As a young cellist, one of the first things I learned was that a page of music waits, quietly. A musical score, says pianist Jeremy Denk, is “at once a book and a book waiting to be written.” The act of playing music is an act of recreation—which brings to life the intentions of the composer.
In order to hone our skills, we must still the mind, body, and soul to create, to compose, to think through a masterwork. In the silence of our studios, after we’ve technically mastered the notes on the page, we improvise and conceive of an interpretation, which is an amalgamation of the composer’s intentions with our personality.
Artists need their audiences—a writer needs to be read, an actor needs to be seen, a musician needs to be heard. Beyond our ateliers, our conception thrives in the domain of relationships and connections. During the rehearsal process and performance, our music is shaped by those with whom we are playing, those who performed these works before us, and by the ambience of the hall and the reaction of the audience.
A concert engenders a sense of collective concentration, an ambiance, which allows each listener to dwell for a moment in deeper realms, and to surrender to the emotions of the music. As in theater, the ebb and flow in the drama is shaped by an inhalation, an exhalation—each pause allowing the music to breathe, each phrase like a caress, each section a moment of repose. A concert presents the impossibility of recurrence; hence an artist will give their all to create something singular, perhaps unexpected, and larger than ourselves.
Deprived of silence, music flounders in a nebulous mass; without pause we the listeners cannot decipher or comprehend the sounds before us, and like a foreign language we don’t understand, we cannot make meaning of it.
Soundlessness, even quiet, is a foreign notion in our noisy world, and here we are thrust into it. But silence is a powerful force and an opportunity. Moments of silence express mourning, elicits reflection, inspires meditation or prayer, and it gives us the possibility to explore vital truths.
We musicians who have years of experience with the discipline necessary to retire to our studios or practice rooms and spend hours upon hours of time alone with the music, can assure you the time spent in stillness can be rejuvenating, and refreshing, even if it’s sometimes frustrating. No worthy invention, thought, discovery, or masterpiece was ever conceived otherwise.
Although this global experience, which affects us all, is terrifying, we can view it either as our lives coming to a complete standstill, as the most difficult period of our lives, or we can become productive. Let’s not look upon the stillness as a torment, the isolation our undoing. We can consider the unexpected hush and retreat from sound as a gift, a period to flourish, and a time of refuge.
During the most challenging times in history, during deprivation, loss, slavery, imprisonment, we know of people who triumphed, who made meaning of their experiences. They had their minds and they had something more—will. If we have will we can prevent ourselves from sliding into sadness.
I propose an interior bucket list.
1. Bucket list #1. Gather several pieces of paper or index cards or post-it notes and write down the names of pieces of music which energize you, which you love to hear or dance to. Write down some poems or quotes which inspire you. Put these in a colorful bowl or bucket.
2. Bucket list #2. Create a list of pieces of music you’d like to learn on your instrument, even if you’re a novice, those you could try to sing or play. Write down the names of composers whose works are new to you, which you’d like to hear. Clara Schumann? Bohuslav Martinů? Perhaps you’d like to stretch yourself by exploring a different musical style? Put these aspirations into another bowl. In the evening, before you retire, reach into the second bowl and plan your day incorporating some of the must do activities as well as the love to do’s. Budget your time to ensure you feed your soul.
Clara Schumann: Piano Trio in G Minor, Op. 17 – Allegro moderato (Francesco Nicolosi, piano; Rodolfo Bonucci, violin; Andrea Noferini, cello)
3. Bucket list #3. Make sure to move. As soon as I roll out of bed, I start my 45-minute yoga routine even when I don’t feel like it. After lying on the floor, breathing deeply, and doing the stretches, no matter how basic, I feel so much better.
4. Bucket list #4. During the day, reach into your first bowl. Listen to that favorite piece of music, read that favorite poem, or dance around the room. Take breaks to rejuvenate.
5. Bucket list #5. Remember those who are having trouble making it psychically or financially. This is new territory for all of us, and musicians are looking for ways to continue teaching, sharing their art, and earning a living. Several artists are posting music to uplift spirits. Here are some links, and my own contribution, a movement of a performance of Brahms’ Sonata No. 2 in F major, for cello and piano, and the virtuoso piece, Variations on a Theme of Rossini by Bohuslav Martinů, which will perhaps inspire you. Support your local musicians who are trying to find a way to keep in touch with you, their audience.
While we self-isolate, it’s important to remember silence is not the complete absence of sound. The wind still blows, the ocean waves crash, the birds still sing, and our hearts continue to beat. Paying attention to our own inner worlds, to the pleasure of not being bombarded with a barrage of unwanted sound, and taking time to reflect will I hope, be healing and enriching.