Listening for the Silence: In Music and in Life

“I didn’t hear any singing!” These were the words of a neighbor across the street from the new Red Cedar Friends’ meetinghouse, after our inaugural Meeting for Worship there in March, 2010. The woman who spoke these words was clearly aware of the Sunday morning activity at this new building, but somewhat befuddled, as well. She called out as I was on my way to my car after a rich meeting filled with unity and Joy. I smiled, and responded, “Oh, there was singing! The silence was ringing with it!”

After taking a moment with the woman to explain what I meant, and a little bit about Quaker worship, she seemed satisfied and went merrily on her way. But it struck a chord in me, in thinking deeper about what can be heard in the silence.

Many a Quaker can report the powerfulness of “listening” in the silence…to that “still, small voice within”; to the thumping of one’s heart as the words of ministry begin to seek their way out; to the gentle sounds of a wind-chime outside in the breeze; or even to the wiggles of a child, whom we hold in the Light with care and love.

For me, experience at Quaker Meeting and with the silence have brought many of those very precious experiences. But it has also given me the space and the framework to “listen” to my life, and to music, in a different way.

Since the third grade, my life was focused on sound. I loved music and pursued it to the Doctoral level. I had a full musical life as a professional oboist, and played as many as 150 symphonic, Broadway and chamber performances a year until physical issues and major burnout hit, lasting for many years. I didn’t enjoy playing or even listening to music, anymore.

As a musician, I performed at many churches over the years, but did not attend anywhere. Though I was led to Quakerism for other reasons, I found it lovely to be a participant in the worship without having to perform. It was also nice to have a personal and spiritual identity—rather than a musical one—as basis to get to know people. And in the meeting for worship, it was amazing to feel the collective crescendo of community energy that I have felt on the stage in a symphony, in a group of people without instruments, in complete silence.

As time passed, the deep experiences with community and Spirit at Quaker meeting seemed to have tiny tendrils that reached tenderly into an embittered musical spirit, little by little. Ministry by a faithful attender one Sunday morning reflected upon the value of hearing “old chestnuts” with “fresh ears” at a symphony concert I had performed in the previous evening. Other Quakers later began attending the concerts. Renowned Quaker healer Richard Lee asked me to bring my oboe to several First Day lessons he was presenting to youth on “kenning.” This experience taught me to “listen” on various spiritual and intuitive levels, as I learned to improvise and then settle in on a particular tone to sustain as point of focus for the participants to “travel” on. People “traveled” on this tone to beautiful places in nature, to past events, to colors, or to Spirit. I later used a variety of instruments with younger children in First-day School to explore the different ways we “listen,” and to provide them with ways of giving (and listening to) “ministry” through sound. Recently, I performed a recital after a 15-year hiatus from solo work. I would not have thought this possible, three years ago. The recital took place in the meetinghouse, which felt like a safe space and audience to perform for. It was a wonderful evening, and I felt as if I got a part of me back again.

All of these experiences have begun to transform my relationship with music and with the audience, much in the same way many of us have transformed our relationships with people and the Divine, through Quaker meeting. Music had become a very demanding, physically draining, and competitive “job,” subject to great criticism (from others, and from within). But through my Quaker experiences and practices, it started to become a vessel of connection—to people, between people, and to higher energies.

I believe that from my earliest musical experiences, I felt some sort of “mysticism” in them; that beyond the sound and the mechanics and the relative ease of it, there was something powerful that I felt beyond myself and the music that connected me to others, and to a higher vibration in the universe. This was a language given to me by my father, as he introduced music in a very “experiential” way as we settled in after dinner each night at the piano; we played piano duets, and he accompanied me on my recorder, clarinet, and oboe. He challenged me to play in different keys than what were written, and to improvise descants and counter-melodies. I don’t remember him saying many words, but rather giving me the setting and the space to explore and experiment and to see what would unfold in the moment. There was delight and excitement at the challenge and joy involved in these collaborations. As I look back on these experiences now, they feel very much like Worship does—as things “unfold in space.” Those music sessions with my father felt in a way “Divine-inspired” and almost like a form of worship; they were certainly an escape from an otherwise negative and violent household, and gave my father and I a connection with an energy far more energizing and hopeful than what was around us in the family. (My father would’ve enjoyed being a Quaker, I think).

