Simon and Garfunkel’s first big hit from their first successful album, The Sound of Silence (1964) begins “Hello darkness, my old friend.” The song is easily found on YouTube, both in the original version, with two voices and acoustic guitar, and several later arrangements, including one by Sting. The original lyrics were somewhat complex and thoughtful and come from a time when telephones were attached to the wall, there were no computers, no Instagram, no Facebook. People did research using encyclopedias and wrote papers on typewriters. In those days to find quiet, it was easy to close a door, go to a nearby park, or a library.
Today, we live in a clamorous, noisy time. One can hardly go into a public place without hearing piped-in sounds, designed to manipulate listeners into constantly buying, eating, feeling, walking. Then there are the ubiquitous phones and earbuds. For many people, silence has become something rare or even to be avoided. Constant sound and chatter are necessary to many to feel comfortable.
So how can someone who aspires to be a fine musician learn to listen, hear and play with individuality and finesse in this cacophonous environment? The answer is in the sound of silence. Silence is golden – seek it, sink into it and enjoy it. Learn to listen to your own thoughts with interest and respect. (Put your phone and earbuds far enough away so you cannot hear or sense them at all.) If this is difficult, start with a 10-minute break from electronic devices and noise. After a few sessions you will lose some surface chatter and begin to hear things that may surprise you. As more ideas and feelings come to the surface, you will realize how aware and thoughtful your mind is. After a few days you might be able to stretch the time to 15 minutes.
When you are comfortable with the silence, read a poem out loud and then take time to think about it. What is the most important idea? Is there a climax, a special thought, or a surprise? How would you emphasize that? Consider the tempo, the spaces, the rhythm. Read it again and record it. Then listen and repeat till satisfied.
Find a favorite solo piece, preferably one with some rhythmic freedom. (For flutists, Syrinx is great choice.) Listen to it and consider the silences. What happens if they are too long or too short? Pick up your instrument and experiment with the pauses. What happens when you lengthen or shorten them? What happens if you play the phrase differently? Then see what happens if you move from a small room to a large hall or from a dry space to a resonant acoustic one. Do the tempi and the pauses stay the same? Try this with other pieces as well.
Take a solo piece you would like to learn. Your job is to make it come alive; to take the marks on the page and turn them into living sounds. Do not listen to any recordings or performances of this piece. Rather, stay in your silence and play one phrase. When you can play it the way you would really like to hear it, go on to the next phrase. Continue adding phrases until the end. Now, if at this point, you hear someone else’s interpretation and it is not just the same as yours, stick with your own ideas. Don’t imitate. If, after careful consideration, you decide a certain phrase or detail is better than what you worked out, figure out why. This is how you grow as a musician.
As you attend performances to hear famous works and to experience new sounds and styles, talk with your friends about what you expect to hear and what you think will be your favorite pieces of those you do not yet know. Chances are you will learn something about the program. (If you must take your phone, turn it off before you enter the hall, and leave it off until the concert is over.)
The sounds and combinations, be it orchestral, chamber music, or vocal, will often surprise you with their richness and variety. During the music, notice what moves you, and, if there are stretches that you do not care for, try to figure out why. Intermission is a good time to compare notes with your companions.
Learning to listen is an important skill for anyone, but particularly valuable for those planning to spend major time and effort with music. “The sound of silence” is more than a quote from the past; it is a key to hearing yourself and learning and developing taste and skills to successfully present musical materials from the ancient past to the works of today.