OR, HOW DID A GIRL FROM HOUNSLOW END UP AS A NATURE GUIDE?
I grew up in West London, under the Heathrow flight path – about as far away from nature as you could get. On a school trip to the Wiltshire countryside I was so miserable that I cried into my lunchbox. A teenage interest in stone circles first tempted me to venture into the great outdoors again. I started a bit of rambling and I even braved a camping trip. Emboldened, I joined the university hiking society. Still clueless, however, I showed up to climb Snowdon in jeans and old trainers. So, you can see that a love of nature did not come naturally to me.
But, for some reason, I kept going back. The turning point for me was when I realised that there was much to be learned from listening to the land. I took up landscape photography and did a course in animal communication. These taught me much about being quiet and still. I grew to love birds, trees and wild places. I began to be at my happiest out on the land.
I love the sense of peace and aliveness, wonder and beauty that I experience in nature and I began to dream of being able to share that with others. So I trained as a Shinrin Yoku practitioner and started Wildsong Walks. I still don’t know the names of many birds or trees. My plant, rock and insect identification skills are even worse. But, if you would like to spend an hour with me in the woods, we may just discover something else we would struggle to name. Something all the better for being unnamable.
“The sounds of the forest soothe our frazzled heads, lift us out of mental fatigue and give us the silence in which to think.”1
Forest Bathing – or Shinrin Yoku, as it is known in Japan – originated as an antidote to our unfulfilling modern lifestyles that have led to such damaging disconnection from the land. Many of us find that when we are immersed in the peace and tranquillity of the woods, we slow down our bodies, quieten our minds and step aside from everyday cares. Thus opened to a new way of being, we return refreshed and rejuvenated, with a deeper connection to nature, to our selves and to what truly matters.
“To enter a wood is to pass into a different world in which we ourselves are transformed.”
Roger Deakin in Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees
“Studies have repeatedly shown that the sounds of nature relieve stress and that we feel relaxed when we can hear birdsong or running water.”2
Clinical researchers have amassed a body of evidence that demonstrates the mental and physical benefits of being in nature. There is now a wealth of data that proves that forest bathing lowers stress, anxiety and depression, reduces blood pressure, increases metabolism, fights fat, promotes a healthy heart and helps us sleep.
People also report how re-connecting to nature can awaken a sense of childlike wonder, curiosity and playfulness, as well as the freedom to be ourselves and a newfound enjoyment of simply being in the moment. It can even kindle an experience of awe, interconnectedness and the deep beauty and mystery of the universe.
Selected research papers from the National Centre for Biotechnology Information (USA)
The voice is at once music, meditation and medicine.1
What is Medicine Singing?
The word medicine in Medicine Singing has two connotations. First, it is connected with healing, as we would generally use the term – something that brings us towards wellness or wholeness. Secondly, in the Native American tradition, plants and animals are said to carry medicine: this is their own unique vibration or energy signature. For example, the medicine of hummingbird is endurance and that of wolf is inner guidance. During my training as a Medicine Singer with Sarah Patterson, I came gradually to understand that each of us has a personal medicine that we can offer the world through our voice and song.
Our healing journey involves uncovering the original instinct to sing and recalling the song of the soul.2
This path has been deeply healing for me personally, as well as challenging. Like the majority of us, and women especially, I have been aggressively silenced, both figuratively and literally; as a result, I became alienated from my own voice. The instinct to be quiet, to hold my personal expression in, to take up as little space as possible, is something I have had to overcome for the voice of my soul to come forth. It is an ongoing journey.
My medicine singing training had nothing to do with classical voice technique. The more natural the voice is, the better. However, what I have learned is that the way we habitually use our voices may not be natural. I had to re-learn how to use my voice, putting it back into my body where it belongs. I had to learn that singing isn’t just about making a pretty sound, or satisfying a judgemental ear, but a means of giving form to the deepest parts of the soul. As such, everyone has the potential to be a Medicine Singer because everyone’s voice has the potential to express one’s own soul.
The other side of Medicine Singing is the songs themselves. Although all songs have their own language, some have words with recognisable linguistic meaning, but most do not.
Healing chants, ancient mantras and spirit songs previously gifted to others can be sung as Medicine Songs. Many Medicine Songs arrive at the moment that they are sung; some of these stay around, but quite often, they disappear again, back to where they came from. Even when I sit down to find a song for a specific purpose, the real Medicine Songs have a sense of autonomy about them and that’s how I know I’ve found one.
All I have to do at that point, is let the songs sing through me however they wish. For I know that they are taking us on a journey that spirals ever on, transforming us utterly, yet brings us back home more truly ourselves than before.
¹ Nakkach, Silvia and Carpenter, Valerie: Free Your Voice: Awaken to Life Through Singing, 2012 ² Newham, Paul The Healing Voice: How to Use the Power of Your Voice to Bring Harmony into your Life, 1999
As a Therapeutic Musician, I play music that is intended to have a beneficial effect on body, mind and spirit. I offer Therapeutic Music with harp, voice, flute and other instruments, both for individuals and for groups.
FORMS OF THERAPEUTIC MUSIC
MUSIC FOR INDIVIDUALS
Many Therapeutic Musicians play for individuals in hospitals, care homes, hospices and other clinical settings. Others work in their own studios, or visit clients in their own homes. I offer Therapeutic Music in person at my studio and online.
BACKGROUND MUSIC FOR GROUPS
Improvised music on the harp creates a peaceful and meditative ambiance for healing sessions, meditation groups and yoga classes. In these settings, the music is soft and quiet, lovingly supporting and deepening the purpose of the group without drawing attention to itself.
MUSIC FOR HEALING CENTRES
About once a month, I play the harp to accompany the healing sessions at Aylesbury Healing Centre. Please contact me or Robert at Aylesbury Healing Centre for details of the next date that I’m due to be there.
MUSIC FOR YOGA CLASSES AND MEDITATION GROUPS
I regularly work with ZenYo and Yoga By Candlelight, playing improvised music to support and enhance yoga, qigong and meditation classes and workshops.
BACKGROUND MUSIC FOR ESTABLISHMENTS
Gentle background music can provide solace and comfort to visitors and staff. Any environment that can trigger stress, confusion or anxiety can benefit from the distracting and calming influence of Therapeutic Music played on the harp. This includes hospitals, hospices, clinics, surgeries, diagnostic centres, drop-in and advice centres, shelters, support groups, police stations, prisons, law courts, etc.