Music is also a wordless way of expressing and sharing profound emotion, and is a tool to help evoke that in others. I feel like the silent and powerful experiences in Meeting and in Worship have re-awakened the mystical and emotional connections in my musical performing life, that had been buried in pain, frustration, and burnout.

When sitting in meeting, I love to “listen” to the silence. It is particularly fascinating when there are no movements or sounds from others, but I feel as if I can “hear” their presence. I’m not exactly sure what it is that I’m “hearing,” but there is a soothing sound that is different than when sitting alone. Although, I have had opportunity to sit in the empty meetinghouse. Here, once I move beyond the fans and the other transient noises inside and and outside the building, I am “hearing” the space around; empty space, but a space that has a particular “sound” to it.

When listening to music, now, I am also now much more aware of the silence and space within it. It feels easy and natural to follow melodies, rhythms, chords, and other sounds. But it is a completely different experience to be purposefully mindful of the silence that surrounds these components.

The spaces between notes and phrases are an important aspect of the feeling and the meaning of the music. These gaps allow the piece (and sometimes the performer) to “breathe.” Silence can “frame” or give emphasis to different elements or sections. Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” comes immediately to mind; where a brief pause separates the final four sustained notes of the movement from the energized statements of “For ever, and ever, Hallelujah, Hallelujah!” Is this space a dividing line? Does it make the final “Hallelujah” more emphatic? Or is it a moment of magic and joy, without sound?

The Japanese have a word called “ma,” which is a concept of space or silence between elements. We don’t have a singular word in English that can describe this idea. “Ma” is sometimes referred to as “negative space” and is a key feature in Japanese art forms, such as Shakuhachi music, sumi paintings, flower arrangements, Kabuki theater, Japanese gardens, calligraphy, and poetry. It is as if the art forms are constructed so as to elucidate the “ma.” The resulting silence or space is celebrated and revered as an opportunity for imagination, deep insight, or spiritual connection.

The concept of “ma” is not surprising in a culture cramped for physical space, where silence is honored and respected, and where Buddhism has its roots. Musically speaking, it is fascinating to think of writing to emphasize silence, rather than fill it. American composer John Cage took this to the extreme in his work entitled 4’33”, which instructs the musician(s) not to play during any of its three movements.

Some analysts believe the work was an attempt to remove artistic control from the performers or the composer (part of a larger post-Romantic movement called “automaticism”), and to shift focus to random, ambient sounds from the environment. But Cage (a long-time student of Buddhism) expressed the following desire:

to compose a piece of uninterrupted silence and sell it to “Muzak Holdings.” It will be three or four-and-a-half minutes long—those being the standard lengths of “canned” music and its title will be Silent Prayer. It will open with a single idea which I will attempt to make as seductive as the color and shape and fragrance of a flower. The ending will approach imperceptibility.

It was Cage’s own report that the premiere of this work incited rage and fury in the audience when they realized there would be no sound from the performer (a pianist, who sat silently at the keyboard). Though one could understand some of the unsettledness that could arise from such an experience, it is interesting to ponder this level of discomfort in reaction to silence.

This past April, I performed at Palm Sunday services at another local church. There was much liturgy on that celebratory day, and after faithfully attending Quaker meeting for two years, I found myself reading the bulletin and looking forward to the point in the service labeled, “A Moment Of Silence.” I somehow missed it in the first service; dutifully waited for it in the second service, and…just couldn’t find it. It never happened, I guess. I found myself wondering what might’ve happened for the congregation if there had been a moment of space…or two moments?

