David DePeters is percussionist and Executive Director of IRIS Orchestra, and frequently appears with leading orchestras throughout the United States, including The Philadelphia Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic. He is a graduate of the Curtis Institute of Music.
So you’ve been a member of the IRIS Orchestra for 9 years. How did you also become Executive Director?
IRIS has been around for 13 years, but I was not involved when it first started. I didn’t know anything about it. It was created by Michael Stern, who I went to Curtis with, and the Executive Director of the performing arts center in Germantown, Tennessee, which is the big suburb east of Memphis. So it’s technically not in Memphis, although most of our donors and subscribers are from Memphis.
When I first went down to IRIS, I had been playing full-time in the Baltimore Symphony but was never given the job permanently. I kept doing well at the audition, but it was just never going to happen. My wife’s in the Philly Orchestra, so I left Baltimore and came back to Philly.
I ran into Michael Stern at a festival, and he said, “Oh, you’ve got to come down and hear my orchestra in Memphis. It’s really good.” And I said, “Why would I want to go to Memphis? What are you doing in Memphis? What’s going on in Memphis?” And he said, “No, really. Come once. You’ll really get it.” So I did, and after the first rehearsal, I said, “Call me anytime, and I will come.”
The idea was for the orchestra to be the anchor of this performing arts center, so the patrons would have something to rally around and come to the center multiple times, instead of just a bunch of touring one-off shows that come and go. So they created IRIS, and it’s a fantastic thing.
At its founding, IRIS was funded by the City of Germantown -- the only municipally-funded orchestra in the country. Then things happened, and the city had budget issues. They’ve got firemen, policemen, garbage trucks, and things they have to do, and eventually they decided that they could no longer fund IRIS the way they’d been funding it.
When our funding got cut, I had been playing there for several years and by that time was Personnel Manager. Rather than have it go away, Michael and I created our own 501(c)(3), got a board, got some significant donors on our side, and created our own orchestra. That’s been going on for 7 seasons.
In the first 6 years, we had 7 Executive Directors. I’m the 8th Executive Director, and I’ve been doing it for about a year. We were having a hard time finding somebody who knew Memphis, knew the music business, and could multi-task. The orchestra runs so thin, staff-wise -- we have 2 full-time and 2 part-time people.
So we didn’t just need somebody who could be an Executive Director; we needed somebody who knew how to market an orchestra, sell tickets, and raise money, because we weren’t hiring a marketing person, a development person, and a PR person. The Executive Director needed to do everything and we couldn’t find that.
In spite of the administrative turnover, the orchestra was getting stronger, better, and more successful. Things were going well, but we were beginning to lose some ticket sales and donors, mostly because we didn’t have anyone keeping an eye on it.
So that’s how I became Executive Director. Basically, we tried a whole bunch of other people, and for one reason or another it just didn’t work out. I had turned it down a few times before, because I didn’t want the time commitment and the travel, and also, I didn’t think I was going to be good at it.
Were any of the other candidates professional performing musicians?
None of them were. We first looked within Memphis, and then we looked within the music industry. We found somebody from a New York management firm, and that didn’t work out at all. So we went back to look at the people in Memphis, and they all had strengths and weaknesses.
But the problem was, because they weren’t musicians, nobody had “drunk the Kool-Aid.” None of them were so convinced that IRIS had to work for reasons other than it’s a great orchestra that does really great things in Memphis -- but because the idea of IRIS to a musician is a unique and really great concept. It’s a chamber music group and a festival all rolled into one, and it just took somebody that had to fight for it.
I have some good friends who, after school, had done their own thing, and we came back together because of IRIS. At that point I had played full-time in the Baltimore Symphony and the Buffalo Philharmonic, and I played part-time in The Philadelphia Orchestra for a long time.
IRIS was a completely different experience. It was incredibly good friends that came together like it was a festival. They had amazing energy, love, and fun, and the positive vibe onstage was something I had never felt -- and I had been a musician for a long time.
As I got to know more of the musicians, I realized, all of these people are bringing an incredible wealth of musicality and love for what they do to the community. Some of musicians have been doing this for 13 years.
