March 11, 2014

Play the Rests

My high school band director is a pretty awesome guy. I was in his band for all four years, and for the first two, if we wanted to be in concert band, we were also required to be in the field band. I remember being pretty upset about it at first ... until our first show, and then I was hooked. Even when it wasn't required anymore, I kept at it.

Field band was all about pure, vivid, unadulterated volume. There's nothing like a band, drum line pounding, horns popped towards the press box, blasting out a final chord at their biggest volume, to drive the crowd wild. But Dr. E was also our concert band director, and so he knew the value of musicianship, of dynamics and tempo and playing everything *just so*. And Dr. E always said, 

"You can't have music without silence."

I don't know if he knows how much that simple statement has changed my life, but it has. You see, music is defined, not by sound, but by silence, because without silence, music is merely noise. Even in a field band, when it feels like it should be all about the intensity of sound, the volume is nothing if there isn't something against which to compare it. That final push towards the press box means nothing if you don't first start small, giving yourself room to grow; you'll never, for that matter, hear the music from the crowd. It's the contrast between the two that makes each one special, each one something to savor.

Since I've lived in the midwest, I've discovered that living next to train tracks isn't really that bad if the train tracks are busy. See, if you spend enough time there, you stop noticing the rumble of the trains. Our brains are designed to block out things that are constants in favor of the things that are special, the things that are worth noticing. Your clothes, for example, sit on you without you even noticing them, because of the constant nerve stimulation, but if someone taps your shoulder, you'll still notice. And background noise becomes just that, part of the background, so that a conversation can stand out from the sound of the trees rustling in the wind or the chirping of birds. Amp up the wind, however, and it'll compete with the conversation. 

It's why so many of us are numb these days.

We spend our lives so busy, in such motion that we never take the time for the contrast. The wind and the conversations and the trains battle each other for our attention, and what's more, we give it to them. The irony is, we notice if the trains stop for a little while. When I was living in Kentucky, we lived in student housing a mere fifty yards from some busy train tracks. One winter, a snowstorm hit, preventing them from running. And suddenly, for a few days, there was silence. 

And it was deafening.

It was as if, simultaneously, a weight was released from my shoulders and an anxiety was introduced into my psyche; when would the old familiar sounds of trains rumbling through town return? When would everything be normal again? But then, after a while, the anxiety drained away, and peace remained. Stopping to be silent is like that. At first, it was scary, like the feeling you have on the way to the airport, as if you're forgetting something but can't quite place it. Then, slowly, the anxiety fades.

And then you can hear music.

Dr. E gave us one other piece of advice. He said that, in order to do the music justice, you had to treat the silence just like the sound; you had to learn how to play the rests. You had to be intentional about the pause, count it out, and make sure you didn't start the music too early. If you did it right, the music became bigger, broader, and more beautiful.

But it took the silence to make it work.


Anon611 said...

This is something I struggle with almost constantly. Silence drives me crazy. I always have to have a radio or music or TV going in the background, and if I'm with someone else I feel like every silence is an awkward one. I find this post pretty convicting. I think I need to find some time to reset my internal audio levels.

Chris said...

I struggle with it too, actually, especially during difficult times. During the hard stuff, the numb actually feels better than wrestling through the anxiety or the doubt or whatever else I'm trying to avoid ... I guess it's a passive-aggressive thing. Maybe that's why I write about it a lot ...