Ramona M. Wis
A few years ago, I became aware of how energy-draining it was to move directly from one rehearsal to the next, with the short in-between time filled with “quick” questions from students (they never are), “emergencies” of colleagues (they never are), and singers filing in as I am re-arranging chairs and figuring out why, yet again, the technology I want to use is so slow. Intellectually, I knew it would all work out but energetically (body, mind, and spirit) it was difficult to feel settled and clear and ready to bring my best self to the next rehearsal, to engage fully and lead well.
I knew I needed to purposefully plan buffer time into my day. Buffer time is space—physical, intellectual, time-space that allows for a transition between activities; an opportunity to close out the task that is ending and to re-set for whatever is to come.
When I finish rehearsal, I am still “in” the rehearsal, mentally; I am processing what happened, how I can build on it, what I need to prepare for next time, and what I learned. I need to close out the rehearsal (or a meeting or work session) by digesting and assimilating it and even if only briefly, by making some notes to capture my experience in that heightened moment of awareness. Only then can I release that experience before moving on to the next.
Buffer time is change from one kind of activity to another. From deep work to routine tasks, from outward expression to inward contemplation; from sitting to standing, from standing to walking, from inside to outside, from sound to silence. Taking time with singers at the beginning of rehearsal to sit well, breathe, and come inward is not only good choral pedagogy—it is helpful buffer time for them and for you to release whatever happened before rehearsal and to re-energize for all the good to come!
Without some kind of buffer between the events of our day, we can be distracted, fragmented in our thinking, and less than prepared for the next activity. We might feel anxious or claustrophobic, needing “room” to breathe or a moment to ourselves without the chatter that surrounds us in our modern world. On a physical level, we may have neglected to hydrate or eat (coffee and granola bars don’t suffice) only to wonder why we are so tired and “hangry.” And without the release that buffer time provides, we can stay locked in fight-or-flight mode, living life in a constant state of emergency.
“Chronic stress, experiencing stressors over a prolonged period of time, can result in a long-term drain on the body. As the autonomic nervous system continues to trigger physical reactions, it causes a wear-and-tear on the body. It’s not so much what chronic stress does to the nervous system, but what continuous activation of the nervous system does to other bodily systems that become problematic.”
(American Psychological Association, “Stress Effects on the Body,” italics mine)
Without buffer time, we may find ourselves being overly reactive with people because we are energetically pushing them back to create the space we need to process, plan, and just catch our breath. And without space between the work day and family time, we can be less than kind to those closest to us.
Examples of buffer time:
- Retreat to a quiet space (bathrooms count) and breathe deeply and slowly.
- Get off your devices. All of them.
- Walk around the block or through your building; step outside and breathe fresh air. Look at the trees or the sky or anything that allows the eyes to refresh from staring at technology.
- Hydrate and if needed, eat something (but only if you can eat without rushing or gulping down your food).
- Stand up, stretch, change what room you are in if working from home.
- Do 15 minutes of yoga, natural movement, weight-lifting, stair-climbing, push-ups, dancing, jumping rope, treadmill . . . whatever you have access to. Don’t assume you should “feel like” doing this; just do it, as Nike says.
- Run the vacuum, unload the dishwasher, play with your dog, do simple tasks of a different kind.
- If driving home after a work day, don’t listen to the news or a podcast; maybe even go without any music. Let yourself fully focus on the drive and the quiet. If you live close to work, you might take a longer route home to allow more time to diffuse the tensions of your day. Breathe.
- If you work from home, you still need buffer time before you engage with your partner or family or you might find yourself taking the frustrations of the day from your home office to your dinner table (which may be your home office). Shut down your tech, do some stretches, change clothes, go for a walk . . . . Whatever you can do to create space between “that was then” and “this is now,” will go a long way to a balanced relationship with those closest to you.
To whatever extent possible, schedule buffer time into your day. Stop booking events back to back without leaving time in between. There’s nothing worse than going from a meeting that ran late to a rehearsal that starts late, and before you know it, the whole day is about catching up and catching your breath. If we plan buffer time, we have padding to absorb the surprises of the day and still have what we need to remain energized and to bring our best to those around us and to ourselves.
Dr. Ramona Wis is the Mimi Rolland Endowed Professor in the Fine Arts, Professor of Music, and Director of Choral Activities at North Central College in Naperville, Illinois and the author of The Conductor as Leader: Principles of Leadership Applied to Life on the Podium. Dr. Wis is a 500-hour CYT (Certified Yoga Teacher) with training in yoga history, philosophy, meditation, energetics, pranayama (breath work), anatomy, Sanskrit, and the teaching, sequencing, and adaptations of asana (posture-based) practice. Reach her at:
“Stress Effects on the Body,” American Psychological Association