Everyone stays with host families -- they don’t stay in hotels, they stay with real people -- and some orchestra members have been staying with the same family the whole time. Their hosts have gone to see recitals in New York City, and the musicians have flown down to Memphis to see their host family’s kids graduate from high school. They’ve gone on vacations together.
It goes beyond feeling like they are extended families; some of the musicians look at these hosts as almost closer than their parents or siblings. It’s almost a little easier to be a tiny bit removed in order to feel more open with people.
So the relationships with the hosts made it another connection in Memphis and Germantown. I had no idea; I wasn’t prepared for that until I went there and saw how important the orchestra was to the musicians. Not just because they loved the orchestra, but they loved going there. Where else do you see that? Somebody else in another orchestra does a job and they go home. IRIS musicians are actually committed to this community. It’s really amazing.
Certainly you have the passion and you know the music better than most people, but how did you acquire some of the skills that you needed, for instance, to do marketing, or some of the financial stuff? Did you have specific training?
I had none. I went to Curtis and I failed English my first semester. It’s embarrassing but true. I had no knowledge or special training.
Long before IRIS, I took a winter off from music. I was done with Curtis, had played in the Buffalo Philharmonic, and came back to Philly and was subbing in The Philadelphia Orchestra and Baltimore Symphony and just decided to take 1 winter off. I was a little burned out. I was getting only so far in auditions, getting to the finals in everything and not winning jobs.
So I took a winter off, and went to be a ski instructor at a resort called Whitetail that had just opened up about 3 hours from here. I learned through that experience there’s really nothing you can’t do if you’re not afraid to ask stupid questions.
I was very fortunate. The guy who took me under his wing and became my best friend and roommate out there was one of the great ski instructors on the East Coast. I basically got nursed by these really incredible skiers and ski instructors.
They not only taught me how to ski better, but how to be a better teacher and communicator, how to run a business, and how to make yourself, as a ski instructor, a business.
Eventually I became Assistant Director and Technical Director of the ski school, so I was the instructor who trained the instructors. I had meetings on marketing the ski school, selling tickets for the ski school, things like that. I started learning things, but the most important lesson was just ask stupid questions and get right answers.
Ultimately that’s what’s going on with IRIS. I have no idea how to do finance. We have a really great accounting firm. I ask stupid questions of our bookkeeper every day. She always has the right answer, and so we figure it out together.
Another thing was, I weaned into the Executive Director job from being first a musician, then Personnel Manager, then General Manager. I learned a lot from my predecessors. You start building knowledge, learning what to do, taking the good stuff, and finding out the bad stuff. But I never went to school for any of it.
I don’t know if this is an issue for percussionists, but staying in shape is an issue for wind players. Did you have to deal with that when you came back to music after the winter off?
Three or four months off wasn’t that big of a deal, physically. I had my equipment out there so I was still tapping around, though not nearly as much as I should have.
But in April, when I started playing with the orchestras again, I came back fresh, loving music, wanting to be there, and enjoying myself. All of the other musicians had been playing concerts since September, and by April they wanted to kill each other.
That’s actually another great thing about IRIS. You never sit next to the same person. It’s about 130 musicians, from which we choose anywhere from 25 to 65, depending on the repertoire. There are no principals, no official concertmasters.
Everything is rotated, and in the concert, you might be sitting Principal Oboe to an oboist from The Cleveland Orchestra, and second on another piece. Everyone is paid the same. String players rotate by concert, so you might be concertmaster one time and in the back of the seconds the next. Everyone is on completely equal footing.
I wanted to ask a little bit about some of those recent situations, the really extreme, “musicians versus management:” Minnesota, St. Paul, Atlanta, etc. How do you balance a role in IRIS that’s both -- maybe that egalitarian structure has something to do with that?
I don’t think there’s a conflict, and I don’t think there has to be. I think it’s really individual, and it depends on the person.
For IRIS, I have street cred, because they know my playing. I’ve sat with these people in the orchestra, and I see them in Philadelphia and New York. I was just down in Naples, Florida, and I ran into IRIS people there. You run into IRIS people wherever you are. So they see me, doing what they’re doing, and I think that gives me some credibility.
