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  • Robin Bowman

Singing and Silence by Robin Bowman

Robin Bowman, the former Head of Vocal Studies at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and current vocal coach at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, shares his insights on the relationship between singing and silence.

This talk was given as part of the Sing From Your Soul online singing course, which ran from March-April 2021.

Many of the most memorable live performances give the impression of being born out of silence, and returning to silence at the end, before applause eventually germinates. As an aside it can then be immensely effective if from time to time the “exception proves the rule” and the pianist starts playing almost before she or he is properly seated at the piano. Gérard Souzay, for some of whose last recitals I had the privilege of playing, was a master at organizing this effect to advantage!

I have never been able to find the source of this remark, but I remember being told once that Mozart is supposed to have said that the most important purpose of music was somehow to context and “articulate” silence.

Towards the end of his long life, Fauré developed a habit of making tongue-in- -cheek quips, one of which was “all my life I have been trying to express silence in terms of musical sound; what a fool I have been!” I am, by the way, totally confident that the last part of this quotation is tongue-in-cheek and does not imply any suggestion that he was in despair about the value of his life’s work as a composer. When the philosopher Vladimir Jankelevitch wrote a book about the music of Fauré, he entitled it “de la musique au silence” – “from music into silence”.

One of the most famous compositions of the American composer John Cage, who died at the age of 80 in 1992 is entitled 4’ 33” and consists of a pianist sitting at a piano and making no sound for exactly that length of time. Cage, who had a very gentle manner of expression, though the content of what he said was often found by many people at the time to be totally outrageous, was always impressing upon his students that one of the richest of musical experiences was simply to open the window and allow the sounds from outside to enter your consciousness.

I am now going to offer you one of the most interesting quotes from the history of Western music it has ever been my privilege to come across, and which can be explored in very many directions. It comes from François Couperin’s little treatise called l’art de toucher le clavecin (the art of playing the harpsichord) published in 1714. Explaining about musical performance he says “if there happen to be any listeners, look at them”. This highlights, among many other interesting things, the extent to which musical performance is a matter of relating with those who can hear you, and the rest of this little talk is going to be about relational silence.

Three vivid intimate anecdotes first – two very happy and one rather poignant. In many cultures of the world it is not necessary to be constantly talking when alone with someone you hardly know. I had known Tomiko Oonuma for only a couple of hours when she drove me for just over an hour from a restaurant to a concert venue to rehearse. Admittedly there was a kind of language barrier here, – I had no Japanese, and although she had studied in America about ten years earlier, her spoken English had become rusty and was far from confident – but that 75 minutes or so, in almost complete silence was one of the most comfortable and companionable hours of my life.

An uncle of mine was a Methodist minister who did a turn of duty in Morecambe in the years between the two world wars. He loved to report how two old men, Bert and Fred, each living alone a few doors apart in the same row of terraced houses, would visit each other one evening every week. They took it in turns who made the journey from one house to the other, and each had a key to the other’s house, so they could let themselves in with no fuss. Thy would greet each other and then sit on opposite sides of the fireplace in complete silence for an hour or more. At a given moment the one whose house it was not, would rise and say “thanks for another wonderful evening Fred (or Bert) my place next week yes?” This would be agreed and then quietly he would leave and walk the few paces back home.

I hope you will feel able to value your audiences as the four people in these stories were able to value each other in a continuity of long silence.

Singing of course is both simpler and more complicated than instrumental performance because it carries with it an element of “conversation with a usually silent audience” – I have put those last 6 words in inverted commas, because I find it more helpful to suggest this attitude for singers, rather than, again using somewhat extreme language, to behave as though their performance was akin to a “sung lecture”.

Now for the unhappy and poignant story. A series of Bachelor of Education exam performances back in the 70s. A woman of about 40 years of age, looking rather furtive and frightened came and sat at the piano, discovered complete attentive expectant silence from the panel, and started playing extremely well. After a minute or so, the playing deteriorated increasingly rapidly, and suddenly she stopped, stood up and addressed us with considerable force “ Oh I wish you were all running around with jam sandwiches in your hands, making a lot of noise like all my children are when I am playing the piano at home”. Ian Spink, our panel chairman, who already had many children and eventually clocked up a tally of seven, fortunately knew all about this scenario, and with incredible compassion and gentle firmness was able to re-rail her and she continued with a credit-worthy performance, while the panel engaged in a little discreet and unaccustomed creative fidgeting.

For yourself, as both performers and teachers, if you are uncomfortable with silence you will need pragmatically to enable, for yourself or for your students, a positive relationship with it, bit by bit, probably helped by one or more of the many broadly meditative practices that are available for this purpose, or one or more that you lovingly devise for your own, or your student’s own, characteristics.

An indication on a micro-level, from my coaching work, that by and large performers undervalue rather than overvalue silence, or maybe even feel uncomfortable about it, is that rests in the middle of a musical composition are usually performed too short rather than too long. What will be the content of these silences? – reflection, dreaming or day-dreaming, fantasising even, preparation, just being, deferred pleasure, (even mischievously deferred pleasure – i.e. teasing) suspense, a building up of expectation, maybe including an element of impatience, or a brief moment of infinity. Experiment with pausing the recording at any such points, and see if you can divine the content of this particular silence from the visual impression of the still picture. Sometimes composers even have a hand in this aspect of performance presentation – Poulenc for instance sometimes writes “très long silence” between two songs in a song-cycle. This is all linked-up with one of my favourite coaching topics – “predictive breathing”. Also I would urge you to notice, at any given moment, if you would prefer your inbreath to be silent or audible, and then, if you have a preference, to ensure that your preference is fulfilled.

One absurd but telling detail that is also in this area of exploration, comes from a Wigmore Hall recital I partnered in the 80s where, improbable as it may seem, the excellent singer forgot the last phrase of the last song, which should in any case be preceded by a pause, but the pause on this occasion extended to nearly twenty seconds. There was a very full and appreciative write-up of this concert in the Times, but one of the best-known critics of the day questioned “but surely it was a miscalculation to wait quite so long before the final phrase of the last song?” We were kind of pleased with that remark since this seemed to indicate that we had maintained the character of the silence perfectly, even if puzzlingly.

To sum up, if one can ever sum up such a vast subject, I urge you to trust silence, and explore into it, with awe and wonder, allowing it to be a friend, maybe even a best friend (grammatical error deliberate). Silence has no walls, in fact the practice of silence will release you into being able to realize, in your singing as in every other aspect of your being, a dynamic potential of infinite imagination and creativity that is already within you.

Finally, I have for you a few more incomplete, but I hope, tantalising descriptions of the nature of silence that I can share with you, and which I add on to the script of this talk.

Silence is the first part of an answer to a question

Silence is something which you are happy to be overwhelmed with

Silence is freedom

Silence is the fruit of relinquishment

Both hearing and listening to someone are active silence, an embracing of the other person

Silence is the presence of being

Silence is where “I am” meets “I is”

Silence is the “is-ness” of all being

Silence is both created and uncreated

Silence is an important part of yourself

Silence is inside you and outside you – a unity of an infinity of interior and an exterior with no walls.

Silence permits the articulation of what comes to us

Silence is Nothing, which is open to Everything – all possibilities

Silence is the enabler of fertility and creativity

Where does silence come from?

Where do the ideas that pop into my mind and soul during periods of silence come from?

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