Understanding “the Pause”

One of my saxophone mentors told me that “a great jazz solo is the buildup and release of tension.” For nearly a decade, I’ve been wondering if good teaching is the same. There are all sorts of ways we build and release this tension in the classroom and many of us do it.

I was recently reminded of a simple way to create tension and intrigue—something the orators of this nation have been doing for centuries. It’s called “the pause.” One of the masters was Samuel Clemens, aka, Mark Twain. Consider this quote from the Ken Burns documentary (Mark Twain, PBS, 2000) about Twain’s days on the California lecture circuit:

“He was an unintentional genius of the stage. He had this shambling gait and he had this bewildering drawl—his mother called it ‘Sammy’s long talk.’ Some people thought he was drunk when he wandered out on stage and kind of mumbled about like this. But as the act went on—as the lecture went on—they began to see that the pauses were the great formulations; the pauses were the great preludes to the cascade of humor. So the silence on stage led to something else and as he started to understand that himself, he developed it into a great art form. He understood the pause. And one night he decided to take it as far as it would go. He walked out on stage and looked at the audience [pause] and looked at the audience [pause] and looked at the audience [pause]. The silence went on; the tension built until someone in the crowd snickered. And when that happened, the cascades of laughter came and he knew that the audience was his.” —Ron Powers, writer

Is the “audience” yours?

And we now know that the real value of the pause is the opportunity it gives students to think, digest and reflect.

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4 Responses to Understanding “the Pause”

  1. Tomasello says:

    There is something of the good theatrical performance in a well executed lecture. And, whereas timing might not be everything, it does count for a lot.

    I once had a discussion with a member of another department who said, “We academics are so afraid of student silence (after we’ve posed a question) as a reflection of our own teaching ineptitude that we often continue to talk. Students then expect us the provide the answers. We should learn to live with the silence. It makes students squirm, but it also forces them to think of an answer.”

    I’ve given this advice to every new teacher whom I’ve “mentored.” Truth be told, I should follow my own advice occasionally.

  2. robert scotto says:

    Your meditation on the pause in performance has an analogy in suspense (as in suspension) in, at least in my experience, works of literature. For there are really two kinds of suspense. The first, found most often in police procedurals and detective fiction, asks: “who did it?” In other words, what revelation closes the case. But a deeper kind of suspense asks: “why?” Many famous novels tell us what happened and then proceed to try to explore the varied and complex reasons. Every once in a while someone of overarching ambition and talent, like Dostovevski, combines both, as in “The Brothers Karamazov.” A pause is a way of deepening mystery as suspense is a way of deepening our understanding of life.

  3. Arthur Lewin says:

    I’ve heard it said that music is a way of marking off and highlighting varying intervals of silence.

    Speaking specifically of jazz, if the teacher does the solos then what does the class do? Play the melody that is the soft, rhythmic whispering of their hands across the page? Or is there a regular interplay of staccato responses to questions posed and somewhat extended commentaries of their own that amount to (smaller) solos too?

    But that’s jazz. There’s the classical style too where the instructor is the conductor who brooks little or no deviation from the written score. However, as the years go by this style seems less and less appropriate, particularly in intro level courses.

  4. Luke Waltzer says:

    Re: jazz as a metaphor for teaching, I enjoy thinking about the relationship between structure and improvisation. A syllabus, an assignment, the outline for a lecture, “teaching goals”– these all provide the structure, the base/building blocks for working through information towards knowledge… it’s the improvisation, the moments where both teachers and students can depart from the structure, riff of it to see what directions course material can be taken, that are often the most rewarding.

    All that said, Will’s post about using space and pauses in lecturing brings to mind Thelonious Monk, whose playing said as much when his hands were off the keys as when they were on. Like Twain, he was an absolute master of the poignant pause.

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