What is it that has made so much of our society afraid of space and silence? Our movies, our stores and our cars all have “soundtracks” to them. MP3 players have made it possible to have sound virtually anywhere we go. Television is everywhere, and we’re glued to cellphones when all else fails. Think of what can be “heard’ if we stop, for a bit.

It was not long ago that I had great fear of space and silence, too. But it is that same silence that has helped me face some of my greatest fears. It is the silence from music that helped give it the space to come back. It is the silence between the notes that has helped bring deeper meaning to the sounds that come forth.

As an orchestral player, I have to “listen” on a number of levels; I first hear my own sound, pitch, vibrato, inflection, etc. Then, I am listening to others right next to me and right behind me in my section, making sure I am synchronizing with them. And I am listening “around” and “across” the orchestra to fit my sound and part into the texture and fabric of what is happening, moment-by-moment.

When I am in worship, I “listen” in a similar way as I do in the orchestra; as I settle, I am listening to what is arising in me as I connect with the Light. I sit with that a while. I then listen through the silence for the ring and resonance of the Light in the people closest to me, and I sit with them for a while. I then “listen” to the whole room; not for noise, but for Light and communion with Spirit. And then I “listen” across the community, the state, the country and the world, imagining all of our hearts connected with harmony and Light.

I listen around the orchestra: How does my part fit? Who am I with? What else do I hear? What is the collective feel of energy, here? I listen across the orchestra: I am with the first violin – can I hear her? If not, can I see her? I see her bow and her body moving, and her eyes and her face deep within the music. Tuning into these signals helps me to “hear” her, as we play together.

I listen around Meeting: How many presences do I hear? What does it feel like? What energy do I sense from this? I listen across Meeting: there’s Sally—I hear her spirit, her soul, her pain, and send her Light.

In college, I had an ingenious wind quintet coach, who had the group rehearse with our backs to each other. This was an incredible exercise in connection and collaboration. Instead of using our eyes to connect, we had to rely on subtle sounds of the breath and phrasing from our colleagues, as well as a great deal of intuition, to coordinate our playing together. It deepened our ability to respond and make music together.

To reach through the many layers of an orchestra and place one’s tone into the sound of another who is sitting far away and whom we not even be able to hear, is not completely unlike the experience of holding someone in the Light. The “sender” in both cases must have some degree of intent, resonance and intuitiveness with the other person or people.

There comes a mystical point, whether in the symphony or in worship, where the listening becomes “whole-body, whole universe”; you are the instrument, singing in complete resonance with God. Thoughts, and analysis of those thoughts, become background. There is an intertwined human and divine energy that seems to propel actions, words, and full “being” beyond self, into harmonious rhythm with everyone and everything around us. We find ourselves playing a solo like we’ve never experienced, shaking with intent to deliver a message or a healing gesture, or lifted into a profound Light humming with love, goodness and acceptance.

So, what is to be heard in the silence? This will be your own journey. What do you hear in the room? What do you hear within? Are you listening around? Are you listening across? You may hear something as simple as the hum of a building fan – a reminder of this space that brings this rich community together each First Day, and then some. Or you may hear a silence which gives a beautiful and contrasting frame to some noise or imbalance within you or your life.

As I listened in the silence in Quaker meeting, I found deep connection to community and Spirit, and remarkably, a healing of my lost love of music. Like in the Japanese concept of “ma,” the spaces in speech, music, Worship, and in life activity can be opportunity for insight, creativity, and divine connection. Let yourself “listen for the silence” as you go forward in your daily life.


2 thoughts on “Listening for the Silence: In Music and in Life

  1. Lovely! I sent this article to a Japanese friend in Al_Anon who helped me on my way to decluttering by loaning me her book …. and discovered the Japanese concept of “MA!” would have been nice to include a graphic of the Japanese character for this concept. Great piece. Again thanks!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Maximum of 400 words or 2000 characters.

Comments on may be used in the Forum of the print magazine and may be edited for length and clarity.