“Few things are so pressing that they cannot wait for a moment of breath.”
Maybe you have had this conversation, usually with family or friends who are not in music or in teaching:
Them: “Are you on break now? How nice that you have all that time off!”
Us: “Oh, I am never really off. There’s always programming for the next concert and score study and all the management and . . . .” (our list goes on).
There’s certainly truth in our response. Before we can walk into that first rehearsal after “break,” we have to choose repertoire and take the time to order it or find it in our libraries or arrange it for our imbalanced ensemble. We have to manage our rosters (who is returning? who has not answered my emails?), our spaces, our budgets, and our protocols (ever evolving). Even if you are the ultimate planner and make lots of decisions in the summer ahead of the season beginning, there are always tasks to be managed and surprises along the way.
My usual strategy has been to devote some time every day to work, getting the structure in place for the semester and concerts ahead and communicating with singers and others, where needed, in order to hit the ground running when we return. My intent in this daily practice is to spread out the work, to avoid an avalanche of tasks at the last minute. Generally, this works for me.
But there is a downside to this strategy, one that I have become more and more aware of.
Without any true pause in the workflow, we never really experience restoration— a physical, mental, and emotional “clearing,” a release from the decision making and time in our heads and in front of our devices that characterize our lives. Without a separation from the endless task list, we train ourselves to be “on” at every moment, to never fully let go, and to see life from one perspective: do. Without a pause we just keep churning it out and so, when we return to our teaching and conducting schedule “after the break” we feel like we never had one. Like we have been conducting one long musical piece that has no rests. Not one. Can you imagine how anxious and heavy we would feel with a piece like that, especially if it lasted for hours or days or weeks or months?
Yes, the ebb and flow of tempo, the variation in dynamics, the change of key—they all offer some modulation in our feeling state. But it is the rests in the score, the silence between movements, or in our mindfulness experience, the pause at the top of the inhale or bottom of the exhale, where something really powerful happens. Where we move from external to internal awareness, where we realize the effect of the action, and where creativity and insight and rebuilding of energy can take place.
Dare to pause. To truly detach, to stop, to observe, to sit. Trust that the space in time and heart and mind will bring what you need and surprise you in ways you cannot envision when constantly working. For a moment, or several moments during the day, or (most challenging), several days during the break, take a true pause. You might find that it punctuates everything else you do, giving it greater meaning and leading to a deeper experience, just like that artfully placed rest in the music where it all makes perfect sense.
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: