Charles Bruffy is one of my favorite conductors (and people). I’ve known Charles since 2008 when I attended the Westminster Conducting Institute and sang Duruflé’s Requiem with him. Since then, I’ve observed him conduct professional groups, collegiate groups, church choirs, and high school festivals, and watched him work with conductors in masterclass settings. I’m proud to call him a mentor and a friend.
If you’ve sung with Charles, or had the chance to watch him work, you’ll have experienced what I’m about to describe next. In rehearsal, Charles will be listening to a choir—he’ll frequently stop conducting and just listen—and when the choir gets to the end of a section, or he stops them, he will just…PAUSE, sometimes for an uncomfortable amount of time. Then, when he starts to speak, he speaks slowly, being very careful to craft the exact words to describe what he heard and what he wants the choir to do next. Charles may not know he is doing this intentionally, but his approach exemplifies the core principles of mindfulness. He compartmentalizes listening, thinking, and speaking, and does each task with the utmost care.
Mindfulness practice encourages the deep experience of one task at any given time. It’s the opposite of multi-tasking. For example, most of the time we breathe and walk without thinking. But, in sitting meditation, we focus on the breath and the sensations of the body breathing. The breath is our anchor that we return to when we inevitably become distracted. Similarly, in walking meditation, we focus our attention on the body in motion and noticing the sensations that arise when we perform this mundane, everyday task. Not only do these practices help to focus the mind, in time, they can reveal the very ways we are not mindful, or on auto pilot, in our daily lives.
As conductors, we are tasked with conducting, listening, and responding to sound at the same time. We must assess what we hear and communicate information to our ensembles, either verbally, or with our gesture. Our singers have to sing, listen, and watch simultaneously, and adjust their singing based on the stimuli they receive. While it may be impossible to be completely mindful while singing, it is possible to create moments of mindfulness in our rehearsals and performances.
First, like Charles, find the time to listen, just listen, to your ensemble. This may mean you stop conducting, have another person conduct, or record your rehearsals to listen at a later time. What do you notice about your ensemble when you just listen? If you want to engage your singers, have one section close their eyes and listen while another section sings. What do they notice when they just listen?
Next, separate the time you spend listening from the time you spend speaking. This is the power of the pause. Instead of formulating thoughts into sentences while your choir is singing, listen, pause, formulate your thoughts, pause again, then speak. Speak to your choir as if you are adjudicating a choral festival or contest with a choir you are not familiar with. Strive to speak skillfully and specifically, and not just unthinkingly respond to what you are hearing.
Finally, during a performance, try to let go of getting it right (or perfect) and collectively focus on communicating text and emotion. In my own work, I want to prepare my choirs so well that the technique is automatic and the meaning and emotional content of the music is at the forefront of the singer’s minds. Even if it’s not feasible to bring this level of preparation to every piece on a program, it’s worthwhile to attempt this on one or two pieces. There’s nothing better than hearing a choir that is fully engaged and communicative.
To be honest, the first time I witnessed Charles pause in a rehearsal I thought it was a little odd. I was accustomed to conductors who talk when the choir is singing, or who begin talking immediately after the choir has finished singing. One of my teachers, concerned with rehearsal pacing, encouraged me to begin talking shortly after the sound of the choir dissipated. What I discovered working with Charles, however, was that the attention and focus of the choir increased during the pause. There were moments when the rehearsal room was absolutely silent as we anticipated what Charles was going to say. We were riveted because we learned that Charles was deeply listening to our singing and was being careful and thoughtful with his speech. This is the power of the pause.
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 further thoughts on mindfulness listen to “Midweek Meditation” on “The Steve Grives Podcast” available on your preferred podcast platform or at https://anchor.fm/steve-grives