With this post, we welcome choral conductor and certified meditation teacher Steve Grives in his first post for a bi-weekly blog entitled Midweek Meditation. This blog will address issues pertinent to choral professionals through the lens of mindfulness and meditation. He will write about his own meditation practice, share some stories from his professional life, and offer practical ways to integrate mindfulness into your individual self-care routines. Later, he’ll discuss effective and appropriate ways to integrate mindfulness concepts into your rehearsals. He plans for the blog to be both informational and inspirational.
By Steve Grives
Choral conductors are some of the most earnest and hard-working individuals in the music profession. Most of us hold multiple positions, and many conductors struggle with maintaining a healthy work/life balance. And, while there are many approaches to teaching and conducting, successful conductors share a solid work ethic, compassion for their singers, and have high expectations for themselves and for their ensembles. It is easy, however, for highly motivated individuals to veer into perfectionism, an unrealistic expectation of flawlessness that can adversely affect both individuals and their ensembles. As a recovering perfectionist, I understand the physical and mental toll that this distorted mindset can have, and how the constant striving for more can color even the best experiences.
About twenty years ago, I conducted a performance of Vivaldi’s Gloria at Carnegie Hall in New York City. The 150-voice choir I assembled was composed of my college/community group, the choir from the local high school, and other ensembles from Colorado’s western slope. I worked hard on this project; I recruited the participating ensembles and coached and rehearsed each group prior to our residency in New York. When we arrived in New York, we had the score learned and spent our rehearsal time building a cohesive ensemble and acclimating to performing with an orchestra. Despite our preparation, I had to admit that I was a little anxious about the performance. After all, the singers paid a significant sum of money for this experience, and I felt pressure to deliver their money’s worth. On top of all that, my parents were coming into the city for the performance. I aimed to make this a perfect performance.
The day of the performance came, and everyone was on time and healthy. I gave the initial upbeat and everyone came in at measure 1 – so far, so good. The first choral entrance was precise, balanced and energetic – perfect. If you are familiar with the piece, you know that at the end of the first movement, there is a tutti rest for three beats before the final declaration of the text “Gloria in excelsis Deo!” I chose not to beat time through the rest, but instead, froze and marked the time internally, before giving an emphatic upbeat to prepare the last phrase. We rehearsed this moment several times and I told the singers, “If I am not moving you are not singing.” Everything was going as planned. When we arrived there, I froze, and before I could give the upbeat, a solitary soprano voice peeped out the word “Gloria” two beats early. The voice is barely perceptible on the recording, but when I rewatched the tape you can see me stiffen, shoot a glance towards the soprano section, and give a giant upbeat to prepare the last phrase.
“Well, there goes that,” I thought to myself. “All that work down the drain,” my inner critic said, and “you may as well just make the best of it, now.” But, while my internal voice may have been speaking failure, something changed in the pause before the second movement. My body relaxed as if a great burden had been lifted from it. I seemed to be less self-conscious and more immersed in the music. Afterwards, I asked if anyone had heard the mistake, but no one did; the singers loved the experience, and my parents were very proud. And, for the first time in my career, I didn’t have a laundry list of critiques to share after the performance outside of that one mistake. (And, for once, I was smart enough to shut my mouth and just enjoy the post-concert festivities because no one wanted to hear about the soprano who came in early.)
Despite the happy ending to this story, I did not let go of my perfectionism twenty years ago, and, in fact, spent the greater part of the subsequent decade dogged by feelings of inadequacy and imperfection (despite earning tenure, despite receiving faculty awards, despite presenting at conferences) until I finally burned out. Having exhausted my limited set of resources, I started to look inward for solutions to my dilemma and worked to shed my perfectionist tendencies. I stayed engaged with conducting, but I prioritized my health and mental well-being. I started running regularly, made time to practice music again, started baking, and, through the suggestion of my spouse, downloaded a meditation app, became curious about meditation, and started a regular meditation practice.
Mindfulness cultivated through meditation can be an antidote for perfectionism and other life challenges. Mindfulness is not antithetical to having standards or expectations, it simply asks us to do our best and let it be. Through meditation we learn that no amount of ruminating can fix a past mistake and no amount of worrying can prevent a future error. Contentment comes from knowing our influence is strong, but limited, and that every day – every moment – is an opportunity to learn from our missteps and mistakes and begin again. Simply begin again.
Steve Grives, D.M.A., is a choral conductor and certified meditation teacher currently living in Lincoln, Nebraska. He can be reached with questions or comments through his email, . For an expanded version of the topics covered in the blog, check out “The Steve Grives Podcast” searchable on your preferred podcast platform or at https://anchor.fm/steve-grives.