MUSICAL MUSINGS: Four Lessons About Silence, From Grad School

By Scott Rieker

Choir Director, Emerson Choir

It’s a privilege to be attending a graduate program where every class presents something valuable to learn. Often, those lessons are curricular, but sometimes they also generalize to larger realities. With that in mind, I offer these four lessons that I’ve learned recently.


Lesson One

In “Quantitative Research Methods in Music Teaching and Learning,” we are—of course—learning about statistics and statistical procedures, but the underlying foundation focuses on thoughtful, deliberate design and planning; the importance of carefully considering a problem before searching for a solution, so that we will know if the solution is apropos of the problem. A quotation from the syllabus says it succinctly: “Constantly remind yourself, however, that there is no great virtue in complex statistics or research designs unless the purpose for their use is clear. Much of the most elegant research in our field (and in many other disciplines) is quite simple in construction.”


Lesson Two

In “Vocal Pedagogy Practicum” we are learning about the mechanics of the voice. One of the preeminent lessons in any valid voice instruction is that everyone has his or her own voice, and a voice lesson is about learning to sing with your own voice, not cramming yourself into someone else’s idea or vocal model. If the first lesson spoke to the importance of careful consideration, the second lesson speaks to the importance of authenticity. Sing with your own voice.


Lesson Three

I am taking compositions lessons with the renowned Morten Lauridsen. Every composer has a different process, but mine is a painfully slow operation, akin to sculpting. I initially write a LOT of notes as I feverishly try to express through notation my partially formed musical idea. I tinker with the result for a few weeks, and then I leave it alone for at least a week. When I return, I start to edit, which is—for me—predominantly removing excess notes. Some notes get changed and harmonies get adapted; but mostly, I delete about half the notes I initially wrote. I think the lesson here speaks to the value of consciously seeking simplicity. More is not better.

Lesson Four

“Recital Choir” is an exceptional experience where we sing for our colleagues on their graduate recitals. We learn a lot of repertoire quickly, and the conductors learn a lot, too. There might be a lesson here about availing oneself of the vast resources around us; enlarging our “bubble”; but the lesson that speaks most to me is drawn from the text of one of the songs, quoting an old Shaker proverb: “Leave the flurry to the masses. Take your time and shine your glasses.”



The common factor seems to be noise. Scientists are beginning to conclude that we can actually teach ourselves to have ADHD (which is actually not a deficit of attention, but a surplus). Noise distracts from reasoned action. Noise beguiles us to be inauthentic. Noise encourages us toward clutter. Noise is the antithesis of rest and centeredness. The solution is silence. In silence, we find our center of peace and our center of power. We discover what is essential and what is extraneous. And then, we can act authentically and deliberately. Shhhh! I’m being.