How often do we pay attention to rests in our music? When beginning to learn about notation and rhythm, we naturally think of the notes first and focus on rests mostly if we need to count them out. Later when we mature as pianists, we may begin to understand the significance of rests as moments of “breath” and periods of silence between meaningful phrases. A prolonged rest, maybe even with a fermata over it, could be likened to what we jokingly call a “pregnant pause” in human interaction: a short period of tension in response to what just occurred.
I remember playing Rachmaninov’s “Moment musicaux”, Op. 14, No. 3 below to Vladimir Feltsman at a master class. He said to me: “Sounds good, but the rests need to be more expressive. Try it again.” I pondered his statement for a few seconds and decided not to ask for clarification. How could one explain a way to make silence more expressive?
So I tried the beginning phrases again, not letting go of my focus during the rests and he said: “That’s much better. The rests need to speak as profoundly as the notes.” Needless to say, I was happy to have succeeded. But what exactly did I do? I couldn’t explain any better than to say that I listened to the silence.