Barefoot Conducting: Embracing The Silence


“We must have the patience to allow the sound to emerge”

That was the gist of my last instruction to the orchestra as we finished our dress rehearsal last Thursday.  The evening’s concert was well played by the Utah Philharmonia, and I feel we presented the Brahms 4th Symphony with poise and commitment.  For many of the students, it was their first experience with a big Brahms masterpiece.  Performing his music usually makes an impression.  I sincerely hope the concept of patience will stay with them as well.  It is an important aspect of music that warrants frequent reminders.

We tend to think of music as sound.  When you learn to play an instrument the production of tone is the basis of instruction.  Look at any beginning method book, though, and you will see pages filled with notes AND rests.  The rests are preparing you for other things.  Soon, you learn to articulate, breathe, and count.  All of these things provide an element of space around the notes.  It may be that that space, the silence, gives the music it’s meaning.  It may even be the key to the life of a composition.

This concept of silence in our environment has been a hot topic for everyone from philosophers to sleep scientists.  I am particularly fascinated by an emerging field called acoustic ecology, led by Gordon Hempton and Bernie Krause.  Both are involved in important work, driven by the desire to “hear” what is there, without extraneous (i.e. manmade) noise.  Hempton’s One Square Inch of Silence is an interesting quest for a spot of the world without human noise pollution.  Krause’s work in sound ecology centers on a theory of a “biophony,” a sort of natural symphony, that is present in a healthy ecosystem.

Hempton and Krause have found that even with the absence of human-produced sound, a sort of music is found everywhere in nature.  Animals, plants, even rocks are involved in the production or transference of sound. The elements too–water, air, fire, earth–all produce sound.   All combine to create a fascinating pattern of reverberation.  Natural sound structures have both elements of tone and silence, just like music.  This is one reason why I enjoy Krause’s concept of nature’s symphony.

As a conductor, I sometimes find space and silence to be the biggest challenge in assembling and rehearsing a piece of music.  Working with musicians to phrase and to prepare and release the notes is an exercise in attention—awareness of the quiet that is imbedded in the music.   And understanding the composer’s intent of a rest, pause or hold can be very deep indeed.

Brahms wasn’t just wasting ink when he wrote those rests in his music.  (or staccato marks, phrase indications, etc.). They are meticulously notated and quite consistent.  Intent and possibility are written into the score–you just have to know where to look.  In silence we see the potential…if we are patient and allow the sound to emerge.

Copyright, 2012 Robert Baldwin

For more on Gordon Hempton’s work see:

For more on Bernie Krause see:


3 thoughts on “Barefoot Conducting: Embracing The Silence

  1. The past couple of days, iHeart radio has been active in the Houston market with a new ad that proclaims iHeart can help “kill the quiet” that’s resulted from kids going back to school. Clearly, my friends and I aren’t their target audience. Everyone I know seems to be focused on reclaiming a bit of silence, in the service of sanity as well as the sake of their various arts.

    I’m intrigued by the work of Hempton and Krause, but I must confess – I came very early to an appreciation of natural voices – elemental sound – thanks to my Vacation Bible School teachers. Between my second and third grade years, our entire two-week session was focused on the lyrics of Maltbie Babcock’s old hymn, “This is My Father’s World”. The first two verses came to mind immediately as I read about “biophony”.

    This is my Father’s world, and to my listening ears
    All nature sings, and round me rings the music of the spheres.
    This is my Father’s world: I rest me in the thought
    Of rocks and trees, of skies and seas;
    His hand the wonders wrought.

    This is my Father’s world, the birds their carols raise,
    The morning light, the lily white, declare their Maker’s praise.
    This is my Father’s world: He shines in all that’s fair;
    In the rustling grass I hear Him pass;
    He speaks to me everywhere.

    Each day, they took us outdoors and we focused on just one line from the hymn: the rustling grass, for example. The point was to be as quiet as little church mice (!) and listen, to see if we could hear the sounds of the world. The birds were easy. The rocks were hard. But the lessons – the value of the natural world, the importance of silence and receptivity in the midst of it, never have left me.

    The combination of Paul Christiansen and the Augustana Choir always is a good one. Their version of the hymn is lovely as my childhood memories.

  2. Some weeks back, my conductor mentioned John Cage’s 4’33”. I think that’s something we should all have a chance to practice. It’s ok to be silent sometimes. 🙂
    The rests in any piece have such a big impact on the music: there’s a reason why the composer stuck them in there. Play through it and change or ruin the mood that was carefully created.
    Great post

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