The one thing I’m struggling with as an administrator, is there are good and bad people in every walk of life. There are really good doctors and really bad doctors. There are good lawyers and bad lawyers. There are good administrators running orchestras and there are bad administrators running orchestras. And to be perfectly honest with you, there are good musicians and bad musicians playing in really great orchestras.
So, often the conflict comes not because good people and good people can’t see eye to eye, but because bad people and bad people can’t see eye to eye. And the good people aren’t able to weave through those bad people.
The thing that struck me the most in the past year since I became Executive Director is how hard the staff people work, and how much they care about the orchestra and the musicians.
Way too often, musicians immediately say, “The staff people are bad people. They’re frustrated musicians. They don’t get us because they come from the business side of things.” There are those people, but I’m finding there are far more who are just trying to figure it out.
In a lot of ways, you’d rather have it that way. The people who scare you the most are the people who think they know it all, and who go from orchestra to orchestra screwing them all up. And so often that’s what happens: You get an administrator who totally screwed up some orchestra and then you find out that they got a better job at a different orchestra. How the hell did that happen? You see it all the time.
The rule I try to go by is, the biggest mistake you can make as an arts organization is searching for a silver bullet that will fix your problems. A new Music Director is not going to fix your problems. If you think it is, there’s your problem. Cutting the orchestra salaries and benefits is not going to fix your problem.
There is no silver bullet. There are multiple things that must happen over many years to take an orchestra, a business, or any not-for-profit from one place to another. Too often, those plans want to shrink the timeline in order to somehow make everything right, right now. And it’s not going to happen. It’s not going to change right now.
The thing I keep telling my board is, it’s not necessarily about sustainability. Sustaining yourself is looking for that one thing that will make you sustainable. You’re never going to be sustainable with one thing.
You have to be adaptable, not sustainable. Adapting yourself will allow you to move, change, grow, shrink, and do the things you need to do to make it work now, and hopefully, therefore, in the future.
That was one great thing I got out of skiing. When you’re skiing, you’re always in motion, and you’re never in balance. You’re never looking for a place where you are in balance -- and if you find that one spot, you’ve already moved beyond it. You have to be constantly moving through balance, searching for your balance; reacting to your speed, the snow, the part of the turn you’re in.
All of these things have to happen, and you have to sometimes change big things, sometimes very small things, but you have to change those things. You have to adapt to what’s going on around you. You can’t go down a hill and say, “I was in balance.”
And in 1 season, or 5 seasons of an orchestra, you can’t say, “I am sustainable.” For me, that was one great thing I got out of truly a technical aspect of skiing. I changed my focus on all of life, but certainly how I deal with IRIS.
We’re done paying for this season. We raised enough money, and we sold enough tickets. We’re raising money for next year already. That doesn’t mean I stop raising money until July 1. As far as I’m concerned, we’re not sustainable, because there are so many things that are going to happen next year that I don’t yet know about.
How do you continue to meet the demands of your performing career, as far as practice, preparation, just being rested enough, that sort of thing? And is there a busy season for one job versus the other?
It’s a little different because we only get together 5 or 6 times a year. It’s not a full-time orchestra. I’m not raising $40 million. We have to raise about $1 million. There’s no way I could be playing and running a bigger orchestra.
When I was Personnel Manager, there was a busy season for IRIS. I did my hiring in the summer. Now as Executive Director, I’m full bore 7 days a week.
The thing I have to learn in this job, and I haven’t learned yet, is how to turn it off for a day or for a week. I don’t know if I can do it. At intermission of today’s Philadelphia Orchestra rehearsal, I was on my computer going over a sponsorship packet and sending it back to the designer with edits. And then I had to walk out onstage and play.
How do you switch gears mentally?
It’s sort of developed over time. I’m not sure I’m good at it, but I’m a lot better than I was. I try really hard to give myself incremental moments -- while I’m onstage, I’m 100% focused on whatever’s onstage. I try very hard not to look at my phone, not to focus on anything that I have to do 1 minute after I walk offstage. When I’m onstage, I really want to be solely onstage.
When I walk offstage, I make a mental note: “OK, in this rehearsal, I realized I need to go over 3 things. I will go over those things tonight at 8:30 when I set aside an hour for that. It’s now 1 PM and I’m done with rehearsal. From 1 until 7, I have these other things I have to do.”
