The Art of Silence

July 27th, 2016 by

music teaching resources

The art of silence often has sad beginnings. I point to a spot in the music and say, “What about that?”

My student, blank-faced, says, “That lightning-shaped thing (or “squiggly-shaped” or “the seven with a bump” or “that hat-looking thing”)?”

“Yes. Did you do that?”

“Um, what am I supposed to do with it?”

And there we have our problem. Our students are in Go! mode in a world that’s in Go Faster! mode. Telling them to pause is akin to telling toddlers to walk at the pool. They don’t have that gear yet! It’s time to…

Teach them the Art of Silence

Make it Memorable

Give rests a catchy name:

  • A Pause for a Good Cause (make sure they know you’re not saying paws).
  • A Significant Silence.
  • Shake the Break (have them shake their hands on the rests).
  • The Rest is Best!

Ask Students Questions About Rests

  • What did the composer put it there for?
    • To build suspense.
    • To highlight or emphasize something.
    • To allow the performer a brief rest.
    • To make way for a new phrase.
  • What difference does it make in the music?
  • What was the composer trying to communicate?
  • What if there were no rests in this piece?
  • Techniques:
    • Breathe on the rest.
    • Grunt or Ssh! on the rest.
    • Tap/clap on the rest.
    • Nod/shake your hands on the rest.
    • Do something silly-but-silent on the rest.
  • Discussion:
    • Use the baby-sitting game Peek-a-boo as an example. Would a baby respond without the silence/covering the eyes to build anticipation?
    • How is the art of silence used in movie soundtracks?
    • What moments of golf/football/a race/Olympic events might compare with a musical rest?
  • Activities:
    • Read a short paragraph without pausing or taking a breath. Have the student try it. Now add the breaths and pauses. How does it help the listener?
    • Find a short, tension-filled paragraph, meant to have a pause before the significant part, in order to build suspense. Read it first with a pause, then without. Discuss.
    • Group game: place four or eight chairs in a row. This represents quarter notes in 4/4 time. Place students on the chairs. Set a tempo and have each clap once, in order, four or eight quarter notes. Have them go left to right, trying to visualize themselves as notes in the music. Show them rhythm cards and have them arrange themselves on the chairs to show the rhythm. A rest will mean an empty chair. Start with quarter notes. Add half notes and half rests. A half note will be one student taking up two chairs. The half rest will be two empty chairs. When they are arranged, set the tempo and have them clap the rhythm.
    • The Silent Game: stand/sit students in a row. Start a metronome and have them maintain rests for ___ number of measures. Increase the number for older students. Hm. Good practice for future percussionists!
  • Listening:
    • Saint-SaensThe Carnival of the Animals (shows the actual musical score with rests while the music plays).
    • Children’s video teaches the quarter rest (a bit cheesy, but does the trick).
    • Hear the surprise rest at about 19 seconds (from Verdi’s La Traviata).
    • Youtube Bingo.
  • Try it:
    • In addition to Bingo, have the students sing If You’re Happy and You Know It. An activity replaces the rests.
    • Have them play or sing the well-known phrase of Beethoven’s 5th.

The art of silence has carry-over value beyond music. Like playing/singing correct notes—and like listening—it takes awareness and practice!

By Robin Steinweg

Posted in Music Theory, Teaching Tips

About the Author

Robin Steinweg
I'm Robin Steinweg, happy to join the team of bloggers at Music Teachers Helper. I teach students of every age piano, guitar and voice (sometimes clarinet & recorder); perform; direct choirs; compose for students, choirs and worship; love to learn and improve. I'm wife of one and mother of two recently-launched musicians. Presently I am caregiver for my mother, a vocalist, drummer and pianist ... [Read more]

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