It was a typical Monday night rehearsal for the Saskatoon Symphony, an orchestra of about seventy members with the highly qualified Dr. Dwayne Nelson conducting. I had been playing in the orchestra for two years at this time.
I don’t recall the particular piece we were rehearsing the evening of my music lesson, but I remember it was particularly daunting as I feverishly sawed away in the bass section. We were intensely playing at triple forte (very loudly) when the conductor began a rapid whack, whack, whack, hitting his baton on the podium. Whack, whack, whack…whack, whack, whack and on it went. This was the signal to stop playing as we were about to receive some kind of correction or admonishment. The conductor only stopped the music to give us heck! It was hard to hear his tapping initially since the music was loud but eventually, like a slow-motion train wreck the orchestra creaked and ground to a halt. When silence befell and all eyes were on the conductor, he pivoted on his podium, then pointing his baton directly at me sternly said, “Kim, you have to learn how to play the rests!”.
Oh my God I was mortified and must have turn ten shades of burning red! Firstly, why had he singled me out and secondly, what the hell was he talking about? Whatever meaning was there utterly flew over my head. He nonchalantly returned to the score, flipping back a few pages saying, “OK, let’s take it from measure 1, in Section B” and counted us in. That was it! We never spoke of my music lesson.
It was years later before I reflected on what happened that night. By then I had moved to Toronto and was playing half-notes in a country and western band called The Great Specked Bird on CTV’s The Ian Tyson Show. I played in the backup band for Ian and Sylvia Tyson and this was my first really good paying steady gig in Toronto.
A bit of context would help here. I grew up in Saskatoon in a home filled with jazz music. Dad was an accomplished guitarist and mom sang. They were working players with a successful local TV show that ran for a number of years. I was a dedicated jazz bass player and that’s what I went to Toronto to pursue. A drummer friend got me the audition for the Tyson gig. I had never played country music and was taught to view this insipid music with nothing less than contempt and distain. No one in our family considered it a legitimate music form. The Tyson gig was a national TV show so paid big, and when touring we were making $1000 a week which was insanely good bread in 1974. I learned how to play bass in a country band and it was surprisingly hard.
Half notes and quarter notes were the staple of my trade in that band and I could do so much more. I loved playing hard core bebop, often fast, syncopated and harmonically complex. Not half and quarter notes ad nauseum. I struggled to make this music swing yet knew it could. It was my job and I took my job seriously.
On a gig one night, I don’t remember where or when, the penny dropped. It finally dawned on me that making this music swing had more to do with what I did not play than with what I did play. It wasn’t the notes I played that made the music swing, it was the rests. The space between the notes created the dynamic rise and fall, tension and release, and lilt to the bass line. This was the intentional silence that improved the sound and feel of the music. Dwyane Nelson’s succinct lesson on the power of silence landed delivering a life changing shift in my music, consciousness, and praxis. Over time it evolved into a major shift in how I approached playing music ultimately leading me to a novel way to perceive my world!
There is an ancient integrative power in silence as Robert Sardello points out. “Silence was here before anything else, and it envelops everything else. It is the most primary phenomenon of existence, both palpably something and seemingly nothing”. A rich, revealing, and mouth-watering opportunity for integration can be discovered in “the silences that exist between words, between actions, choices, results, changes. That’s where you grow – in those silences” Richard Wagamese. This awareness of time and space grew my capacity to view life from the balcony. Practically, this helps when I notice an emotional disturbance in my body. It is invariably accompanied by a thought. Viewing this thought with compassion from the balcony I may see a (mal)adaptive expression from an earlier period in my life that does not resonate as true today. I can then dialogue to take loving action with that thought.
Photo by: Ira Selendripity