The Sound of Silence

Carlos touched on a bit of a raw nerve for me last night.  In amongst the many gems he revealed during the course of the rehearsal, he spoke about the power of silence.  And at the beginning of the rehearsal he made us observe silence twice as part of preparing us to sing sections of this wonderful music.  It seemed to work.  It was another hard-working, effective and thoroughly satisfying rehearsal – for us choristers, certainly.

Why the raw nerve?

I can no longer experience silence.

For the past couple of years I have been living with tinnitus.  I had thought I was special, but it turns out from conversations I am by no means alone.  The symptoms vary.  For some, like myself, it is generally manageable, but for others it is a serious condition affecting sleep, social interaction and all sorts of fundamental human activities.  All levels of the condition produce constant sound.  Some people hear loud, high-pitched buzzing noises all the time which interfere with daily activities: others such as myself experience a continuous sound which is not unlike the ambient noise in an airplane.  My version does not affect me when there are other noises around, but does intrude when there is, otherwise, silence.

For all of us with the condition, silence – the absence of sound – is no longer available.  At the end of a Beethoven symphony, alternating loud chords and rests, the rests are now coloured by sound.  Dramatic moments in plays and opera are sullied by sound.  Out in the bush, far away from traffic and people, there is still sound.  Sitting or lying, meditating, there is sound.

Losing the capacity to be really quiet has been a revelation to me.  It is only when I became aware that I could no longer experience silence, that I began to realize its true value.

For those whose tinnitus is severe, you have my hearfelt sympathy.  I cannot imagine how you cope.

For those without tinnitus, I urge you to make the most of every silence you can find.  In this busy, noisy world, it is a truly wonderful experience.


I used to be indecisive, but nowadays I am not so sure.

There are two things I might write about this week, and I cannot decide which.  So I will start with one, the last lecture in the “Music and……” series at the City Recital Hall, and see where that leads.

Two psychologists presented some findings on the subject of “Music, Feelings and Emotion.” They had undertaken extensive research using facial finite element analysis coupled to sophisticated software, and come up with these conclusions.

  • If you are feeling sad, then listening to sad music will make you feel even more sad.
  • If you are feeling sad. then listening to sad music followed by cheerful music will make you feel less sad and possibly even more cheerful.

Now these conclusions will not come as a surprise.  It’s something most of us have worked out for ourselves over the years.  But in this day and age even the most obvious truth seems to be subject to the need of a formal proof.

Adding to the idea of music affecting mood and emotions, last night Carlos was bubbling over with infectious enthusiasm for the music of Mozart’s C Minor Mass.  It was impossible not to be caught up in his exuberance, despite the trickiness of some of the runs and the relentless rate at which they appear.  He describes the music as “affirmative”, and “full of positivity.”  It is clear that he would classify this piece as music to enliven the mood, reduce sadness and increase happiness.  And who could argue?

In his enthusiasm, Carlos worked with us to take apart the music, inspect, repair and polish the individual sections, and decide how and where to put them back together again, producing a perfectly working whole from the multitude of components inherent in a double fugue such as the “Osanna.”

As we rehearsed, I thought of a friend who restores vintage motorcycles.  His restoration process is very similar to our rehearsals.  It involves taking components apart, getting each one to work in its own right, then re-assembling them to make a working machine. There is a deal of fine tuning on the way, a lot of trial and error, and considerable re-working when things do not quite fit together.  Just like an MWC rehearsal.

And now we have come full circle, as this is the second thing I thought I might write about this week.  C’est la vie!

MWC Dinner 2019

Wednesday evening this week saw about fifty members of the Choir at Limani’s on Narrabeen Lagoon for a most enjoyable dinner.  The format was changed from previous years to reflect the different location.  There was no quiz, and the formalities were limited to a short welcome from our President, Naomi.


The food was up to Limani’s usual high standards, and the conversation flowed freely all evening.   It was lovely to be able to have those extended conversations which on a Thursday evening at rehearsal are cut short by the ringing of the bell summoning us back to our seats.  Once the meal was over, people seemed reluctant to set off home.