MUSICAL OFFERINGS FOR PRISONS
I was asked to create a performance for vulnerable prisoners at HMS Prison Bullingdon. Could it include guided meditations to help the men feel safe, a light-hearted singalong and some unusual musical instruments? No problem! The result was a Magical Mystery Tour in which we followed John Lennon to the four corner of the world to see if he could find inner peace – with a little help from his friends, of course..
MUSICAL OFFERINGS FOR CARE HOMES
Well-known tunes and a gentle sing-along can create a cheering and reassuring atmosphere in care homes. These sessions can be especially beneficial for dementia patients, who respond well to old familiar melodies which connect and anchor them to memories from their past.
I regularly perform concerts at various care homes in the Buckinghamshire and surrounding areas. I have also played soothing background music for groups such as the Herts PCA Dementia Support Group.
TAILORED MUSICAL OFFERINGS
Depending on the needs of the group, sessions can also include other elements such as poetry, storytelling, movement and guided meditation.
If you would be interested in Therapeutic Music for yourself or for a group or establishment that you represent, please contact me to discuss how I might help you.
Here I have recorded a short improvisation on the harp in each of the Seven Healing Modes to give you a brief introduction to how they sound. I have chosen not to list examples of the feelings, modes and emotions commonly associated with each mode. This is because I would like you to have the space for your own, uninfluenced, responses to them. This is, after all, how a recipient of Therapeutic Music would experience them.
The following improvisations are thematically linked, with several figures appearing throughout the sequence. I did this so that you would get to experience the extent to which each mode changes the character of a musical phrase. On the other hand, it would also be true to say that the mood that each mode evokes in me influenced how and what I played.
In Therapeutic Music – that is, music intended to effect positive change – the most beneficial music for the recipient is often unfamiliar to them. There are several reasons for this: unfamiliar music presents a “clean sheet” so the recipient can go on their own inner journey in response, free from previously held associations with a piece of music. In addition, the musician avoids unwittingly choosing music that holds negative associations for the client, which could easily negate any potential therapeutic benefits of the music.
In addition, an important aspect of Therapeutic Music is that the musician takes their cue from the recipient as to what to play. The musician intuits the needs of the recipient at the start of the session and begins with music that they believe best answers these needs. They then watch for signs as to how the music is being received – changes in breath rate, facial expression, bodily tension, signs of agitation or relaxation, for example – and will alter the music accordingly. This could mean making changes to the tempo, volume, texture, rhythm, pitch, harmony or other variables. There is much more scope to make these changes to unfamiliar music in a musically satisfying manner than there would be for a familiar piece of music.
The unfamiliar music can be anything the client does not know: obscure Medieval, folk or classical melodies are all used. But the ultimate freedom to respond to the recipient is to be found in improvised music. I would estimate that 70-80% of the music I play in a therapeutic setting is completely improvised. It is possible to use any mode, but therapeutic musicians, myself included, have found that the Ancient Greek modes provide a really effective framework. So much so that these modes have begun to be referred to as the Seven Healing Modes. Each of the modes has its own emotional signature and, generally, at least one will stand out as the right mode for the recipient at any given time. Mostly, I take the recipient on a journey through several modes, transforming the emotional landscape as we go.
The Seven Healing modes
The modes under consideration here originated in ancient Greece, each mode being rooted on a different string of the diatonically tuned Greek lyre. To ancient Greek ears, each mode suggested the characteristics or group temperament of a certain tribe – Phrygians, Lydians, Dorians, for example – and this is how each mode got its name.
These modes passed into the Medieval European church, but due to a scribal error, their names were assigned to a different mode than had been used by the Greeks. It is the Medieval naming system that is use today. The modes themselves, remain the same.
The modes and their root pitch are:
C Ionian D Dorian E Phrygian F Lydian G Mixolydian A Aeolian B Locrian
Yesterday I stood and watched as an ancient, irreplaceable wood was destroyed. I hadn’t gone to listen, but to bear witness and yes, to hope that by doing so, I may be able to come to terms with my own sorrow. Sorrow for the trees, the bats, the foxes, the badgers, the plants, the insects and the newly nested eggs that will now never get the chance to hatch into birds. Sorrow also for us: that we, as people, don’t realise or care what we are doing, what we are losing. Actually, that’s unfair: many do realise and have spent countless, heart-breaking hours fighting against the destruction of Jones’ Hill Wood and too many other natural habitats that have or are about to share its fate. But we have “leaders” who can re-route HS2 to save a golf course, but not to save ancient woodland and the creatures within it.
As I stood there, I could hear power generators, voices of the HS2 contractors and most of all, I could hear the saws. Other than that, it was eerily quiet. Its sounds crazy, I know, but I wanted the wood to hear something other than the sounds of its own destruction. So I sang.
I was tired and the error was mine, but I didn’t really check much about this site in advance. So, I was perturbed when I arrived to find that Saint Andrew’s well (refurbished by the Women’s Institute in 1988) consisted of a tap and a trough. There was no sign of the spring itself. Worse, it was on the main road through the village. Still, I was tired, it had a seat and so I sat on it.
I became entranced by the aquatic life forms in the trough in their spiralling dance with themselves. I must have stopped listening altogether because the next thing I knew I was immersed within a strange sound: something like a dog drinking. Hold on, it WAS a dog drinking. But in the moment between the hearing and the identification, the sound took hold of me as if there was no distance between it and me. It was a very odd and unexpected experience.
I looked up to see a black and white pointer and its owner. “Do you want any more to drink, Sasha?” the owner enquired. Sasha obliged with a few more gulps, during which I debated whether to mention the aquatic life forms to her owner. Then Sasha and owner trotted off.
But what had happened to me? Had I been actively listening at that point, instead of gazing mesmerised at the creatures in the trough, would Sasha’s drinking have had the same effect on me? I don’t think so. The nearest I can come to explain it comes from a book of Zen stories that I read once which talked about how an unexpected sound can trigger a breakthrough moment of kensho, or enlightenment. The sound could be a rooster, the creak of a floorboard, someone’s sneeze in the meditation hall, or even a dog drinking. Indeed, “any sound that finds little or nothing of you in the way and fills you completely can let you in directly to the shocking open secret: ‘what is left that can be said to hear?’”1
Accidentally enlightened by a Christianised well in a small village in Somerset? Let’s keep that one an open secret too.
