Meditation on Silence

by Janet Horvath

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 and others from sliding into a despondent outlook.

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