Silence between the notes

By Miss Ellena Papas, Dean of Co-curriculum

‘The music is not in the notes, but in the silence between.’ —Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

In Japanese aesthetics, there is the most beautiful concept, known so simply, as ‘ma’. Translated to ‘negative space’, ‘ma’ is that space between the walls of a building, the white between the lines of a drawing, the silence between the sounds in music.

It is not form, yet form cannot exist without ‘ma’; it is almost a philosophical statement—what is darkness, but the absence of light? It is what the person in the building, the person admiring the picture or the person listening to music experiences, and without it, there would be chaos.

In music, silence can take us on an emotional journey in almost any direction. We can find the building of incredible tension, the utter heartbreak of indescribable beauty, a sense of anticipation or the shock of surprise; the possibilities are endless, and it is this sense of possibility, of wonder, that ‘ma’ seeks to create.

In a world that demands our attention, our time, our energy, the opportunities to immerse ourselves fully in a moment—to be completely present, the rest of the world outside our ‘bubble’—are often few and far between.

Without this time to pause, to reflect, to ‘hold the note’ and avoid the temptation to rush through each moment, we forgo an opportunity to wonder, to imagine the possibilities, to be so transfixed by a moment it appears as though the rest of the world has stopped, momentarily, with us.

Music is something that refuses to be rushed.

Composers and musicians alike understand that paradoxically, without silence, there would be no music—only continuous noise.

Late composer and music theorist, John Cage’s famous composition, 4’33,’ which is performed in the ‘absence of deliberate sound’ remains controversial even today. Famously performed by David Tudor, who sat at a piano for four minutes and 33 seconds without hitting a single note (much to the outrage of a Woodstock audience), Cage felt it was his most ‘important’ work. It re-defined perceptions of what music was, and could be, sparking in its listeners a sense of possibility and wonder.

While we wouldn’t expect to hear five minutes of silence during most musical performances, within even the liveliest compositions, we find silence—in between notes, in a note held, or at the end of a piece, when often, an audience will be hesitant, reluctant even, to break the silence with applause.

As a musician, what transfixes me is when I feel the music breathe, feel it stretching into infinity before the next beat, and discover the silence in between notes when all and nothing combine to create moment of pure magic.

These moments of magic exist beyond the stage and within every realm of our lives; certainly these moments occur every day at Girls Grammar. Much like a piece of music, the Girls Grammar day has its lively moments, and those of stillness.

From the early mornings, when students seek pockets of warmth within the sun-drenched corners of buildings to study, to the groundswell of energy as students scurry, skip or saunter (depending on age and dignity) to their various before-school activities, the School is alive, its heart beating in synchronicity with the movements of the girls.

My ‘ma’—the space between the moments of the everyday—comes just after 7 am, as I ‘make my rounds’ around the campus, finding comfort in this daily ritual, imagining those who have done the same before me, and those who will continue to do so long after I have gone.

Meandering through girls playing sport, reading, studying, I head towards the heart of the School, the Main Building. While to many, it is simply a building, to me it feels alive with the spirit of Girls Grammar, a proud beacon of our rich past, a sanctuary for our girls and staff alike, a symbol of stability in an ever-changing world.

Entering the building, I make my way to the piano that sits in the Annie Mackay Room, and play.

I play for me, and sometimes, it feels as though the building, the thousands of Grammar girls who have walked its halls, are listening.

My hands dictate the music; there is no song in mind. Each day, it is different. And, each day, I listen and feel the silence between the notes. The sounds, the silence, they echo through the building, and in this brief moment, time stops.

It is in these moments—the spaces between notes, breaths, thoughts—where we find meaning, we connect, we simply exist.

As we navigate our increasingly busy world, going through the motions of our daily lives, we are at risk of losing connection with ourselves, unable to find meaning in a moment, no time to pause, to ponder.

Regardless of where we find this connection, the ‘silence between the notes of life’ is often where we are our true selves. It is these moments where we have the opportunity to ‘be’.

I encourage you to connect to your moment and find the magic that lies within it.