The Art of Silence in the Creative Process
was a freshman at Stetson University School of Music, 18 years old and very green. I remember well my first Jazz Band rehearsal. I had never played from rhythm charts before, only full piano scores. I knew the chords because I had studied advanced level theory, but I’d never played in the context of a full jazz band. I walked in and heard the band warming up and the instructor sitting at the piano leading them through a slow jam. The players were top notch. A full brass and rhythm section, 20 pieces in all. I was excited and nervous.
“Welcome Michael.” The instructor greeted me. “Here’s the first chart. Why don’t you sit in on this tune.”
I sat down, ready to dive in. The drummer clicked us in, and we were off and running. I was exhilarated by the groove, the horn hits, and I started tearing up the piano. My heart was racing. It was a blast. Then it happened. “STOP. STOP, STOP, STOP!” The instructor jumped out of his seat waving his arms like he was guiding a plane in for a landing. He walked over to the piano. Leaning down looking over his reading glasses he said, “Half as much Michael. Play half as much. Silence is the gold man. It’s just as important as playing. Let the groove inspire you. In this song, it isn’t about you and the piano, son; it’s about the groove and the melody in the saxes. Just let the space inspire you. Silence is vital in music. Sometimes it’s more about what you don’t play.”
His words have rung in my ears not only through thousands of hours of recording sessions, worship services and musical experiences, but through all of life.
Silence comes easier for some. Maybe you came hard wired to enjoy the solitude away from the noise of conversation, busyness, chaos or activity. Or maybe you’re a raging extrovert who loves to be with people, always connecting, ever in the swirl of movement and the bustle of big things. Both are wonderful. We are all on the scale somewhere and our tendencies will carry with them great strengths, and inevitable weaknesses. If we spend too much time alone, we can become myopic, self-absorbed and isolated. If we are constantly “playing” the music of life, our lives can become full of noise and chaos, unfruitful and unfocused. Worse yet, it can be a recipe for meltdown.
“Hurry is not of the devil, hurry is the devil.” – Carl Jung, Psychiatrist
Silence cures the deaf & blind
I’ll be the first to tell you I’ve been guilty of trying to create from an uninspired, underdeveloped, anemic inner life. You can do it, but not for too long, and it’s not where the “gold” is, as my jazz teacher put it. I’ve been a worship songwriter for nearly 20 years now. To write worship songs is to respond to the revelation of God by his Word and Spirit. What a divine grace and privilege to offer songs of praise back to our Savior and Creator! While my creative “antennae” is always up, capturing ideas in the chaos of life, the crafting and real response happens in the quiet. To reflect God’s goodness and glory in all of life, including art, is our goal as artists. Richard Foster says in his book Celebration of Discipline, “The purpose of silence and solitude is to be able to see and hear.” To behold the Lord, enjoy his presence, and allow Him to wash over us with his song is where the “gold” is. One moment in his presence can inspire more creativity in life and in art than we could ever contain.
Lost time or stolen silence
So my admonition to all of us is, let’s take time to see and hear. Put it on your calendar. If you don’t schedule your time, someone else will. Steal away from the noise and quiet your heart before your Abba. Spend time with our eyes fixed on Jesus, his Word, his presence, his voice. As Worship Leaders, as artists, as disciples, this is one area of our life we cannot ignore. Sometimes in life and music, it’s about the notes you don’t play.
Michael Neale serves as Worship Artist-In-Residence at Christ Fellowship in Palm Beach Gardens, FL and songwriter for Brentwood-Benson/Universal Music Group. Visit, michaelneale.com.