Many thanks to Judy Williams for organizing a relaxed and friendly evening, and to Cindy Broadbent for taking these photos.


A sense of superiority

We singers have a justified sense of superiority.  Scientific studies have demonstrated time and time again the benefits to our well-being of belonging to a choir.  Better physical health from all that deep breathing, better mental facility arising from the coordination involved in converting notes on a page into sound, and better social connection from a sense of common purpose – these are are just some of the many benefits which we all enjoy.

It seems a pretty exclusive club, with copious benefits which are not available for non-singers. This idea has recently nagged at the back of my mind.  Does this really mean that non-singers are at such a disadvantage in life?

But then a number of other activities have been studied recently for their beneficial effects.  Belonging to a sporting team, preferably but not necessarily as a player, is apparently good for you.  Gardening (and this I find particularly difficult to accept, from my own experience) is also supposed to improve one’s physical, mental and spiritual state.

Imaging my surprise at browsing the website of the composer, John Rutter, and finding a comment which, based on his experience of directing and playing music for weddings, is on just this topic.  Having once been a  choirmaster at an attractive village church popular for weddings, I empathise with his story.  The article is short and pithy so, rather than paraphrasing it, I leave you to click here and to read it for yourself.

And, of course, I leave you to draw your own conclusions.

Interesting intervals

Regular readers will know that I have been attending lunchtime lectures at the City Recital Hall this year on various topics associated with music.

Firstly, there was Music and Philosophy.  I am sure that the concepts would have proved very interesting had the speaker and I shared the same vocabulary.

Then there was Music and the Periodic Table of Elements, which showed that scientists are always looking for patterns in nature, whilst musicians, painters and the like thrive by creating their own visual and aural patterns.

The third was Music and Mathematics.  Now that should prove interesting, I thought, as my degree is in maths.  Mind you, I only just got my degree as I seemed to spend most time at uni in non-academic activities such as music of various sorts and helping to run the Students’  Union.  Oh – and, of course, meeting Anne……..

Going to the lecture was going to be a bit tricky as it fell on the second day of a romantic interval in everyday life organised by our children in honour of a recent wedding anniversary – top seats to see Madama Butterfly, preceded by dinner overlooking the Harbour and followed by an overnight stay in the penthouse of one of those luxurious hotels overlooking Circular Quay.  It was all absolutely magic.

Anyway, Anne found a lunchtime organ recital at St James’ King Street at the same time as my lecture – much more her cup of tea.  And I said as we parted, each with our own pack of sandwiches, that if they mentioned Fourier Transformations, the point at which my mathematical comprehension ran out, I would leave.

The professor of mathematics who spoke is also an amateur chorister, so there was an immediate bond.  He started by talking about intervals – such as taking a string tuned to C, halving the length and getting C an octave higher.  And, as is well known, different ratios give different notes: one quarter off the string length gives F and a third gives G.

It was only shortly afterwards that the dreaded Fourier Transformations raised their head.  If I had not still been contentedly eating my sandwiches, I would have left.  They were the last thing I expected in a talk about music.  But apparently they are fundamental to digital communications, such that, for example, file formats for recorded music such as MP3 would not exist without them.

Then, like my degree maths, my comprehension suffered a catastrophic failure.  There followed some very erudite comments and questions, but for me the sandwiches proved more interesting.

The other memory I have of the lecture is the speaker’s missing out all the other musical intervals except one.  C to F# is the dreaded “tri-tone”, which sounds rather dissonant.  The fraction of the string to be stopped is mathematically interesting, as it involves dividing something, I cannot remember what, by the square root of 2.  Maybe that is one reason why, in Medieval times, the tri-tone was reputedly barred by the authorities from Church music for being the work of the Devil.

Of course, Mozart uses the once diabolical interval to good effect throughout the Great Mass in C minor, as we discover every Thursday evening.  Not that knowing it’s mathematical basis makes it any easier to sing!