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