Then I don’t think about the stage, but at 8:30 PM I’m back to thinking about the stage. I give myself that period of time, and when it's up, hopefully I’ve accomplished what I needed to and can get back to the other work.
Are you still auditioning?
When Baltimore didn’t work out, auditions were pretty much over for me. After that, I started playing with the New York Philharmonic, and to be perfectly honest with you, I make so much more money between New York, Philadelphia, and IRIS than I would playing in the Baltimore Symphony. The musical experiences are really special and amazing. I’m really lucky to be in a position where I get to play with two of the greatest orchestras in the world.
What about family and free time?
That’s the hardest stuff. The worst thing about it is the personal life. For me, it’s too easy to only focus on work, and I struggle with that. I have to figure that out a little better. I travel a lot and I’m really fortunate that way. I’ll be up with the New York Philharmonic for most of May and I was just down in Naples, Florida playing with the orchestra there.
My wife and I were recently in Corsica for a week-long vacation. I have to give myself 2 hours of work a day, or I don’t enjoy the other 22. As long as I know what’s going on in the office and in my emails, as long as I feel like I’ve been productive for 2 hours, then I can sit back and relax.
But sometimes you can’t do that. At that time, there was also a very important grant proposal due. So I was up at 2 AM Corsica time, talking to Philadelphia, whispering in the dark, on my computer, about to wake up the house so I could get the grant stuff done. If you have a staff that can really take care of things for you when you are gone, it may be a little easier. But because we’re so thin, if I don’t do it, it doesn’t get done.
Are any of your fellow IRIS musicians also involved in the administrative side?
I think that’s another pretty cool thing. It’s sort of a musician-run organization. When I became Executive Director, we hired trumpeter Darin Kelley as our Personnel Manager. Carina, who’s a clarinetist, is our Community Engagement Liaison. And of course Michael Stern does a lot, and he’s also Music Director of Kansas City and conducting all over the world. The only person who isn’t a musician is our development person, who lives full-time down there.
What advice do you have for young musicians who are considering becoming professionals?
I was talking to a friend about that this morning. It’s a totally different scene than when I was in school. When I was 21, I said to myself, “If I ever say that when I’m 50 I’m going to smack myself in the head.” But that is the truth. It’s a different scene. It’s not worse; it’s not better.
When I was in school, 90% of the students were focused on 3 things: They wanted to be soloists, chamber musicians, or orchestra players. And that was it. That’s what you did. For the most part, people were saying, “I’m going to get my shit together, practice really hard, win an audition, and spend the rest of my life in that orchestra. Wouldn’t that be great?”
A lot of things have changed to make that different now. There has been tremendous growth in orchestras over the last 25 or 30 years. Look at what orchestras were making when I was 21 compared to now -- it’s a huge difference.
But clearly, they outgrew themselves in many ways. I’m not sure where orchestras are going; it’s up to a lot of factors. Pendulums swing. But it’s absolutely true orchestras have to figure out ways to better balance ticket income and budget. How are they going to do that? I don’t know. We struggle with it, and that’s one of the many questions that wakes me up at 3 AM.
But also, it was a huge deal when we first bought a CD player. It was like $500, and it was this massive thing. Now to be able to go to Naxos and hear pretty much any piece that’s ever been recorded and study it -- that is amazing. To be able to self-produce CDs or YouTube is fantastic.
This doesn’t belittle the hard work it takes, or mean that it’s an easy life, but the opportunities to decide exactly what you want to do, and to go create that, didn’t really exist 30 years ago.
So the advice for younger people is, ask a lot of stupid questions. Don’t be afraid to look dumb. You don’t know everything. The older you get, the more you’re going to realize you know less.
Don’t be afraid to really put yourself out there to do exactly what it is you want to do, and then find that path. You don’t have to follow the path of your teacher or your parents. It’s really so much more open now.
I’m friends with the guys from Time for Three and Project Trio. They’re perfect examples of finding your own path. They’re incredibly talented musicians who have created themselves. There are all sorts of ways you can find your way.
Special thanks to Martha Hitchins for suggesting that I interview David and for connecting us. -AM