“A painter paints pictures on canvas. But musicians paint their pictures on silence.” ― Leopold Stokowski
I was young and in the car with one of my foster sisters. A middle-aged couple was driving us, well, somewhere. I actually don’t remember anything about that trip or where we were going except for the conversation that took place. I was a quiet kid and didn’t like a lot of noise. Kristy*, on the other hand, was a talker. Whether it was telling stories, singing, or talking about her day, she never lacked for words. And this trip was no different. After probably a half hour of her talking constantly, I finally interrupted her and said, “Kristy, why do you talk all the time?” She paused for a moment before responding, “If I don’t talk, then it will be quiet.” I asked, “What’s wrong with that?” There is something about silence that makes many of us uncomfortable. And so, we rush the rests. Awkward pause in a conversation? Jump in and start to say something, even if you haven’t quite figured out what you’re going to say or where you’re going with your thought. Awake in the middle of the night with nothing but the occasional creak of the house? Grab your phone and scroll through Facebook. Do something, anything, to avoid silence.
Rushing the rests. It’s a mistake a lot of my young students make. They’re counting and following along with the sheet music when suddenly, there is supposed to be a whole note rest, a period of silence for four counts. I hear them go from slowly counting “one – two – three – four, one – two – three – four” to “onetwothreefour” so fast that you would have thought they just coined a new four syllable word. In a flash, they’re on to the next notes, the uncomfortable beats of silence behind them. Sometimes, they actually really needed the rest to set up for the next section, to move their hands to the right place. But they rushed through and suddenly find themselves frantically trying to find the right hand position to play the right notes at the right time when they could have used that period of rest to do so comfortably.
To be honest, sometimes I myself fight against rushing the rests, especially when I am playing for congregational singing. The last notes of the first verse of Great is Thy Faithfulness are still hanging in the air, when an unspoken pressure builds inside of me to speed up the counting and hurry up and start that second verse! After all, with it being a slower song, what if those that aren’t counting can’t sense the right time to start and come in early? It’s uncomfortable to let the period of rest drag on. What if the same pressure building in me is building in the congregation and everyone feels the need to get back into the sung notes – the part that “really” matters? And so we rush our rests and dive into the next verse because we are uncomfortable with the silence.
But… silence doesn’t mean we are supposed to speed up our counting to get on with the music. Silence is an important part of the music. In fact, I would submit, silence is more important than the notes themselves. Silence builds anticipation. Silence offers time for reflection. Silence provides contrast – it is the backdrop of white on which the rich colors of sound are painted. Do I want to allow people to reflectively meditate on the message of a song? Add in a reflective silence at the end of a song. Do I want to build anticipation? Introduce a period of silence, especially before the climax. To borrow a sports reference, a climactic silence is the basketball sailing through the air above the net before the slam dunk. Do I need it as part of the music to make it flow smoothly, to get to the right hand position for the next section? Add a functional silence – give time to set up for the future.
We seem to think that music happens in the notes, chords, melodies and harmonies. Music also happens in the silence. Silence can be one of the most effective tools of the musician in making meaningful music.
One of my favorite illustrations of this concept is with the song “The Lord is In His Holy Temple” in the hymnal.
The Lord is in His holy temple,
The Lord is in His holy temple,
Let all the earth keep silence,
Let all the earth keep silence before Him.
Keep silence (rest),
Keep silence (rest),
Before Him. Amen.
Most pianists or organists that I have heard playing this song carry the chords over through the rests after the positive injunction to “keep silence”. But those rests are one of the most important parts of the song! The purpose of music is to carry and support a message. The whole purpose of the song is to help a congregation feel that they are coming before the Lord. It is to help everyone enter into the experience of worship in the beginning of the service. It is to set apart the Divine Hour as special, holy. There is nothing like silence in a church sanctuary to inspire a feeling of reverence and a sense of awe as we come into the presence of the Eternal God of heaven. Embrace the silence.
In a broader sense, this principle of “rushing the rests” is something we struggle with in our lives as well. There is never a lack of things to fill our time – work, family, social media, entertainment, etc. But Jesus calls us to “come apart and rest awhile.” He calls us to spend time with him daily in our devotional time, and weekly during the Sabbath rest. But sometimes, we rush the rests.
One of my favorite authors says it this way:
An intensity such as never before was seen is taking possession of the world. In amusement, in moneymaking, in the contest for power, in the very struggle for existence, there is a terrible force that engrosses body and mind and soul. In the midst of this maddening rush, God is speaking. He bids us come apart and commune with Him. “Be still, and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46:10).
Many even in their seasons of devotion, fail of receiving the blessings of real communion with God. They are in too great haste. With hurried steps they press through the circle of Christ’s loving presence, pausing perhaps a moment within the sacred precincts, but not waiting for counsel. They have no time to remain with the divine Teacher. With their burdens they return to their work. These workers can never attain the highest success until they learn the secret of strength. They must give themselves time to think, to pray, to wait upon God for renewal of physical, mental, and spiritual power. They need the uplifting influence of His Spirit. Receiving this, they will be quickened by fresh life. The wearied frame and tired brain will be refreshed, the burdened heart will be lightened. Not a pause for a moment in His presence, but personal contact with Christ, to sit down in companionship with Him – this is our need. ~ Education 260, 261
Education pg. 260,261
Embrace the rests. If it is a reflective silence, use that time to reflect and commune with Jesus. If it is a climactic silence, relish the moment. If it is a functional silence, prepare and plan for the future.
In spite of everything in life you may rush to do, don’t rush the rests.