LivingArts: Silence is golden


I’m completely uncomfortable in silence. 

When I have to drive the babysitter home at the end of the night and make conversation, we inevitably run out of things to talk about with 10 minutes left to go and I die in that moment.  My discomfort in silence goes so deep that I fill the air with horribly awkward topics (boys, why the car smells like soy sauce, do you know what Mortgage Broker does,  etc).  It’s awful, but it’s better than the silence.

As a musician, silence is inevitable.  Louder music (ie. most popular forms of music) tends to lean away from silence, because silence is a killer of good vibes.  If my band finishes up a tune and the audience doesn’t cheer, the awkwardness creeps in and dials up until we start another tune.  In those circumstances, my fear of silence is really just a fear that people don’t like the music. 

In the classical world, however, sitting in silence doesn’t bother me at all.  In fact, I almost prefer how artists can take their time between movements/songs and milk the silence, because it enhances the anticipation of the next bit.  In fact, you are expected to sit in silence – that’s the rule – and I can be comfortable with that, so long as it is being forced on me by etiquette.

You might think that the difference between the two cultures is due to the style of music being made.  That’s not quite the case – the current classical culture of silence is not a time-honoured tradition.  A large chunk of the repertoire that we perform today would have premiered in loud, busy halls with people yelling into each other’s ears the same way that we do in bars today. 

We choose to be silent at classical concerts and there’s a tacet agreement between the musicians and audience that the music is more important than any socializing, coughing or sneezing. 

The music has nothing to do with it.  The different cultures of quietness are dictated predominantly by the venue that you perform in, not the music.  If you ever see a pop artist performing in a Church, I bet you’ll find that people are much less inclined to chat.  If you saw a string quartet performing in a bar, I imagine the audience would feel much more comfortable talking to one another during the performance.

As a performer, I’m always looking for the perfect spot in the middle - the goldilocks venue that lends itself to socializing AND a little reverence for the music being performed.  I haven’t quite found it yet, but my experience at The Baltimore House last week was fairly close. 

We did our first event of my new WORKSHOP series, where undisclosed participants perform new works in front of a supportive audience.  The vibe was social, but once the music started, people were quiet and engaged.  As each number ended, there was a tiny moment of silence, followed by a cheer and the usual chit-chat while we awaited the next bit.


That’s the sound of me sitting in silence, while I contemplate whether or not I should take a vow of silence. 

[Next month – Steve breaks his vow of silence at the Tim Horton’s drive thru]