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Braving the Silence

June 19, 2010

The fifth installment of Measured Passion

Braving the Silence

Cabot Trail in Nova Scotia winds along the rugged coastline of Cape Breton Island.  Seabirds soar, whales jump, lupins bloom.  The roadway feels precariously narrow as it straddles mountaintops that preside over green valleys.

The Middle Head walking trail leads out along a wooded peninsula.  It necks down to a few hundred feet before widening again at the tip.  There, a brief, grassy pasture drops off steeply into the Atlantic Ocean on one side and into a peaceful bay on the other.

I didn’t walk out to the evergreen-covered tip of the peninsula.  The sky was cheery and the breeze was playful.  I stayed at the little bridge of gentle land.  It had a charm and an aura that I didn’t want to leave.  Serenity.  Surreal, idyllic serenity.  It was a place out of a dream.

We took a breath, the earth and I together.  The trees covering the bluff broke into a green rolling field.  The coastlines approached each other almost enough to make an island of the spruce outcropping—but didn’t.  I rested on a little rock, soaking in all that surrounded me.  I consciously said to myself, “remember this.”

Music pauses to help us know where we are.  The silence gives us perspective.  It heightens anticipation for the song to go on.

The marks we see in music for larger pauses—breaks in the rhythmic structure—are fermatas and caesuras (//).  Fermatas tell us to keep holding.  For a pianist, unlike most instruments, the sound will die out.  Caesuras mark an intended break in the music.  Sometimes just a breath, but other times longer for more impact.

When a piece is affective to me, I will improvise fermatas and caesuras liberally.

But it takes courage to be silent sometimes.

Practicing pauses and silence is as important as practicing the notes and rhythms.  You must know when it’s time to keep silent.  You should experiment with how long to wait.  At emotional high points in a song, I may stretch a pause as long as I can without being awkward.  It is certainly dramatic.  It feels passionate.  But it’s actually being brave enough to do nothing.

I often find myself breaking with silence after a verse, before re-entering a chorus.

A different kind of example is in “Morning Has Broken.”  One could easily put a caesura or fermata between every phrase of the song.  Usually I wouldn’t do that.  But a few well-placed breaks, to my ear, bring a sense of life and happiness to the next phrase.

“Morning Has Broken” is a favorite song of mine.  Its music evokes the lyrics.  It seems fresh and alive—urging us to pause and alter our perspective.  Like a dreamy pasture along the seashore.

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