J.S. Bach Cello Prelude

A Meaningful Pause

Pause. That word reminds me of a memorable lesson I learned from my last teacher, Mr. Feltsman. In Russian musical terminology, we use it (pronounced “pauza”) to denote a rest. I was playing some Rachmaninov for him one day at SUNY New Paltz where he still teaches. After a few measures of Moment musicaux Op. 14, No. 3, he stopped me and said: “The rests need to be more expressive. Try it again.” I decided not to ask for clarification – how could one explain making silence more expressive? – and played the beginning again, keeping my focus during the rests. He nodded: “That’s much better. The rests need to speak as profoundly as the notes.”

In spoken language or in music, a pause has an important role. It emphasizes the meaning of what was just conveyed by giving us some time to process, to catch up in case we were distracted. Public speakers know this well. It prolongs the emotional charge of a statement, letting it penetrate deeper in the silence. When a pause is long enough, it can also create anticipation, a state of greater receptivity and help sharpen our attention. 

People are currently “on pause” in many parts of our planet. Those of us who are lucky to be healthy have to take a break from many habitual actions, especially if living in a city. Amid anxiety-provoking news, ”skyrocketing” numbers and red graphic lines, the only way to possibly control our own situation is to retreat inside and wait. How do we fill – and not kill – our time during this interval, this infinitely prolonged “snow day?” How can we bring meaning to this pause?

I just took a break from writing this, went out and jumped rope in front of my house for the first time in decades. A man with a dog walked by, listening to Brandenburg #2 on a small radio, believe it or not. When I came back in, a sculptor friend called to see how we are doing. He and his partner are the only people I know who still live without cell phones but since they now have to teach art classes online they are discovering the promotional potential of the internet. My teenage son, cut off from interaction with his buddies, put his amateur magician skills to use and finally started giving (online) lessons to kids. As I write this my daughter is working on a new soufflé pancake recipe. (Update: delicious!) My husband, unable to see his coach, discovered that he can play tennis against a wall in the park. Like spring flowers from a dirt patch, new possibilities can arise from our constraints.…

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