Remembering James DePreist
Some days ago, the news of the passing of James DePreist began to spread. Instead of recapping his long and prestigious career as many writers have already done, I would instead like to share how I came to know the maestro.
The giant from Juilliard.
While working on my doctoral degree, we were told that James DePreist, Director Emeritus of the Juilliard School, would be our guest for a few sessions. Many of the other student conductors were very excited, and rightly so. I on the other hand was less than thrilled for reasons to be divulged shortly.
The first session was a roundtable discussion of sorts, which was filled with student conductors trying to climb over each other verbally while doing their best to impress the maestro with their own accomplishments thus far. I can’t blame them really. I would normally have attempted to partake in the one–upmanship, but I had just returned from a conducting workshop where another fairly prominent conducting teacher had essentially disliked everything I did and left me sour about my own abilities. I didn’t feel like I wanted or needed to repeat that experience from another top shelf conducting instructor.
So I sat and listened.
I believe I exchanged more words with his wife Ginette (who was sitting next to me) than the maestro. It was only a few words really, but still more. There were no major revelations that morning. There were no secrets to success that were shared. Instead it was a fairly middle of the road discussion about general conducting topics.
Stick waving time.
A few days later we were conducting for the maestro in a two-hour orchestra session. Some of the other conductors were nervous. I was not. I had already determined that he would not like what I was going to do, so there was no need in getting worked up about being in front of him. A few minutes before we were to begin, another conductor noticed that my dress shirt was hanging out. He was being nice and made a comment about how other conductors were dressed that day in an attempt to help with what he thought was an oversight on my part. It wasn’t an oversight. I wasn’t enthusiastic about being there, and my attire showed it. The belt I was wearing didn’t have the safety loop to hold the end in place, so it drooped down across my faded and mildly worn jeans. My shoes were old and scuffed. I thought about how that would look for a moment and realized the lack of respect it would show .
So I tucked my shirt in.
A few other conductors were on the podium before me. Each was only able to get through a few measures, and occasionally, a couple of phrases before the maestro interrupted with “sorry.” He would then tell them what all they had done wrong in a very pleasant manner. “They’re not together because you’re not giving a clear enough beat” or “I can’t hear a line, just notes, make them play the line.” This was how the scenario played out. Over and over.
The repertoire was Mozart 40.
I knew this piece well. When it was my turn in front of the one man firing squad, I was to run the first movement. The conductor before me had just been politely dismantled on the same movement (although I don’t think he realized it). When it was my time, I decided not to use DePreist’s previous comments as a clue to how I think I should conduct for him (something we often think will give us insight into hopefully gaining their favor). Instead, I would just stand up there, do “my thing” to the best of my abilities, and be the benefactor of the displeasure of yet another well-known conducting pedagogue. In my mind, this was how it was all going to play out.
So we began.
I made it about four measures into the first movement before we stopped. But it wasn’t because of the maestro. The orchestra had not responded to my speed which was slightly faster than the previous conductor’s tempo. I made the decision to stop and ask for it a little faster.
So we began, again.
At first a few measures went by. Then it was the first page of the score. Then the second. He hadn’t stopped me yet. I attempted to glance over at him while cueing a woodwind entrance to see what was wrong. I thought he had either left the room or was busy texting (not something I think he was ever known for doing, but at the time it seemed like a possible reason for why I was still going). In my quick look I was able to see that his full attention was on what I was doing. I didn’t understand why I hadn’t been stopped, but refocused on the music. As we neared the end of the exposition, I had almost completely forgotten about him being in the room.
We pressed on through the development section, past the recapitulation and ended. I had made it to the end. I felt that I had conducted as if it were a performance. More importantly, I had done it my way. I readied myself for what he would say. Perhaps I missed a signal from him to stop. Perhaps in my desire to do “my thing” I blocked out hearing him say “sorry.” It didn’t matter. I already knew that whatever he was going to say, it was not something I wanted to hear. As I made eye contact with him, he spoke:
“It’s very nice…”
“Ok…?” I thought to myself. The magnitude of what he had just said and what had just occurred escaped me. The only thing in my mind was “Now he’s going to say ‘..but..’ and I’m going to hear what I don’t really care to hear.”
Most of what he said next still fell on my deafened and confused ears. I had to go back later and watch the video recording to hear what he had said. They were some of the nicest compliments I had ever received about my conducting. His first comment had knocked me completely off-center to the point that the remainder just flew by me. During that time, it was as if he was speaking latin to me, and I just stood there, trying to comprehend it.
Fortunately my head had cleared enough in time to hear him request that I return to a section in the development. He had felt the orchestra did not do what I had wanted and shown in my conducting. So I did. We stopped a few times, but it was always because of a player issue. DePreist and I had a nice back and forth dialogue during this rehearsal period. It was unlike any other I’ve experienced in any masterclass or instructional setting. After working a bit, we ran from the development to the end again. He concluded with a polite “very nice.” The orchestra then followed with the expected foot-shuffle/stand-tapping/clapping.
The maestro beckons.
After I had finished, there were a few minutes to shuffle around while the next conductor was getting ready. Maestro DePreist motioned for me to come over to him. We spoke for a short time in which he elaborated more on his thoughts about my conducting. Somehow he managed to not say a negative word. Normally I would gladly boast of the details of such wonderful comments, but that is not the point of sharing this experience.
Things start to settle in.
As I walked back over to where the other conductors were sitting, the one who had made a sartorial reference beforehand came up to me and said “You should put that on your website.” “Put what?” I asked. ‘Very nice-James DePreist” he said. I chuckled, still a bit in disbelief about what had just happened. As the session continued, things returned to how they had previously been run: a few bars or phrases and stopping. My mind lingered about what DePreist had said during our private conversation. Afterwards, there was another short discussion in group with the maestro. He discussed what he had seen and spoke in generalities about conducting. As we were all leaving, I strategically took my time gathering my things so I could be the last one out to thank him. As I approached, he spoke to me first.
“Wonderful.” he said.
I smiled, feeling extremely humbled by the experience, and thanked him for coming. He had taken a situation that I tried to throw away and turned it into a pivotal moment for me in my life.
A few days later I emailed him with a question regarding something he had said during our private post-conducting conversation. He suggested that I call him. From there, I was subsequently invited to his home in Scottsdale. Throughout all of our talks, never once did we discuss the technical side of conducting. Never once did he offer comments on how I could conduct better (much to my slight disappointment.)
Instead, he focused on sharing with me his own personal stories, his ideas about how I could build a career. He did his best to inspire me to keep working hard, to keep making music. His belief in me was greater than my own, something that will always astonish me.
James DePreist was not one of my conducting teachers, but he was one of my greatest mentors.