Pause for Thought – Practising the Piano

Have you ever stressed about what to do during a long rest that appears in a piece you are playing? In my experience of listening to pianists, rests often get shortened – sometimes really drastically. Because you’re at the instrument in the middle of a piece, you should be playing the piano, right? Not sitting there doing nothing. Quite apart from the logistics of maintaining the pulse during the silences, there’s that awkward question of what you should be doing with your hands. Do you keep them hovering eagerly over the keyboard, waiting for the moment you can start playing again? Or do you feel a sort of musical tea break is in order, and simply move your hands into your lap while your inner metronome keeps count?


Rests are a vital part of musical communication, and just because for a moment or two we are making no sounds we must not assume that nothing is happening. Actors know that by pausing before they deliver a line they grab our attention – we are agog and wondering what’s coming next. By pausing after a line, they give us the chance to digest what has been said, a moment to think and reflect on it. Great actors milk this.

Beethoven was a master of the pause – sometimes writing it out with rests, other times using a fermata. What do you feel is happening during the two rests in bar 9 of the introduction to the Pathétique? Players almost never realise the dramatic significance of this moment, it is as though they can’t wait to get to the next sound (bar 4 in this extract).

Very often players do not seem to have worked out this bar rhythmically, so if this is a piece in your repertoire can you count out aloud as you play and play the rhythms precisely as marked? You can do this counting the subdivisions – as “1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and” or even “1 e-and-a 2 e-and-a 3 e-and-a 4 e-and-a“. Here’s a little crib I have concocted – play the extra LH semiquavers once or twice just to make sure your RH fits in with the beat, and then imagine the subdivisions. There are an awful lot of semiquavers to feel from beat 3 to the downbeat of the next bar – are you sure you are accounting for all of them?

There is a big difference between mechanically counting out the beats and feeling the subdivisions. In this masterclass on a much later sonata – the one in Ab, op. 110, Leon Fleisher helps the pianist achieve the flow and rhythmic shaping she is after by exploring it from the perspective of underlying rhythmic organisation.


Returning to our Pathétique example, I think there is yet another consideration for making the rests in bar 9 work to your advantage, and that has to do with what is going on in your imagination. After you have internalised the rhythmical structure, try to get a sense of what Beethoven is after here.

Look at how he’s arrived at this point from the stop-start opening 4 bars with its dramatic contrasts, through to a nice relaxed modulation into the relative major (bar 5) and the argument that starts here. The character in bar 5 is relatively content at this point, right? It’s only a gentle sigh here. But the dastardly villain (ff, last beat) interrupts the serenity, and the protagonist (the top line, p) has to ask again, this time a bit more fervently (bar 6). Another angry denial follows, after which our wounded hero climbs ever upwards (as the LH descends), the expression getting more and more breathless and desperate until the LH stops altogether (downbeat of bar 9). There is a detail here players don’t seem to spot – the RH F octave is tied over, and we need to hear the RH sustaining until after the release of the LH. It’s quite a surprising moment, as though the hero has been abandoned by the world. The little RH flourish afterwards promises to resolve to C minor, but instead the interrupted cadence to chord VI on the 3rd beat keeps us in suspense. What effect does it have, and what does this silence afterwards mean? Beethoven is delaying resolution. If you’ve just discovered you’ve been dumped in the middle of nowhere you’re going to recoil in shock before you can regroup and decide what to do next (the crying of the lone voice in bar 10). That, for me, is the meaning behind the rests. Count it out by all means, but feel it too. Some players push a little here, others pull, and if you manage to set a metronome to anyone’s performance you will be most frustrated that not one bar will tally with it.

Some might object to the slowness of his tempo, but Justus Frantz extracts every ounce of drama in this performance.

All of the above pales into insignificance when we discover the solution favoured by Rowan Atkinson.