Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The Power of Silence

Vicki's comment, as usual, is worth a post.

When Vicki pays attention to what her voice is telling her - not to talk - she's right on. Our bodies do pick up on energy that is antagonistic, or self-aggrandizing, or a wall that can't be breached. Silent energy, but nonetheless powerful in it's message that communication is not possible.

Several decades ago I attended a leadership workshop for entrepreneurs where I was stunned to learn that one of my talents was not to talk, but to observe and then summarize what everyone else had said. What? I was a performer, a teacher. I had thought I was failing because I hadn't contributed to the discussion.

As soon as we're enrolled in school, our grades suffer if we don't participate in class discussion. We learn to attach a value to talking, and to believe that we won't be valued in a business meeting, for example, unless we talk. So what a great lesson to learn in that workshop that observant silence was a talent.

Thinking about silence led me to dig up an old article on that subject:

"I'm curious if one can own the silence between songs in a strong way.  To recognize that the silence is good and important.” (A question from the lead singer in a local rock band.)

Most people, not just performers, think of silence as an empty space that has to be filled. Musicians have the opposite problem: the symbols for silence in a musical score are called “rests,” leading us to think that we should drop out, that if we have a whole page of rests, we might as well pick up a book.

Silence is more than the absence of sound. We use “dead silence” to describe a problem with an electronic device, but we also use it to describe a shocked silence or an embarrassed silence. So silence has an emotional content. We differentiate between “a heavy silence” and “a soft silence.” So silence has a discernible density. We can use silence to agree or disagree with an argument or a vote. So silence can have a meaning that is recognizable and recorded in the minutes of a meeting.
If silence has emotional content, density and meaning, then silence is neither a void nor a rest, but a form of communication.
Silence is used as a powerful tool by professionals in many fields. A theatre director may ask the actors to take a “beat” after a line. He intends to use a moment of silence to draw the audience’s attention to the previous line, to make it more important. A film director will often use silence, rather than music, to heighten horror  or suspense. A trial attorney may use a nonchalant silence, implying that she is finished with a witness, before she turns and throws her “zinger” question.

The directors are using silence to heighten the attention of the audience; the attorney is using silence to relax the attention of the witness. Performers can also use silence both ways.

How a performer uses silence is a matter of style. An orchestra conductor may want complete silence before she begins, and will wait and wait and wait on the podium until she can feel that she has it. John Nelson, on the other hand, rushes on stage, picks up his baton, and gives the downbeat, gathering the audience through speed and his own energy.

Some performers will use silence after a song in order to prepare the audience to move from, for example, sadness and loss, to the upbeat song that will follow. Others want to move as quickly as possible into the next number. Still others want to use patter or tell stories to bridge numbers.

Some performers will use silence to release some of the audience’s attentive energy at the end of a set or performance. Others will finish big, with the expectation that the audience’s response will release energy.

Performers can use silence to pick up, hold, and release an audience. They can use silence to communicate with an audience–Pay attention here! or Wait, here comes the laugh line! They can also use silence to gather information from the audience–Is it an uncomfortable silence? Is it an on-the-edge-of-the-seat silence?–and can respond accordingly.

Because silence is a form of communication, both performer and audience can “own” any silence during a performance. But because performance is a specialized form of communication, the audience will be more comfortable if the performer is in control of the silence, is using it with intent.

That intent will determine how “good and important” a silence is.  

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