Sarah’s slice of life: Pig tails and top hats
When I played music, I had two favorite kinds of rests. These symbols of timed silence came in all different shapes, but the curly pig-tailed one and the top hat were always my favorites. Of course, these weren’t the actual names of the symbols. Officially, the quarter rest equaled one beat of silence in music, and the half rest equaled two.
Still, as a fourth grader just beginning to learn the violin, that’s what the rests looked like to me. Thus, my music career began with me counting notes based on a pig tail and a top hat. When those appeared on a sheet of music, I would count “one” or “two” under my breath, stilling my bow until the timed silence ended.
However, don’t let the innocent names fool you, because these rests can be deadly. During an interval of silence demanded by a rest, you and your instrument should not make a sound, which means that if you count wrong, everyone will hear your mistake. If the rest is just for your section, like the violins or the cellos, maybe you can hide your mistake behind the surrounding musicians.
But if the whole orchestra is meant to be silent, then everyone will hear your mistake. You cannot hide if you make a sound in the silence.
This is what happened to me one fateful Christmas concert when playing “Carol of the Bells.” My orchestra had prepared a rock version of the song, and just before the big, energetic finish, a top-hat rest called for each section — from the violins to the violas to the electric basses — to be silent for two counts. After the silence, bows would scrape along the strings, and the song would finish in an explosion of Christmas sound.
Except, I counted wrong. Instead of everyone playing a loud, vigorous finish, it was just me pounding out the next note. A count later, all the other strings joined me, but it was too late. The top hat had betrayed me, and I had violated the musical silence.
After, I hated rests, and I hated waiting in the silence while other sections got to play. After all, this was music, and notes of silence really had no part in it. People come to concerts to hear the notes vibrate and the instruments ring. They don’t come to hear silence.
My musical career ended after my first year of high school, but music still has a close place to my heart. More than anything, I miss my violin and how it smelled like varnish and fresh wood. I miss the thrill of a crescendo, the low notes shaking deep into my chest and the burst of a good harmony.
Despite my traumatic experience at that Christmas concert, I even miss the pig tails and the top hats. When I played, I didn’t understand the notes of silence. I just wanted to play my own notes. By doing so, though, I missed the chance to listen to the music around me.
For some people, music comprises the whole of their lives. Singers sing, musicians play, conductors conduct and composers compose. However, even for the people whose only interaction with music is through their Spotify playlists, music should hold an important place within ordinary life.
I don’t even want to imagine what the world would be like if music didn’t exist at all. Music is like color, shading our lives with meaning without us realizing its vitality. English poet Walter de la Mare, however, understood music’s importance, and he expresses it in his poem, “Music.”
“When music sounds, gone is the earth I know,” he writes. “And all her lovely things even lovelier grow.”
Music cultivates a space for expression, connectedness and emotional regulation. Most importantly, it inspires awe and appreciation for a world we may take for granted. Music gives us another way to value God’s creation and the wonders of his gifts.
To listen, though, music requires the important simplicity of your own silence.
That’s what the rests mean — when you take the bow from the strings and silence your notes. The silence means you have to wait, yes, but it also gives you the chance to listen to the music playing all around you.
Tate is the Editor-in-Chief for the Liberty Champion. Follow her on Twitter