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Deep Listening

October 8, 2012

This picture represents a yogic approach to voice. The different chakras in the body are aligned with the vowel sounds. While western singing practices mostly focus on the resonance of the voice in the face -- and most particularly the mask -- yogic singing is all about making the whole body vibrate.

It's fascinating to say a vowel like EE and feel it buzzing in the top of your head, the chakra where the sound comes from. The same goes all the way down the body. The vowel EH does indeed seem to sit in the throat, where the corresponding chakra is; AH comes from the chest. OH from the stomach and OOH from deep down in the pelvis. (It's not for nothing 'ooh' is often the sound that accompanies sexual stimulation!)

I'm learning about yogic vocal techniques as a student on an eight-week course taught by jazz singer and yoga instructor Ann Dyer. It's turning out to be a fascinating exploration, because I'm discovering a whole new way of thinking about how we use (and fail to use) our voices.

Of particular interest from the first class is the stuff about "deep listening." In order to sing well, you have to listen intently. This goes for all singing, regardless of genre or tradition. At one point during the workshop, we practiced listening.

The sensations I felt by doing this just for a few minutes were palpable. My breath automatically slowed down and deepened, without the need to consciously make an effort to do these things; Individual sounds in the room and outside on the street became amplified in volume and more distinct. Sounds that I would have filtered out, such a classmate clearing her throat, the buzz of a light fixture in the lobby or a dog barking a few blocks away, were suddenly right at the forefront of my conscience. It was an almost effortless exercise. But for a few minutes it helped me focus my mind in a new way and at least temporarily took me away from my extremely visual-oriented world into an aural dimension.

I think i'm going to incorporate deep listening into my life in a more regular way. I tried it while climbing Mount Whitney (the highest peak in the continental United States) at the weekend and it helped me get through some tough parts of the hike by forcing me to shift my focus.

One more key learning from Ann's class was to do with the rationale for why she's teaching a yogic singing class in the first place. Ann believes that people, particularly in the United States, have become separated from their singing voices. Here's what she said:

Singing is no longer part of everyday life in this country. People are self-conscious abut their voices. Being asked to sing a song is like being naked. Singing has become an elitist activity, one just for professionals, and lots of people are told they shouldn't sing. But your singing voice is such a fundamental part of who you are. My mission is to reunite people with their singing voices.

I think Ann's dead right. Her mission is not unlike that of VoiceBox, the weekly public radio and podcast series I host and produce.

I'd like to end this post by quoting from Hazrat Inayat Khan (1882-1927), a Sufi teacher who had some wise words on the subject of the relationship between an individual and his / her voice, which Ann shared with us the other day. Khan's thoughts really spoke to me.

The voice is not only indicative of man’s character, but it is the expression of his spirit... The most wonderful part in the study of voice is that from the voice you can find out a man’s particular evolution, his stage of evolution. You do not need to see the person, just his voice will tell you where he is, how far he has evolved. There is no doubt that the character of the person is apparent, is evident in the voice.

For those on the spiritual path, thinkers, students and meditative souls, it is of the greatest importance to know the condition of their spirit from time to time by consulting their voice. That is their barometer. 
From morning till evening one can see the weather — weather created by oneself: whether it is warm or cold, or whether it is spring or winter. One’s voice is that barometer that shows to us what is coming, because what will come is the reaction, the result of what is created, and the voice is indicative of it. Those who think still more deeply on this subject will be able to see how, step by step, they are progressing on the spiritual path, if only they consult their voice. Every step in the spiritual path brings about a little change. By a distinct study of the voice you will find that it is so.

Besides this, every person is an instrument in this orchestra which is the whole universe, and his voice is the music that comes from each instrument. Each instrument is made distinct and particular and peculiar, so that no other voice can take the place of that particular voice. If then, with the instrument that God has made and the music that God has intended to be played in the world, one does not allow that music to be played and one develops a voice which is not one’s own, naturally that is a great cruelty to oneself and to others. 


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