadership can also often have other organisational problems, but if you're lucky and it's there, use it.)

Looking back on my own first experience as a director, when my school music teacher had to take a term off for an operation and left me in charge of the choir and orchestra* aged 15, I had none of these, and I drowned. I don't think I even told may parents I was struggling. But, you know, the singers and instrumentalists continued to come along each week, and were generally cooperative. We made music, of a sort. It was possibly not as bad as it felt at the time.

When I started writing this post, I didn't have that memory to hand. It's not one I revisit very often (and in fact it's very fragmentary, I haven't retained much of that experience). So I hadn't anticipated that I was going to finish with the message that if you have a friend who has been thrown in the deep end of directing unexpectedly, make sure you are there for them.

Be a sounding board, so they can unload and work out how they feel about it, offer practical help so they don't have to do everything themselves. Get them through the first few crazy months in good order, and then they will both be ready to embrace some more structured training, and have a clearer idea of what kind of development they need.

*It was called orchestra. Instrumental ensemble would be more accurate. It was made up of orchestral instruments but not in a number or proportion that could perform anything actually written for orchestra, so our teacher arranged things for us.

It may seem screamingly obvious to the majority, but for the raw new director maybe not so: key to a successful rehearsal particularly when you're blinded by panic, is to have written yourself a plan. Warm up, part one of the session - what song/s you want to work on. No more than 2/3 main points you want to iron out, any notices for tea break, part two - songs and objectives and then some fun stuff to relieve the tension and send them home thinking they had a good time. As my chorus is made up from a lot of `part-timers`I find that many of them lack the personal drive of their full time UK `cousins`so progress is gentler but without a plan would be hopeless. Sylvy x

It never does any harm to state the screamingly obvious, Sylvy. Not least because what is obvious to one person is a revelation to another.

(This is also why having conversations about stuff is useful...)

Thanks for this blog Liz! This might have been written for me! It was exactly what happened to me 2 1/2 years ago when I was catapulted from the back row of the altos to stand in front of the choir.
I still feel very much a novice today and was mildly reprimanded by my choir the other week when I said that I did not feel I was a "proper" MD yet, because I did not have a background in music or teaching.
What I really meant was that I still feel very much a novice and was surprised when a more experienced music teacher MD conducted my choir for a couple of pieces in a joint concert and told them exactly the same things which I had been saying to them in rehearsal.
It proved that I did know what I was talking about and I don't know why I was so surprised! Before I retired I did work in a management, leadership and coaching role and although it was not teaching as such, I find myself applying to the choir all the time the leadership principles I applied when at work.
I think the right thing for me as a new MD was to get about 9 months' experience, all of which felt as if I was making it up as I went along, and then I went on an ABCD one day beginner's course.
ABCD has given me a lot of support since then. I thought it was probably only for swanky conductors of posh, really good semi professional choirs but it does accommodate people like me whose local community choirs are generally of more mature years, and largely non music readers.
I also used as a mentor a more experienced friend who conducted another choir in which I sang and my singing teacher was also a useful mentor.
The important thing is not to struggle on alone and to get your choir and especially the committee on side.

There's a really interesting point in there about self-identity, Lynne, and what it takes to feel like a 'proper' director. I have been having some interesting conversations about imposter syndrome recently, and your account really resonates with them. I shall have a mull on that.

And thank you for confirming that it's really normal to have this experience. That's possibly the thing someone newly thrown into the role most needs to know.

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