The Battle of Restcounting Hill

THURSDAY, MARCH 10, 2011

The War on Pencils was going so well, that I decided also to declare war on counting rests. I have contended for most my time in Andover (and let’s face it, probably everywhere else) that if it weren’t for rests, we’d learn our music twice as fast. It’s not the notes that really slow us down, it’s the silence.

I have decided that it all starts with the very word ‘rest’. Educationally, it is suggests not only an absence of sound, but also promotes a drop in focus. An eight measure sabbatical, if you will. I have decided to treat ‘rests’ not as break from playing, but rather an active infusion of silence, which has to be performed with the same intensity as one does when making sound. It is a question of getting students to commit to the silence and its importance.

Partially to demonstrate the potential intensity and power of silence, I discuss avant-garde compose John Cage’s 1952 work 4’33”, in which the pianist is instructed to sit in silence at the piano for that length of time. It is the sounds of the environment, including those caused by the anxiety of the audience, that make the ‘music’. It is the presence of silence that causes this, and helps demonstrate its potential and power.

I do admit that I wonder if I had that capacity to buy into that when I was their age. I still give it a shot.

My new battle cry: “We do not rest! We active perform the silence!”

Before I let you bring it up, I myself explore a potential hypocrisy here. I am a tuba player. I have played in many orchestras. In Dvorak’s ninth symphony (For the New World), the tuba has fourteen notes in the second movement: seven at the beginning, and the same seven at the end. That’s it! That’s the whole tuba part: twelve half notes and two whole notes tied to an eighth note. That big crazy last movement is nothing but rest for the tuba. It would be a lot to ask for the tuba player not to have a stack of crossword puzzles at the ready for that rehearsal.

This however is not our problem. Based on the literature that I choose, my students consider anything more than sixteen measures to be a lot. It has always been a battle to get them to focus for even that amount of time. Once they get good at resting, I will let them decide to what extent they have to be completely engaged at every silence. They aren’t really even close to that point yet.

So, that is the first beachfront we attack: Focus. Once I get them to buy into the importance, I can now diagnose further counting issues more narrowly. If they are indeed focused, then what else might cause missed entrances?

Well, you can get many answers to this if you ask them to count their rests out loud. I have been doing this when there is a problem. It automatically forces focus, and it also exposes their counting issues. Are they counting in the right meter? Are they somehow mathematically coming up with an error? Counting out loud will expose any of these issues. The students aren’t nuts about it, but they see that it works. This is incentive for them to solve these issues quickly and independently.

My personal rest counting demons are losing the count, and self doubt. I think I’m not alone. I attack these fronts as well, from perhaps a more gentle, empathetic, and humorous point of view.

Why is it that the most accurate counters in this band all lack the self-esteem to lead the knuckleheads into a confident entrance at the right time? You know you are right, but the guy next to you, who has never successfully counted a rest in his life, doesn’t have his horn anywhere near his face for the entrance, so you suddenly look at your flawed life, give into you fear, and into the Dark Side, and join him in unscheduled prolonged silence. It’s time to take back the night! Forge forward! You know how to count! Make that entrance! Make the knuckleheads follow you!”

I have also in my own counting initiated an odometer of sorts. I count with my fingers. I count to ten using the numbers in American Sign Language, so I can do it with one hand. (I find I really only have to keep track of the ‘ones’ digit. If I can’t keep track of where I am within ten measures, I have bigger problems.) I practice the muscle memory of counting to ten during otherwise wasted time, like elevator rides, red lights, etc. That way it becomes automatic, and I can rely on it as a back up. I am encouraging this tried and true method with my students.

I think what might be as important as anything else is I try to give my students the freedom to err on the side of confidence. If someone makes an early entrance with confidence, I attempt to correct it on the fly with a smile. I want them to prefer to make that mistake than to not enter at all, or late. If the entrance is late, or feeble, we stop and discuss why. They don’t want to hear me talk. They’d rather keep going.

This glorious cause, like the pencils, has seen a great deal of progress, to the point that the students are noticing and to which they are positively responding.

I think I will await unconditional surrender on these fronts before I launch an offensive against playing without first brushing teeth.