The Pianist’s Silence

Playing and Living • Beyond the Notes

These days perhaps more than ever, the world is a pretty rowdy place. And by definition, as pianists we add to that noise (albeit of course, very positively!). Lest we lose our way, let’s consider how we might bring a little bit more peace and quiet into our lives.

Okay, so the practicalities of making space for silence in our lives probably require little explanation: surely all we need to do is switch off the gadgets, stop the music, find a spot where we won’t be interrupted, and spend a few minutes quietly minding our own business.

We can (and of course I will…) expand on that. But first we should perhaps consider an important question: why does it matter?

To help answer that, I will offer a few observations about environmental noise, mental chatter, and suggest a few really simple ways to introduce a few moments of respite into our busy daily routines.

Environmental Noise

In the search for silence, the odds are stacked heavily against us. According to the European Environment Agency,

“Noise pollution is a major environmental health concern in Europe. It is caused by noise coming from a variety of sources and is widely present not only in the busiest urban environments but increasingly in once natural environments. The adverse effects on those exposed to noise pollution include threats to the well-being of human populations… and the decreased abilities of our children to learn properly…”

We are further told that the World Health Organisation (WHO) has classified traffic noise (including road, rail and air traffic) as the second most important cause of ill health in Western Europe.

I find that staggering. But they go on to spell out the detail:

“Prolonged exposure to environmental noise can lead to negative cardiovascular and metabolic effects, reduced cognitive performance in children as well as severe annoyance and sleep disturbance. Long-term exposure to environmental noise is estimated to cause 12,000 premature deaths and to contribute to 48,000 new cases of ischemic heart disease per year in the European territory. It is estimated that 22 million people suffer chronic high annoyance and 6.5 million people suffer chronic high sleep disturbance. As a result of aircraft noise, 12,500 schoolchildren are estimated to suffer learning impairment in school.”

I am fortunate to live in a fairly quiet cul-de-sac on a spacious residential estate, sheltered from the main road, some way from the nearest railway lines, and undisturbed by a flight path. But I am certainly not immune to the “high annoyance” that unwanted noise can invoke, and not all of it even classes as “pollution”. I wonder whether you can also identify with these problems?

Just last night, I was awoken at around 4am by the noise of the wind outside, and then kept awake by the various gurglings of our heating system, humming electrics and other low-level household murmurings. Then there was the sound of my wife’s breathing, my own heartbeat, the snuffling of our dogs sleeping downstairs. We all have different tolerance levels, but for any of us it can easily get to be too much. As the noise around us mounts, and sleep disappears ruefully over the horizon, we can feel overwhelmed.

And daytime is noisier by far. Whether it is the clamour of other people going about their work, neighbours larking around, people talking on their mobile devices, or the tiresome background music constantly playing to itself in shops and restaurants, each of us have our trigger points. But all of us are surrounded by noise most of the time.

By now, you’re probably wondering whether silence is actually possible. And in the golden sense of silence being the complete absence of sound, the simple answer to the question is “no”. There can be no such thing while we breathe, while our heart beats, while the wind blows, the waves break, the rain falls, and while the planets continue their orbital arcs.

To illustrate the point, step into your kitchen and try to wash and dry the dishes with the stealth of a ninja…

The quieter you become (and with practice, I promise that you can actually get quite close to doing this silently), the more acutely aware you will be of the many other sounds all around you: noises which are usually drowned out by louder noises, but which now militate to drown out the silence.

But if golden silence is compellingly elusive, we can at least take some positive steps to carve out moments of relative quiet. As the writer Jerome K. Jerome (1859-1927) so poetically entreated us:

“Come away from the din.
Come away to the quiet fields,
over which the great sky stretches,
and where, between us and the stars,
there lies but silence;
and there, in the stillness
let us listen to the voice
that is speaking within us.”

Ah yes, did I mention the voice that is speaking within us?

Ever present, unwilling to shut up, we quickly discern a whole new layer of disturbing sounds: the incessant chatter of our own inner monologue. And this is perhaps the most dangerous and damaging noise of all.

The Quiet Fields

If our internal radio faithfully delivers a cacophony of contradiction, over-thinking, nagging, anxiety and fantasy, the priority of the silence-seeker is to find a way to turn this unwelcome megaphone off.

Help is at hand, and mindfulness practice has become hugely popular, offering as it does a way to tune out this internal radio, power down, and bring our full attention to the present moment.

It is perhaps ironic that one of the main ways a beginner mindfulness practitioner learns to tune out their internal chatter is to tune into those very small sounds that pepper the silence around us. Many start by focusing on their breathing, and I certainly find breathwork practice as transformative as it is quick and easy to introduce into a normal day.

Going deeper, there are many meditative traditions rooted in the world’s great faiths; in the Daoist meditation and health practices there is simply sitting quietly.

For the determined seeker, there are many excellent apps that teach basic mindfulness practices and meditation skills; I use one called Calm (here’s a link to their website), but other popular alternatives at present include Headspace and (free of charge) Insight Timer. The trick is to use these tools for guidance before moving on to silent practice.

And for those who are interested in Pianodao’s Qigong for Piano Players series, there’s this simple mediation practice, which aims to reduce anxiety, but can similarly be used as a gateway to the personal practice of silence.

Quiet Fields
“…come away to the quiet fields over which the great sky stretches…”

Here is a beautiful quote from a living Daoist master:

“As one progresses on the path, one seeks silence more and more. It will be a great comfort, a tremendous source of solace and peace … you will feel adoration of silence. This is the peace that seems to elude so many.”

Deng Ming-Dao: 365 Tao Daily Meditations, 261 (Harper Collins, 1992)

And it seems to me that the need to seek out silence is still greater for those of us who are musicians and piano teachers. For so much of our time, we are intently focussed on sound.

Silence is the antidote, and one that fortifies and nourishes our souls. We find in the eye of the storm the replenishment that we need, the inner treasure that will allow us to return to our busy lives feeling alert and refreshed.

“Once you find deep solitude and calm, there will be a great gladness in your heart. Here finally is the place where you need neither defence nor offence – the place where you can truly be open. There will be bliss, wonder, the awe of attaining something pure and sacred.”

Deng Ming-Dao

I urge you then, to seek silence for a short time, just a few minutes every day throughout this coming week, and to consider the difference it makes to you.

In my experience, it is when I learn to quieten down that I also learn how to listen again. Whether paying attention to other people, to the world around me, or to my own creative imagination, mindfulness practice and meditation offer a gateway to becoming the alert person that I want to be.

Not only so, but freshly framed in the awe of silence, music takes on new power, and our piano playing has a new context.

Returning to the room, we are ready to listen anew.

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Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a widely respected piano educator, writer and composer based on Milton Keynes UK. His book HOW TO PRACTISE MUSIC is published by Hal Leonard.