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"Playing Silence"
by Richard Middleton

First published in Victory Review, November 1999.

It's easy to focus so much on certain technical aspects of performing that we miss or forget some subtle yet important dimensions of music. We become absorbed with learning and playing the right notes, working on pitches and fingerings and timings and getting everything where it's supposed to be — necessary, perhaps, but these are all in the "foreground" of the music, like the objects in a picture.

We forget about the space around the objects, the silence around the notes, the "negative space" in which the sounds exist. This silence is every bit as alive as the notes, and just as important to the music, sometimes more so.

The symbol for a silence in music notation is called a "rest," which is misleading because it implies that we're somehow off-duty when we're not making any noise. Musicians too often treat rests as moments of nothing, a little break in which they let their attention and intention wander. Such a break in focus breaks the flow of the music, sapping its rhythmic vitality, making it feel uncentered and uneven.

Don't unplug from the music when there's a rest, no matter how short or long it is. Instead, think of a rest as a "silent note," and play it intentionally, musically. Play silence.

This requires a continuous, active listening to the music as a whole. You must learn to hear that the music never stops, and that music is as much silence as sound. You must feel the silences as surely as you feel the beats and the notes, investing them with just as much energy and purpose.

Playing silence consciously in this way makes your entire performance come alive. In fact, paradoxically, when you hear and "play" the rests with intention, the notes around those rests are more accurate and crisp. That's because everything, the sounds and the silences, are being given their due, and you're engaged with the music at all times.

Even if your part has a rest lasting many bars (as often happens in an orchestra), if you stay musically committed to that silence for its full duration and listen actively to the piece as a whole, you will experience the music much more fully, and your eventual entrance will be much more meaningful.

It's an ear-opening experience to listen to music from this perspective, too. Listen around the notes to the silences between them, to the tensions and releases the silences can produce, to the rhythms of the rests. Notice how silence has volume and texture just as sound does. It can be soft as a whisper or loud as a cannon, smooth as silk or rough as pine bark, paper thin or massive as stone.

Listen to how a soloist's silences are inhabited and explored by the ensemble, how the music expands and contracts, how it breathes in the interplay between the musicians. Listen to the interlocking sounds and silences of African and Afro-Cuban percussion, the way the rests in each player's part make room for the notes in another's. Listen to how jazz masters such as Miles Davis, Thelonius Monk, and Bill Evans played with space, with expectancy, with surprise. Listen to the richly layered textures of sound and silence that their ensembles created together.

As an improviser, you can begin making silence a part of your vocabulary. Try reversing the usual musical foreground and background by playing a flurry of notes punctuated by purposeful silences. Or play a single note, then play a long, rhythmic silence that flows out from deep within. Let the silence accumulate like a pool of water, let it grow and grow until its flow dislodges another note from inside you and carries it out into the air.

Or play a long, continuous stream of notes that gradually gets softer and softer as though passing out of earshot, until you can no longer hear it. It's still there, streaming along, but it's just out of range, just behind the silence. Then it gradually draws near again, slowly gathering strength, then recedes again.

The possibilities for creative games such as these are endless — let your own instincts and images suggest ways for you to begin to befriend and play silence.

Copyright 1999 by Richard Middleton.
All rights reserved.

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Richard Middleton is a songwriter, musician, teacher, and writer based in Seattle. He is the author of "Reading Rhythm" (Countersine 2018).