1The Hidden Lamp: Stories from Twenty-Five Centuries of Awakened Women, Edited by Florence Carlow and Susan Moon
Wistman’s Wood is a special place. It is one of the highest oak woods in Britain, but its not like any other oak wood I’ve ever visited. The oaks grow through crevices between large granite boulders called clatters; as a result their growth is stunted and their trunks and branches are contorted. Both the clatters and the oaks are covered in lichen and moss, which lend a particularly vivid greenness to the wood. It’s a weird mix of the fecund – Hildegard Von Bingen may have called it viriditas, the green creative life force – and the misshapen and stunted.
But I confess, despite the interesting natural features of the wood, I was even more drawn to its folklore. ‘Wisht’ means weird, uncanny or eerie and the wood is associated with the mythic Wild Hunt. I’ve heard of people having strange sensations of malevolence directed towards them; of feeling watched, or even being driven out of the wood. What would such a place sound like?
I arrived about 8pm on a suitably windy and damp summer evening. Out of respect – and self-preservation – I asked, as usual, if it was ok for me to enter. I received a positive response and did so. I had the wood to myself.
It took me a while to set up my tripod for a photo and I became annoyed with myself for messing about and wasting time when I had come to be still and listen. So I put my camera away and sat on a clatter. At this point, I was unaware of the presence of a large adder population in the wood, so take care if you do the same.
The more I have listened, the more I have become attuned not just to sound, but to all vibrations. This includes feeling, sensations and “knowing.” That’s how I can confidently say that I was invited into the wood. There wasn’t much to hear here that was audible – the wind, the odd raven call – but there was a lot going on on the non-audible level. I was truly surprised how benign the wood felt. I felt not only that I was welcome, but that the wood was happy that I was there. Yes, I did feel a presence behind me, but it was not threatening.
I heard voices: a young couple appeared. The woman was complaining about the speed they were hopping across the clatters and that it would be his fault if she broke an ankle. They disappeared. Then a family with an unhappy child arrived. The child was also upset about the terrain and was crying until his father picked him up. It took them longer to pass me and I could hear the child still whining for a while, but eventually they too were gone. What did they think of me sitting there? Did they wonder what could there be to do sat in the one place? Maybe they knew about the adders? What did I think of them? Well, truthfully, I felt sad for them, rushing through such a magical place, without stopping to simply be there, with wonder, reverence and more than a little joy.
I was in the mood for a waterfall. But, as I’m sure anyone who’s read any of my posts so far will already have anticipated, I wasn’t in the mood for a crowded one. Venford Falls, sometimes known as Dartmoor’s secret waterfall, seemed to fit the bill nicely. When I told my landlady I was off to find it she gave me that look that says “good luck cos you’ll need it.” Turns out, with good reason.
I realise now that the instructions I was following were the wrong way round. Written by someone else who wanted to keep the falls a secret? Not knowing this at the time, though, I began to get disheartened as the landmark I was looking for failed to materialise. I noticed a trail through the undergrowth that veered off to the right and decided to follow it. I was convinced that it was a wild goose chase and was also becoming increasingly alarmed at the steepness of the path down. But then, almost without realising it, I began to hear something that sounded like a waterfall. Was this the first time in all my years of listening that I heard my intended location before seeing it?
And there it was. The falls themselves are small, but very beautiful. There was just me and a mouthy green woodpecker. Having convinced myself that I was about to go home empty eared, I was beside myself with happiness. Best of all, for the first time in a very, very long time, I was in a place entirely free from human made noise.
Waterfalls are wonderful for listening to. As I listened I began to hear voices as if I was hearing a choir of water spirits: bass, tenor, alto and treble. Then each section began to break into separate parts until there were several multipart fugues going on at the same time. I teased myself by trying to follow an individual part, but there always came a point where my ear became delightedly confused about which voice it was trying to follow. That may have been why the woodpecker was laughing at me.
Eventually, however, despite the insect repellant, the midges got the better of me. Venford Falls would only tolerate human visitors for so long.
Finding Venford falls
From the north of Venford Reservoir, follow Venford Brook on your right towards the Dart River. There is a stand of trees to your right: when they stop, look for a path that curves off to your right and follow down to the brook. Be warned: the path is very steep and slippery and mobile coverage is patchy, so please tell someone where you are going.
The kantele is a plucked psaltery from Finland. The kantele and its cousins – the Latvian kokle, Lithuanian kanklės, Estonian kannel and Russian gusli – are known as Baltic psalteries.
I play the diatonic folk kantele. Most folk kanteles range from 5-11 strings, but mine is a large 19 string kantele. The additional bass strings are meant to function as drone strings, but I re-tuned them for extra harmonic possibilities.
I have loved Finland since I spent time in Helsinki and Rovaniemi on the Arctic Circle. The first time I heard the kantele, I was moved to tears. The soft, metallic sound with its incredible sustain is, to me, what snow falling on birch trees would sound like if I could hear it. This characteristic sound occurs because (unusually for a stringed instrument) the kantele lacks bridges. Instead, the metal strings are simply wound around metal pins at each end, resulting in some complex acoustics.
I have since come to appreciate more about the origins of this ancient instrument.
THE MYTHIC ORIGINS OF THE KANTELE
The story of the kantele’s creation is told in Finland’s national epic, The Kalevala – a huge collection of Finnish folklore and mythology that originated between 500 B.C. and A.D. 1000. Its many thousands of verses were compiled in its current form by Elias Lönnrot in the 19th century, from the singing of Finnish and Karelian peasants.
The Kalevala tells us that the wizard Väinämöinen makes the first kantele from the jawbone of a giant pike and a few hairs from a magic stallion. Many people try to play it and fail until Väinämöinen himself begins to play music of such beauty that it draws all the forest creatures near to listen and wonder. However, Väinämöinen loses his fish-bone kantele when it returns to the sea. After grieving over it for many months, he is persuaded to make another. This time, he crafts it from the wood of a birch tree and strings it with the hair of a willing maiden: the magic of this second kantele proves equally powerful.
In the final section of The Kalevala, immediately before Väinämöinen sets off in a copper boat to go between the earth and the sky, he leaves his birch-wood kantele behind to become the grandmother of all kanteles, including mine.
