A view from the pit: My experiences of depping Jump to main content

A view from the pit: My experiences of depping

With the COVID-19 pandemic continuing to impact the music profession and causing musicians to miss work through illness or self-isolation, deps are being called upon more frequently than ever before.

In this blog, professional percussionist and ISM member Luke Taylor shares his experiences of depping in London's West End and offers some tips on how to dep successfully.

What is depping?

Depping is a term that I first came across when I was at secondary school. My drum teacher at the time spoke to me about what life as a professional musician might look like. They made it clear that as well as teaching playing a significant role in the early stages, earning an income from performing was possible, and that securing dep work was a great way to do this.

A 'dep' (deputy) is the word commonly used for a musician's understudy, particularly in theatre. If the main player or 'chair' on a show needs an evening off or is unwell, they'll call one of their deps to cover for them. At the drop of a hat, the dep is expected to play with the same level of professionalism and skill as the person who's been playing the show almost eight times a week for the last month, year, or even decade!

How I got started

Having completed my studies and gained professional experience as a performer, I was offered my first dep in London's West End in December 2020. The opportunity was to dep for the percussion chair, and it came about through people I'd met playing with the London Musical Theatre Orchestra. There are rarely auditions for this kind of work. It far more commonly relies on the people you meet and the impressions/relationships you form as a result. You never know when this could happen, so treating every rehearsal and performance like you're on trial for a job is essential.

For this project, I received the percussion part in good time, set myself up with as many of the required instruments as I could (which wasn't all of them!) and started learning the part. I couldn't sit in straight away because it was a brand-new production, but the chair sent me pictures and a video of their setup so that I could try to replicate it.

The first time all the musicians rehearse together in a musical production is called the band call. This was my first opportunity to sit in. During the band call, I took additional pictures of the chair percussionist's setup and made notes of anything the chair was doing differently to me, such as stick choices or playing certain notes louder or softer than I'd expected. As a dep, it's not your job to form your own musical interpretation of the part. Instead, your role is to fit seamlessly into the ensemble, and sound as similar to the chair as possible. Ideally, the other band members shouldn't even notice that you're a dep.

Preparation is key

I cannot emphasise enough how critical preparation is, because even something simple can become really challenging when external factors come into play. The more prepared you are, the less distracting any unforeseen circumstances will be. For example, when I arrived for the dress rehearsal, the musical director (MD) wasn't positioned where I'd expected, relative to our setup. Suddenly I had to adapt and play various bits from memory just so that I could follow him.

Additionally, there was a blackout after the finale (predictable, really!), when I'd planned to retune the timpani. Plunged into darkness, I could barely find the pedals, let alone the little note markers on the side of the drums. Of course, you can't plan for every eventuality, but it's worth trying.

In long-running shows, there are usually a few practice aids at your disposal. A 'dep-tape' is a recording of the entire show taken straight from the sound desk. This allows you to hear all the music that hasn't made it into the album, as well as any dialogue between songs. They may also have a video of the MD so that you can get used to their conducting style and know what kind of upbeats to expect at the start of each song. You should also have the opportunity to sit in the pit during a performance, to learn as much as you possibly can before playing the show yourself for the first time.

It's crucial to study the music beforehand and mark up any perilous details such as sudden tempo changes or solos. It's also vital to have an awareness of which sections need that extra 10% of concentration. In orchestral work, it might be a tricky page turn or an 'attacca' between movements. In theatre, however, it could be that you need to play a few bars in pitch black, suddenly go back sixty bars for a playout, or change to a completely different instrument in a very short gap. You may need to finish a phrase on one instrument and start the following phrase (seconds later) on another!

Cuts (missing out one or more bars) are also widespread in theatre parts. Other expressions you may come across are things like 'vamp', 'cut on cue', and 'vox last time'. A vamp is a section of music that repeats indefinitely until the MD signals to proceed. You'll often find 'vox last time' written above a repeated section to indicate that you should only move past the repeated section once the vocalist starts to sing. 'Cut on cue' is an instruction to stop abruptly when signaled to do so. All these terms basically mean eyes on the MD, so it's worth memorising those bars to get your eyes out of your music. You'll have lots of notes to learn but knowing the 'eyes up' moments (vamps, ralls, accels etc) is just as crucial and will help you to minimise any preventable errors.

General advice

The most essential thing is to do the groundwork and do it well! It's impossible to be too prepared. You never know who might be listening, so it's vital to hold yourself to your own high standards and ensure that you're giving your best performance every time.

You should also be comfortable performing to a click track. These are often used to free up the MD's hands to play keyboards or because pre-recorded sounds need to synchronise with the live musicians. The click can be programmed to speed up or slow down and may start or finish midway through a song. If you're asked to dep on a show with a click, it'll be necessary to get yourself some suitable in-ear monitors (IEMs). ISM members can access discounted hearing services, including custom-made IEMs. Find out more about our discounts for members.

Responding to messages quickly is also very important. Even if the answer is 'I'm not sure, can I let you know in the morning?', I aim to respond to every enquiry within five minutes. If a fixer gets it in their head that you always take a day to respond, they may not bother asking you when they have a last-minute gig. If they know they'll get a response from you quickly, they're more likely to ask. Having a dedicated work email can be helpful, as it's possible to set specific alerts/notifications which are more persistent than your other email accounts.

Some Dos and Dont's

Do:

  • Listen to as many recordings as you can beforehand.
  • Practise as much as you can (with a metronome and with the soundtrack/dep-tape).
  • Prioritise! You won't always have as much time as you'd like, so make sure any exposed or soloistic moments are taken care of, even if it means a few mistakes elsewhere.
  • Ask questions if you're unsure about something - don't guess. Remember that everyone wants you to do a good job.
  • Arrive early.
  • Try to enjoy it!

Don't:

  • Rearrange the chair's setup - make sure you leave everything exactly as you found it, including their levels. If they're using IEMs, they'll have likely made a personal mix and won't be happy if you've tampered with it. It's worth asking about this when you sit in; they may be able to show you how to adjust your mix without messing up theirs.
  • Try and make the part your own. Remember, your job is to slot into a well-oiled machine. You should aim to play everything as similarly to the chair as possible.
  • Take too long to respond to work enquiries.