Being in the Presence of Silence

Silence is not the absence of sound, it is presence.Gordon Hempton

As any of my students will tell you, I’m almost fanatical about silence. I get them to do weird things, like paying attention to the quality of the silence in the room after they have finished vocalising a sound. I even insist that they leave their mouths open, jaws relaxed, for a few seconds, maintaining the sense that they are still in the act of communicating, or expressing themselves – only now it is not via vocalised sound, it is via the quality of the silence they have created, which exists in the room. In fact, the sound waves they have just created have changed the sound of the room, and that change needs to be respected.

Because the room already has a sound quality, before we speak in it. Any room, any theatre, any space, as Gordon Hempton demonstrates in the interview above.

Listen to the podcast, recorded by Krista Tippett

As communicators, whether we are actors, public speakers, educators, lawyers, or any kind of professional speaker, we need silence in our vocalised speech just as much as musicians need pauses in music. Language is a form of music, whether improvised or memorised, and how we honour the silences within it are hugely influential on how effective we are.

Listening is a skill, and we need to practise it. Gordon Hemphill remembers the day he realised his listening had been so focussed upon filtering out everything but what he thought was the most important thing being SAID that he failed to hear what was happening, what was present in his life at any given moment.

True silence does not exist, not on planet earth with an atmosphere and oceans.Gordon Hemphill

Practise listening. Go for a walk around your neighbourhood, collecting all the different sounds you can detect – big cars, little cars, footsteps, conversations (don’t eavesdrop, just observe the qualities of the voices), animals, birds, wind in the trees – anything at all. Sit in the park, and see if you can filter out the man-made sounds and find some wildlife to listen to. (By the way, leave your phone at home).

Take the time, during your warmup, to stay with the sound in the room at the end, and at the beginning of each exercise. Notice is there is a difference between the two states. Enjoy them. You are part of them. That presence that exists in ‘silence’ is available for you to be part of. Your presence depends upon your acknowledging it, and owning it.