In his last words, he vows to come back some day, saying:
Let the time pass, let days go and needed will I be again, needed will I be, longed for, looked for To make the New Kantele to move the new moon, to change a new day.
VÄINÄMÖINEN – RUNE SINGING SHAMAN
In Finland, the verses of The Kalevala are known as runes. Rune means song or poem. It could also be translated as a secret thing – something that contains hidden and powerful sacred knowledge. Rune singing has its roots in antiquity and is believed to be connected to the practice of shamanism. During the singing of runes, the shaman is able to enter a trance state whereupon their soul can journey to other worlds.
Rune singing was accompanied by the kantele. In The Kantele Traditions of Finland, Carl Rahkonen writes:
The kantele may have served a function similar to that of the Lapp shaman’s drum, as a source of sound upon which the shaman could focus to help achieve a trance state. Undoubtedly, the kantele held special symbolic significance to the shaman, as the magical object mentioned in the runes, which also existed in tangible reality. 1
The Kalevala portrays Väinämöinen as a rune singer himself, with the kantele the source of his magic power. Elias Lönnrot and other contemporaries even believed that Väinämöinen was a real-life shaman-poet who had lived sometime in the ninth century. There are fascinating parallels here with British and Irish shaman-poets, such as Taliesin and Amairgin, whom I will write about another time.
The ichigenkin is a single-stringed zither from Japan. Its silk string is plucked by a tubular plectrum on the right hand index finger, while a slide on the left hand middle finger depresses the string at the desired pitch. The slide and plectrum are collectively known as rokan.
The ichigenkin was popular during the 17th and 18th centuries, but by the 20th century, it was in decline, with much of its tradition lost and forgotten. It is now very rare, even in Japan.
Like the better known shakuhachi, the ichigenkin comes from the Zen Buddhist tradition and is intended not to be played as a performance instrument but as a tool to teach the student about Ultimate Reality.
The ichigenkin should be played with the consciousness anchored in the hara. The hara is considered the physical and spiritual centre of one’s being. Many Japanese arts are executed from the hara, including the martial arts, archery, ikebana, the tea ceremony and Usui Reiki. With the ichigenkin, this anchoring is particularly important because of the inherently weak sound of the instrument. The player needs to use the energy of the hara to send forth the sound of the ichigenkin, lending it power and volume from the core of their own being. As I began haltingly to develop my hara, I stumbled across a paradox: not only was the hara the source of the ichigenkin’s sound, but it was also a source of stillness and silence. Peter Wilburg’s words began to make sense:
The hara is not only a still point of inner silence. It is also the gateway for a descent into silence which leads us into a world of inner sounds or “sounds of silence.”¹
As I learned to play from the hara, I became aware of these sounds of silence that Wilburg refers to. Moreover, I began to experience the inner sensation that I am playing the ichigenkin above what I can only call a continuous drone of silence. My perception of the silence is that it is in continuous flow, dynamically moving forward with the melody line, supporting it, as if it were both a musical and a metaphysical ground. I believe that this “drone of silence” is similar to what Hazrat Inayat Khan calls the “undertone of existence²” that goes on continuously and with which, eventually, all will merge.
Once the ichigenkin player has reached a certain level of spiritual attainment, they are able to transfer this to their audience. My teacher, Randy Raine-Reusch, calls ichigenkin concerts “a meditation in action and non-action, sound and silence and one note and many notes. Audiences gently slip into another world, another reality.³” The other reality of which he speaks is, of course, Ultimate Reality, where the audience members experience action/non-action and sound/silence as the two aspects of vibration from which all things emerge and re-merge.
A Neolithic earthwork, a ruined Norman church, a line of ancient yew trees and a reputation for supernatural occurrences: what might this place sound like? Well, turns out the only thing you could hear on the day when I went was a didgeridoo.
I don’t set myself up as an expert in listening to the land, but I’ve learned a few things in my time and if I were to share a tip or two, today’s would be: don’t go listening on a solstice. There’s something about solstices, equinoxes and the Celtic festivals that brings out a desire to mark the occasion with musical instruments that are meaningful for the player and annoying for everyone else. Its usually drumming circles, so at least today was bit different. I normally avoid listening excursions on these days, but I was here to speak at a festival just down the road at Gaunts House and today was all I had.
I hung around for a while to see if the didge guy would give the rest of us a break, but no, he was in it for the long haul. So I wandered a bit listlessly into the ruined church and then over to the yew trees. Despite my mood, I was soon captivated by them: people had transformed them into a shrine with offerings of clooties, prayers, images and tokens. Some of the messages touched me deeply, especially the many left in honour of deceased pets. I thought of my own beloved dogs and my eyes filled up for them all over again. There was an aura of peace and I felt grateful for having my dogs in my life and grateful for the space to feel grateful. Perhaps today was about listening to the heartfelt feelings of those who had left offerings in the trees and a teaching about how the voice of prayers can also become part of the spirit of a place.
Absolute Pitch (often referred to as Perfect Pitch) is the ability to recognise and name a musical note without a reference tone. It is possessed by about one in ten thousand people.
I have just finished re-reading This is Your Brain on Music by Daniel Levitin. Levitin is a leading neuroscientist who specialises in music and he tells us that he has read every single research paper on Absolute Pitch (AP). He admits that scientists do not know why some people have it and some don’t. But, he also demonstrates a poor understanding of the nature of AP. For instance he gives the example of a colleague who “discovered a patient who has absolute pitch but is tone deaf! He can name notes perfectly, but he cannot sing to save his life¹.”
Why the exclamation mark, Daniel? As someone with AP, my response to this is “like, d-uh!” As long as the patient were not visually impaired or colour blind, no one would bat an eyelid at his recognition of the colour green or blue, yet in no way would this lead to an assumption that he would be able to paint anything recognisable with them.
So, I thought I’d write about my experiences of AP in an attempt to help further understanding of this ability in those who may be interested. Of course, these are only my experiences and those of others may be very different.
Each Note has a Unique Quality
I can recognise an A or D# as easily as I can recognise my husband’s voice, or which one of my dogs is barking. An F just has a quality of “F-ness”. It is not something I have to pay attention to and it requires no effort – though, as we’ll come to, there are exceptions to this.
