It is far harder to play rests than notes. Notes are studied, repeated, and drilled in every way possible. Rests are ignored and often outright skipped in personal practice. Since rests require no technical or musical skill, they seemingly don’t need to be rehearsed, but how we handle silence of all lengths greatly impacts the success of the notes we do play!
One of my most memorable orchestra experiences in college was a piece, the title of which I’ve long forgotten, in which my first entrance was in measure 308. Percussionists often count a lot of rests, but that was bordering on ridiculous! In this case, my best asset was not my ability to count, but my ability to listen. The orchestral cues marked in my part, plus the notes I added about specific things to listen for, were critical to my awareness of where we were in the score at any given point. Even though I was responsible for silence, other parts within the orchestra filled that space for me, and as long as I knew what went where, I was able to avoid getting lost. This is true in shorter rests as well. Utilizing cues from around the ensemble, carefully marked in your part, can greatly aid confidence in playing notes immediately following rests of any length.
That being said, all musicians — and especially percussionists — need to learn and practice the art of counting multiple-measure rests. The first key in this regard is to come up with a plan as to how you count. Do you look at the part or look at the conductor? Do you move your lips or whisper silently to yourself to maintain focus as you count? Do you use your fingers to keep track of which measure you are counting within a multi-measure? Have you practiced counting 1 – 2 – 3 – 4, 2 – 2 – 3 – 4, 3 – 2 – 3 – 4, etc.? If you don’t have a game plan for how you can maintain focus and accuracy in counting, you are inevitably risking mistakes.
The second step in the process is to actually practice counting rests. This obviously happens in full ensemble rehearsals, because you can’t ask the ensemble to skip ahead when you get to a 16-measure rest. It should also happen in your personal practice, at least in large section or full-piece run-throughs. Being consistently exposed to the duration of that silence will make it more comfortable in performance.
The final, and often most problematic spaces, are short ones, like for example the rests that precede your accented entrance on the & of 3 in a measure. Now we come to my favorite word in all of percussion pedagogy: subdivide! Any time you have any combination of rhythms and rests that are not continuously the same (e.g., the eighth notes in Eight on a Hand), you should latch on to the fastest rhythmic value present and count that continuously. Even if most of the phrase is quarter and eighth notes/rests, if there is one dotted-eighth and sixteenth note figure in the passage, you should be continuously counting 1 e & a, 2 e & a, etc. The only way to consistently place the notes we play within space is to always be identifying each point in the rhythmic grid that might include a note. The more we subdivide (in practice and performance), the more accurate we will be able to place every note within our part.
Rests look easy but silence is awkward, and distractions are easily found when our hands aren’t actively playing. Whether you have 307 measures or two-and-a-half beats of rest, having a game plan for how you count and listen during those indicated silences is key to your success with the notes everyone hears!