Timing is everything: respect the rests

quarter rest painted on a wall

Silence is the most important part of rhythm (photo credit)

The music is not the notes, the music is the silence between the notes. It’s strange but it’s true. You know what happens when you play all the notes at once with no silence? You get white noise—that harsh TV static sound.

When you think about that, it’s pretty obvious that what’s NOT being heard is what makes the music. For that reason, every musician needs to learn to respect the rests.

Rests don’t mean it’s time to take a break

The first mistake people make with rests is to assume it’s a break: “Oh, I’m not playing, I can relax!” Wrong. During a rest, your instrument is quiet, but your brain has to kick into high gear. Rests are when you prepare to make your next entrance, and you need to follow the flow of the music more carefully to make sure you come in at the right time.

If you’ve ever played in a youth orchestra or amateur ensemble, you’ll immediately recognize how important this is. How many times does the conductor have to stop because the first violins had a few bars of rest and came back in with a jumbled cascade of incorrect entrances? Once you start playing, it’s easier to stay in rhythm, but it’s harder to go from silence to playing unless you pay careful attention.

Make your rests loud—in your brain

One exercise I like to do is to “accent” the rests. While I’m practicing at home, I’ll play my instrument normally. But when I get to the rests, I shout out each rest at the top of my voice. It’s a bit embarrassing at first, but it works. You’ll never think of rests in the same way again: they’ll jump out at you like neon signs.

When you actually go to perform the piece, after having shouted out the rests in your practice session, those rests stick out like a sore thumb. You remember yourself shouting at them and how important they were to planning your entrances. Just doing that one simple exercise will instantly make you better at rhythm.

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