I Have No Idea How I Came to Have AP
I can’t have been born with AP because at birth I was unfamiliar with the concept of musical pitch. But I don’t recall acquiring it and it feels like I’ve always had it. In fact, I used to think everyone had it. It was only when I misunderstood an aural test and I wrote down the melody of a piece played on the piano, along with the (required) rhythm, that my music teacher told in a mix of awe and accusation “you’ve got perfect pitch!”
The Pitches of Some Instruments are Harder to Identify than Others
I find the piano the easiest of all to determine pitch, even though I’m not a trained pianist. Instruments with prominent dissonant overtones are the most difficult. There are some singing voices that I cannot identify.
AP Does Not Go On Indefinitely
I cannot identify notes at pitch extremes: either high or low.
AP is a Function of Response, Not Initiation
If you asked me to sing a certain pitch, I could do it correctly 90% of the time. But I have to sing the pitch in my head first. Once I’ve heard it internally and experienced the quality of the required pitch, I will know if my internal starting pitch is correct or if it needs adjusting. I can then reproduce it vocally.
If I just sang without hearing it first, I could be off. This correlates with the research finding that muscle memory is not involved in AP.
AP is a Blessing and a Curse
Yes, I’m pretty good at playing by ear! But sometimes I don’t want to know that the key of a piece is Gm: it doesn’t further my enjoyment or connection with the music and sometimes, I think it even gets in that way of that. Also, transposing can be a challenge. However…
I Run in ‘Parallel Pitch’
When you consider that my first main instrument was the Bb clarinet, a transposing instrument, it is even more peculiar that I should have AP. But it seems that I have the ability to compartmentalise. In fact, when I listen to the clarinet, I can tell you the pitch of the note either from an AP viewpoint, or from the viewpoint of the clarinettist. The note has a certain quality which I recognise because I recognise the pitch, and because I recognise the note as its played on the clarinet. I’m effectively hearing two pitch schemes in tandem and choosing to focus on one or the other.
Another example is the Persian setar, which I am studying. The tradition here is to tune in standard pitch when playing with others, but to tune down a tone when playing solo because the strings have more resonance at the lower pitch and the setar sounds better. So, with a tuned down setar, I recognise that my teacher is playing a G but I have to go to the fret which I know as A in order to play the same note. I’m not quite sure what is going on here, but I don’t believe I’m carrying out an instantaneous transposition, rather that I’m running a double pitch scheme in my head, where the quality of G can be an A if I let it.
I Lose it When I Am Ill
Isn’t this interesting? I can lose it overnight if I’m coming down with something. In fact, there are degrees of AP loss: I may just lose it with some instruments and my AP compass might decrease. Or I may lose it completely. I can even use it as a barometer of how poorly I am. When I’m better, it re-appears.
I Have a Relationship with Pitch that Cannot Be Appreciated by Non-AP Musicians
I once wrote an article on harp tuning and claimed in passing that singers find it easier to sing in flat keys. I was taken to task on this by someone who, virtually apoplectic with rage, insisted that this could not possibly be the case. It was something that a singing teacher (without AP) once told me and it matched my own experience. So, when I was challenged I sat down and paid attention to what was happening. It was true: when I was singing a flattened note (ie, an on-pitch Bb, not an under-pitch, out of tune note), I felt a sense of ‘settling or easing down’ into the pitch; when singing a sharpened note, such as F# or C#, I had to ‘reach up’ for it. Enharmonically, I even found it much more comfortable to think in terms of Db major than C# major. I could well imagine that my critical reader would not readily understand if I were to tell him that, for me, going from note C to D# is more of ‘stretch’ than going from C to Eb, because, ultimately, he does not have the same intimate relationship with pitch that I do. We were, therefore, both right from our respective experiences.
¹Levitin, Daniel J. This Is Your Brain on Music: Understanding a Human Obsession, May 2008, page 184
One of the most difficult things for me to learn as a musician has been the practice of non-aggression. This can be a tricky concept and there is often aversion to it when it is explained. But, as Chögyam Trungpa says “transcending aggression is the root of all the artistic talent one can ever imagine.¹”
It is fair to say that, until recently, most of my music has been aggressive. When I was younger, I thought the purpose of my songs was to tell people exactly where the world was going wrong. I grew out of that, mainly because it stopped feeling right. Instead, my songs became focussed on how we should be nice to each other. This, I realise now, was equally aggressive.
Essentially, being aggressive in an artistic sense is attempting to manipulate your audience into thinking or feeling in the way you want. Even if your message is one of love and peace, it is fundamentally aggressive. That’s a lot to take in, isn’t it?
Non-aggression, on the other hand, is simply presenting reality as it is, without filtering it through your own viewpoint.
When you start to be aware of the ways in which one can be artistically aggressive, you see how many traps there are for the unwary. If you want people to like/admire/desire/envy you, or think that you’re a hot sax player or a genius, but tortured, singer and you play to that end, you are being aggressive.
Another pitfall is in making your work too obvious, too delineated, because you are concerned with your message being received in the way you want. Chögyam Trungpa again:
Spelling things out proves one’s legitimacy, wisdom or artistry. But according to Buddhist tradition, the only thing you can do is hint. If you want to demonstrate something very badly and you achieve that, your work of art is a dead one².
We usually think of spelling things out as a mental process, but you can also spell things out emotionally. We’ve all seen performers put emotion “into” the music. You see their emotions first and foremost and they upstage the music. That is a huge imposition onto the music and onto the audience who are denied their own emotional reaction to the music.
Even the popular viewpoint of art as self-expression can be problematic, unless that self-expression is clear of neurosis and able to express reality as it is.
Some may think that this is a lifeless, dry approach to performing music. This is not so. Let us play music as it is, without trying to change, inform or manipulate and we will be playing not “our music” but Music.
¹&² Trungpa, Chögyam, True Perception: The Path of Dharma Art, 1996, page 105
While making my way down to the sand dunes it occurred to me that its not very often that you can make a trip to listen to a particular species of mammal. I suppose that I could find a field of cows to listen to, maybe some horses. But truly wild mammals? That’s quite a rare and special experience. Even more special in the case of seals.
