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Embracing The Caesura: Downtime during a pandemic

What do we do with downtime? We embrace it!

Months into a frustrating online purgatory, the time has come to view our forced downtime as a “sabbatical”—a break from the routine that gives us the time and means to rejuvenate our groups

In music, there’s a notation known as a caesura, a metrical pause or break in a verse where one phrase ends and another phrase begins. In barbershop music, it can be expressed by a comma or two lines, either slashed (//) or upright (||) and often referred to as “railroad tracks.” In time value, this break may vary between the slightest perception of silence all the way up to a full pause. When we, as performers, see this notated, the duration of the pause is entirely up to the conductor or individual performers. While this pause can help build tension and suspense, it can also give the listener (and the performer) a well-needed rest and reprieve from a busy or challenging piece.

This spring, all 781 of our BHS choruses, from the casual, social chorus to the gold medal chorus, were plunged into new territory, not knowing immediately how to keep their singers engaged and not knowing the duration. Suddenly, out the window went all plans for social events, local concerts, new music, conventions, and world travel. While the emotional toll on many of us is lasting, the impression on our organizations could be indefinite if not used proactively.

BHS staff have been busy visiting hundreds of chapters’ virtual rehearsals to provide organizational guidance and musical enrichment. Even though some are excelling at providing content and keeping engaged, it’s clear that to one degree or another, most of us have not settled into knowing what to do with extended caesuras or downtime.


Among university professors and in some professions, it can be common or even encouraged for those with seniority to take off up to a yearlong sabbatical from work. The idea is to prevent burnout or stagnation by allowing time to attain professional goals, develop additional skills, write a book, or simply take some well-needed rest from a relentlessly stressful career. What some call “creative disruption” can have meaningful benefits both for the leader and the organization itself.

In their 2009 study on “Sabbaticals for Capacity Building & Leadership Development in the Nonprofit Sector,” Deborah S. Linnell and Tim Wolfred state: “The stresses and demands of leadership make intellectual, emotional, creative, and even physical burnout all too common among nonprofit leaders. A ‘time away’ from the daily grind of high-pressure work routines can rejuvenate body, mind, and spirit. It can also bring a leader to new perceptions and re-framings that ultimately create greater leadership capacity in his or her organization.”

What sabbaticals can do for an individual, they can do exponentially for an organization as a whole. Although uncommon, an “organizational sabbatical” can happen even without pandemics and other “acts of God.” From 1935 to 1987, the storied Handel Choir of Baltimore was known for its unbroken annual tradition of performing Handel’s “Messiah.” Then they took an unprecedented 10 months off to reevaluate their bylaws, merge/reorganize their board structure (to include members of the singing chorus) and launch aggressive educational outreach programs.

The leadership took a proactive approach to address some issues they’d been hearing about among the singers and patrons regarding a lack of connection to their changing community. They made the best of the time, and the shifts they made would have been impossible while trying to maintain operational “business as usual.”


A break like this—either by choice or by necessity—can be disruptive to an organization, but often sparks creativity and establishes new perspectives regarding a group’s work, organization, and leadership style. The disruption may also show leaders that they need to take on, delegate, or outsource additional responsibilities—sometimes permanently—and allow board members to examine their own roles from a new, productive perspective.

The Alliance chorus attended Harmony University 2019 as an ensemble

Such was the case for the Concord, Mass. Chapter (Vocal Revolution) and Greater Central Ohio Chapter (Alliance Chorus). Both followed up director turnover with a year off of contest, followed by taking the entire chorus to Harmony University for leadership and musical development. In a recent example, the Hilltop, Minn. Chapter (Great Northern Union), took advantage of the time, now in abundance, to invest in their members. After five months of virtual rehearsals, an online music theory and education program, and an aggressive online coaching schedule, they saw the opportunity to dig deeper when it was announced that Harmony University was going virtual this past July.

Instead of continuing to bring in only a couple of coaches, they thought “Why not go where all the coaches are and let everyone enjoy their own path to becoming a musician for the month?” The chapter invested in their members’ development by underwriting half of the cost for their members to attend the hundreds of available sessions.


Now is the time to create a new foundational base, refine and realign mission and vision statements, raise local funds, apply for grants, or make any necessary personnel changes. Build an education plan for members (or your community as an outreach project), build a leader succession plan, and ensure that leaders’ heirs apparent are trained/mentored effectively. Reach out and connect virtually with past members.

Most important, don’t be afraid to rest and invest back in yourselves. Enrichment for yourself and your members might benefit the organization in the long run, but it has a value all to itself. In that “rest,” you can find personal and organizational clarity on how to be the best version of yourself you can be.

About the Author

Nate Ogg is the Chapter Success Manager for the Barbershop Harmony Society.