Thursday, July 7, 2011


If I had a dollar for every time a student rushed through a rest, I would be able to afford a small island. For some reason, beginning music students totally discount the value of silence. They want to rush through every piece and skip the rests. As soon as they learn "Fur Elise" they are in a hurry to play it as fast as possible, usually making 15 different mistakes before the end of the 8th measure. This is beyond annoying, but I have learned how to take it. I usually take a deep breath and say in my most manufactured calm voice "You know... slow is actually harder to play than fast." They don't believe me at first, but they understand soon enough. Kids always think fast and non-stop is more impressive, but they are wrong. Slow is harder. Especially in our culture! We are all speed addicts in many ways.

One time I answered an ad on craigslist to sing backup for a piano player and when we met, she spent the  first 45 minutes chatting about her life. I tried, but I could not get her to focus on the original reason for our meeting. Today, a student kept asking me questions before I was done answering the question she previously asked. At some point I had to stop and say, "I need you to listen for a few minutes while I talk. Then you can ask questions." The problem was that she was so consumed with the desire to talk that she was not really absorbing the lesson, and it was a very difficult lesson filled with completely new concepts.

I spoke last week about Words, and how much I am paying attention to the sounds of certain words, and the tone of my voice. I am also paying attention to silence. In Jazz, which I am also exploring at the moment, I have noticed that the rests are almost MORE important than the notes! The best Jazz musicians know when to relax and say the most in the least amount of notes. I have been teaching myself Jazz Piano with videos on YouTube, and let me tell you, the internet is ripe with show-off Jazz piano teachers trying to teach beginners how to play "simple" Jazz concepts. Let me just say that if you are a real beginner to piano, and you go to these websites and feel a strong desire to give up: the problem is the musicians on these sites!! I have been playing piano for 15 years, and I have a hard time keeping up with them. Most of these Jazz musicians just want to show off and play as many notes as possible, as fast as possible. I am not impressed. What impresses me is a musician who can make an interesting sound in just a few notes, have the courage to pause a bit, and then jump back in for more. Silence is important in music. The rests are part of the composition, too. The Jazz musician who stands out for me on this topic is Thelonius Monk. I have been watching his performances on YouTube, and I notice that he is totally in the moment when he plays. He doesn't seem to care if you are watching or not. He takes a pause when he wants to, and the result is beautiful.

In the following video, Monk is playing solo, but notice how many times he takes a pause. The song just would not be as impressive without those rests. When I see the musicians on these Jazz YouTube lessons, I see a constant stream of notes... not good.


Jazz is all about feeling. I should say that all music is about feeling. It is. Sometimes you don't notice it. Sometimes a musician is more interested in showing you how technical they can be, but I remember what I knew as a child: that music is about feeling, and sometimes silence is the best way to express our feelings. We don't have to take it to an extreme, like in John Cage's "4'33" where the orchestra basically sits on stage in silence for 4 minutes and 33 seconds. Yes I am serious.

Personally, I think this is ridiculous. The long running cheers and the overwhelming praise of the hosts are even more ridiculous. How impressive that you could sit still and silent for four WHOLE minutes. Please... Can't we just learn how to be still and patient on a regular basis?

I'm not saying we have to go as far as Cage. I'm just saying that maybe in our everyday lives, and in music, we can learn to appreciate silence. Silence allows us an opportunity to absorb the feelings inside ourselves, the ambient noises that exist in the world, the words that come out of other's mouths, the feelings that are really being shown from others around us. Instead of being so concerned about what WE have to say, we can learn to listen better. We can learn to pause and appreciate silence.


  1. If you had a dollar every time I skipped a rest, you could afford a large island!