As a child, I was a sucker for folk tales and songs about selkies: magical creatures that are seals in the water and humans on the land. When full time humans and selkies meet it doesn’t usually begin or end well. Sometimes humans are lured into the sea by the haunting song of the selkies; sometimes the humans appear to get the upper hand by stealing a selkie’s skin while the selkies are dancing in the moonlight. The poor selkie is thereby obliged to stay in human form and marry the thief who stole their skin. Inevitably, the skin is found and the selkie returns to the sea, either leaving offspring behind or taking their children with them. Either way, there’s sorrow for those destined to remain on land. Anyway, those are the tales. I always wondered where they came from. What was it about seals that inspired such legends? Was it just their dual identity as sea creatures that give birth on land? Maybe it had something to do with their strange beauty? And, indeed, what was this haunting, but elusive seal song that was often alluded to in the story? Was I about to find out?
The first two sounds that hit me was the wind and the sea. For a moment I was completely enveloped by these, until the wind, the sea and I seemed to be one entity. Then I heard it…strands of song emerging from within the wind/sea/me sound. It was incredibly moving and arresting. It was also distinctly musical. I detected three main phrases: a downwards glissando of a fifth; an upwards glissando of a second or third, which sometimes descended again and sometimes not; and two repeated notes. The pitch was remarkably consistent too: most phrases started on the quarter-tone between C and Db. Before A was raised to 440, the seals would have been vocalising pretty near to C (sea?) natural itself. One longer phrase lodged itself into my head and I was still singing it to myself later on that evening. I eventually wrote it down and it went like this:
Had I been alone one evening on the shore and caught a snatch of that song through the roar of the wind and the sea, would I have thought I was hearing someone singing? You bet I would. I think I would also have struggled to know whether the singer was human, animal, or some magical hybrid of the two. I also think that I would have felt a sadness or a longing come over me in response to the strange, haunting and mesmerising song; the same sad longing that whispers through all the folk tales about Selkies.
On 2nd February 2020, I took part in The Perpetual Choir for the Ash: a gathering of voices that sang for 24 hours non-stop for the healing and regeneration of the ash tree. Different groups around the world sang for slots of one hour or more at a time by a chosen ash tree. People took part in the UK, Ireland, The Netherlands, Belgium, France, Slovenia, The USA and Canada.
The event was conceived and organised by Azul Thomé of the Earth Wisdom Tenders Group as an attempt to heal the ash tree, which is very sick in Britain and in parts of Europe. 95% of Ash trees are dying back due to the spores of the mushroom, Chalara, which enter the leaves
There is more information about Ash dieback on this Woodland Trust page:
As soon as I heard about the choir, I was moved both by the intention to support the ash trees and by the underlying conviction that sound and music – offered in the right way – could make a difference. As a sound healer, therapeutic music practitioner and tree lover, this was right up my street! In addition, I have been fascinated with the concept of Perpetual Choirs ever since I read about John Michell’s research on the subject – and here was a chance to actually take part in one, albeit “Perpetual” for one day only.
Apparently, I’m not the only one. The idea of Perpetual Choirs is gaining in popularity, with people like Giles Bryant leading the way. The modern iteration seems to emphasise the combination of massed voices and an extended length of time for singing – in our case, 24 hours. This makes sense: we know that focused singers sharing the same intention can have a powerful effect and – while I am simplifying things here – in general the effect is heighted through an extended duration. How does this compare to the original Perpetual Choirs?
There is evidence that there was an ancient tradition, now lost, of continual chanting or singing in Britain, India, Egypt and other countries. Here I’m going to concentrate on the Perpetual Choirs of Britain as it’s the research into these with which I am familiar. The British Perpetual Choirs are recorded in The Welsh Triads of the Island of Britain, a Medieval collection of much older material. Some scholars believe that the Perpetual Choirs were maintained by monasteries in order to praise God continuously; others contend that this may be so, but that that origin of the choirs was pre-Christian and presumably, their original function was to uphold the integrity of the land. Interestingly, an English translation of the text from 1796 give the location of The three Perpetual Choirs of Britain as the Isle of Avalon (Glastonbury), Caer Caradoc (Old Sarum) and Bangor Is-y-Coed. There is debate about whether the third location refers to Bangor-on-Dee, near Wrexham, or Llantwit Major. John Michell puts forward a convincing case for further choir locations, including Goring-on-Thames and Croft Hill in Leicestershire.
The choirs could well have been huge. Iolo Morgannwg, translator of the original text, tells us that there were 24,000 singers in each choir. Unfortunately, Morgannwg has a tendency towards exaggeration and downright invention, but still, it is worth closing your eyes for a moment and imagining what a choir of that number would sound like. Its no wonder that modern re-creators aim for a large number of participants.
But what interests me is not so much the size of the choirs as their locations. John Michell’s work shows that the choirs were situated in very precise locations in order to form a decagon, or 10-sided form, just under 63 miles in diameter. If you enjoy maths and geometry, it is set out here:
But, if you’re like me, and cannot make sense of the maths at all, it doesn’t matter. What’s important is not so much how the choirs were situated where they were, as why. It is clear to me that the choirs were located in such as way as to collectively focus the sound. Its not clear, however, whether that focus was inwards towards the centre of the decagon or outwards, using the decagon as a concentrated point from which sound could be radiated out.
Having received healing vocal tones in the centre of a circular group, I can attest to the powerful accumulation of energy when sound is directed inwards to a specific point. Equally, I can see how sending sound outwards from a concentrated centre point could increase the transformative power of the sound. Its possible that both were intended and utilised. We just don’t know. So, why don’t we find out? This is my request to those called to organise modern Perpetual Choirs: let’s set up more choirs of singers who are equipped to utilise the healing power of sound and music, training them in this, if necessary. But let’s not focus so much on numbers or duration, but on position. Let’s experiment with sound, sacred geometry and geomancy and see if we can understand the intention and effect behind the locations of the ancient Perpetual Choirs. Let’s see if they can teach us something important that we can use to heal the Earth and ourselves today.
The Hopi Indians talk of Spider Woman singing the song of creation over the Earth and bringing all beings to life. Hindus speak of Brahma creating the universe from the primal sound of his finger cymbals. Modern physicists tell a very similar story of how the universe is set in motion through a process of contraction and expansion – otherwise known as vibration. Since all vibrations are theoretically audible, we can indeed say that we are born in sound.
In sound too, we are healed. Scientific research has shown that sound and music can have a transformation effect on a physical, mental and emotional level. According to cognitive psychologist and neuroscientist, Daniel Levitin:
Music initiates brainstem responses that, in turn, regulate heart rate, pulse, blood pressure, body temperature, skin conductance and muscle tension, partly via noradrenergic neurons that regulate cholinergic and dopaminergic neurotransmission. It is also being used to help people manage pain, anxiety, stress and a surprisingly wide range of other issues.¹
This post looks at some ways in which sound creates vibrational changes in our physical, mental, emotional and etheric bodies. When these changes occur, they can initiate transformation and healing.
“Sound healing is the conscious therapeutic application of sound frequencies to a person, for the purpose of healing and with the intention of bringing them back into a state of health and harmony.”² – Sheila Whittaker
As we know, everything in the universe vibrates. This includes our bodies, organs and cells. All matter has a frequency at which it most naturally wants to vibrate and in a healthy organ, for example, its molecules will be vibrating in harmony with each other. Therefore, it is said that everything in nature has its own note at which it vibrates when in optimum condition.
Every cell within that organ is a sound resonator that may respond to any other sound inside or outside the body. If a different sound pattern enters the organ, it could affect the harmonious vibration of its molecules. So, it could then be said that the organ is no longer sounding its own note: it is out of tune. If the new sound pattern is stronger than the original, it could establish its disharmonious pattern in the organ. This is what we call disease.
A sound healer uses their knowledge and intuition to produce a frequency which harmonises with the diseased organ. Sound sources could be voice, gongs, tuning forks, conch trumpets, singing bowls, didgeridoos or any instrument that can provide a stronger frequency than the new invading sound pattern. This frequency penetrates the organ, reinforcing its original sound pattern, neutralising the vibrations of the intruder and re-establishing harmony.
In the same way, emotional events held by the body in cellular memory can be dissolved. All tissues and organs produce magnetic pulsations that are the result of tiny electrical currents generated by charge flow in the body’s cells. These pulsations are known collectively as the human biomagnetic field, or biofield. According to sound healer, Eileen Day McKusick, the biofield contains the blueprint for the material form of the body, so a coherent magnetic field will form a healthy body. In contrast, traumatic physical, mental and emotional experiences can become trapped in the biofield, where they can give rise to incoherent electromagnetic oscillations that exert a non-harmonious sound pattern within the person’s body and mind. Over time, they can cause a breakdown of the body’s structure and function, causing disease.
Again, a sound healer would work to neutralise these non-harmonious vibrations within the biofield, thereby returning order to the body.
Of Sound Mind
Sound can alter brainwaves and balance the two hemispheres of the brain. This has a profound effect upon our consciousness. Gongs, especially, are known to lower brainwaves. Simply opening ourselves up to the gong sound, can take us from every day beta brainwave consciousness (12-30cps) into the calm and relaxed state of alpha brainwave consciousness (8-12cps). This brainwave lowering is lovingly referred to by sound healers as “automatic meditation.” Most people feel calm, peaceful and centred after receiving the sound of the gong and, this in itself, can be healing. As 85% of disease is caused by stress, simply relaxing and de-stressing is vital for our health.³
If we are receptive, our brainwaves can slow further from the alpha state to theta brainwave consciousness (4-8cps). This is known as the dream and visionary state, linked to our subconscious, where all sorts of inspiration can occur, giving us insight into ways to solve our problems and live a more holistic life.
The gong sound is so densely filled with so many tones and overtones, that it confuses the left brain which likes to be in charge and keep everything in order. Consequently, the overwhelmed left brain may let go of control, allowing the intuitive right brain a chance to come to the fore. The right side of the brain is associated with peace, serenity and spiritual bliss; when these qualities are experienced by the recipient, their body’s natural healing mechanism is stimulated. Therefore, the withdrawal of the left brain can be an essential part of the healing process.
Many sound healers believe that if the two hemispheres of the brain become synchronised, it can lead to transcendent states of consciousness. We are now beginning to understand why, as Sheila Whittaker says, “Sound has always been seen as a direct link between humanity and the divine”.4
¹ Levitin, Daniel This is Your Brain on Music: Understanding a Human Obsession, 2011 ² Whittaker, Sheila In the Heart of the Gong Space: The Gong as a Spiritual Tool, 2012 ³ Center for Disease Control quoted in McKusick, Eileen Day Tuning the Human Biofield: Healing with Vibrational Sound Therapy, 2014 4 Whittaker, Sheila as above
The harp gives forth murmuring music; and the dance goes on without hands and feet.” Kabir (1480-1518)
The harp has been known as a therapeutic instrument for thousands of years: it was used for healing in Ancient Egypt, Greece and Ireland. According to the Bible, the future King David soothed Saul’s soul (try saying that quickly) with his harp. The harp’s status as a healing instrument can be attributed to several factors, including its particularly resonant sound and pure harmonics, its wide pitch range (which maximises available frequencies) and its long decay (which gives the frequencies time to do their work) Also, as Sarajane Williams points out, the harp’s mythical status as a healing instrument contributes to its therapeutic quality:
The historical and archetypal significance of the harp as an ancient, spiritually healing instrument opens many doors to the personal and collective unconscious and may thereby facilitate the healing process.¹
Sarajane Williams, Good Vibrations
It is not surprising, therefore, that there are a number of currently available programmes intended to train therapeutic harp practitioners to serve in modern clinical settings, such as hospitals, hospices and private practice.
What is Harp Therapy?
The harp is used in clinical settings in two main ways: first, its music affects change by the process of entrainment – for example, the listener’s breath or heart rate slows to match the music, or their emotions shift to the mood of the piece. The second way is known as Vibroacoustic Harp Therapy. This involves applying specific frequencies from the harp directly to the desired part of the body via speakers installed in a vibroacoustic table or chair. In both, the harp player tunes in to the needs of the patient and then plays whatever is needed to produce a beneficial change in their physical, emotional, mental or spiritual state.
A typical Harp Therapy session involves live harp music specially chosen for that individual at that moment to effect beneficial change in their physical, emotional, mental or spiritual state. The music may consist of familiar favourites, or it may be improvised there and then. People come for a Harp Therapy session for a variety of reasons. These include physical, mental, emotional or spiritual pain, illness, anxiety, depression and fatigue. Some clients use it for meditation or as a means of inspiring creativity or problem solving. Some come from curiosity or simply because they love the harp. All are welcome.
My own interest in Harp Therapy came about because I have been a professional harpist and a qualified sound healer. I have played in healthcare settings over the years and I’ve witnessed some strong therapeutic reactions to the harp: I’ve seen previously non-responsive dementia patients come alive at the sound of an old favourite tune and I’ve seen the calming spell the music wove in a children’s intensive care ward. Eventually, I decided to formally train as a Certified Healthcare Musician with the Therapy Harp Training Programme (THTP).
I play therapeutic harp sessions for individuals in person at my studio and online. I also play music in anxiety-triggering environments, such as hospitals, prisons and in care homes, as well as for healing sessions, meditation groups and yoga classes. Here is a short video of a beautiful March day at the Maidenhead Healing Centre when listeners came with me on a journey through the three ancient Irish strains of healing music: sadness, joy and peace.
The sound of gongs, singing bowls and other therapeutic instruments lowers the frequency of our brainwaves. From the everyday, active and busy, Beta brainwave state (13-30 cps), we slow into the Alpha brainwave state (8-13 cps). This is the state just before sleep, where our mind and body are calm and relaxed.
The Gong Sound Helps Protect You from Disease
According to The Center of Disease Control (USA)¹, 85% of all diseases are caused by stress. Whenever we actively relax body and mind, we are reducing our susceptibility to stress-related disease.
The Gong Sound Leads to Heightened Creativity and Insight
If we allow ourselves to relax more deeply into the sound, our brainwaves can slow further from the Alpha state to the Theta state (4-7 cps). In this state, the subconscious mind becomes accessible, along with its gifts of inspiration and intuition. Here we experience those “a-ha!” moments when we suddenly KNOW the answer to niggling questions and solutions to problems.
The Gong Sound Rejuvenates You
We know from quantum physics that everything in the universe is in a state of constant vibration: this includes our bodies. During a gong treatment, every cell and organ of the body gets a sonic massage, leaving us feeling refreshed, revitalised and energised afterwards.
In a healthy organ, all molecules will be vibrating in harmony with each other. When an organ is diseased it could be said that it is no longer in tune. During sound healing, weak and missing frequencies are re-introduced, thus re-establishing the organ’s original harmonious sound pattern.
The Gong Sound Transforms Limiting Thoughts and Negative Behaviour Patterns
In Ancient China, gongs were believed to exorcise demons. Today, the sound of the gong continues to clear away negativity, de-toxify body, mind and emotions and dissolve blockages. No longer stuck, or held back by negativity, we are free to move forward with positive life changes.
The Gong Sound Holds You in a Cocoon of Love
Sound waves are carriers of intention and the gong space is permeated with the loving and healing intention of the gong player for the highest good of those receiving the sound. It is said that during a gong treatment or sound journey everyone gets exactly what they need at the time and there does seem to be a higher intelligence at work, enabling this to be so.
The Gong Sound Re-Connects You to Your True Nature
There is a point in every sound wave at which the amplitude of vibration is zero. This node, or still point, is present at the heart of the gong sound as a silence and stillness which can be discerned by those who are ready. If we follow this silence/stillness back to its source, we may be led ultimately to the state of consciousness that exists behind and beyond thought – the state of nondual awareness, which is our true nature.
¹Cited in McKusick, Eileen Day Tuning the Human Biofield: Healing with Vibrational Sound Therapy, 2014, page 197
People coming for therapeutic harp sessions in my studio are invited to make use of The Ombed. This is a vibroacoustic bed in which the frequencies from the harp are directly transferred to the body via inbuilt speakers. The sound of the harp is thus felt bodily at the same time as it is heard. These subtle sensations vibrate and resonate with the tissues of the body, providing the receiver with a “musical massage.”
As the sound of the harp continues to envelop you, hearing and physical sensation merge together in a way that can leave you feeling completely cocooned by the music. In this state, many people find themselves able to drift away, free from everyday worries and concerns. According to the founder of Vibroacoustic Harp Therapy, “Most patients who receive VAHT report responses such as deep relaxation, dream-like imagery, pain and tension reduction, increased energy and body awareness, as well as the feeling of being nurtured.”1
Please note that due to Covid-19 restrictions, I am currently unable to offer in person Vibroacoustic Harp Therapy sessions. I shall resume treatments as soon as it possible to do so.
¹Williams, Sarajane Good Vibrations: Principles of Vibroacoustic Harp Therapy, 2005, page 74
For many of us, listening to music contributes to our wellbeing. The right music at the right time soothes, relaxes and uplifts us emotionally and spiritually, restoring us to harmony and equanimity. Music can also bring about physiological changes that have a positive effect on our body and mind:
“Music initiates brainstem responses that, in turn, regulate heart rate, pulse, blood pressure, body temperature, skin conductance and muscle tension, partly via noradrenergic neurons that regulate cholinergic and dopaminergic neurotransmission.” Daniel Levitin, Cognitive Psychologist and Neuroscientist¹
So, what type of music could be considered therapeutic? I was very struck by a comment I read once by pioneering sound and music healer, John Beaulieu. He bemoaned that many people had come to associate therapeutic music with the amorphous, ambient music commonly known as “New Age”. Whilst there’s nothing wrong with New Age music and, for some people, it can be just what is needed, that’s not always the case. For someone needing an injection of energy, for example, he considered that a good old boogie at the discotheque (the book was written in the 1980s ) may be far more therapeutic.
The same goes for the musical instrument itself. I would argue that, whatever the instrument, if the listener loves it, then it can be therapeutic for them. However, when you don’t know in advance who your listener/s will be, its best to play it safe. In this case, the harp is about as safe as you can get. I only ever met one person who didn’t like the harp – and he played the banjo!
Part of the therapeutic potential of music comes from musicians themselves. As Stella Benson, Founder of the International Healing Musicians Program, says: “Each musician has the propensity towards using music as a healing modality by tapping into his or her own natural compassion, passion and pure love for fellow human beings.”² Certified Healthcare Musicians – also known as Therapeutic Musicians – have taken this further still and undergone extensive training in the art of using music as an intentional tool of transformation.
MUSIC AS SERVICE
“The music always centres me. It makes me feel less anxious, depressed and worried. It’s almost a spiritual experience and certainly very comforting.” Therapeutic Music Patient³
Therapeutic Music is not intended as entertainment. Rather, it is offered as a service. A Therapeutic Musician tunes in to the needs of the patient, client or audience and then plays whatever is needed to produce a beneficial change in their physical, emotional, mental or spiritual state. This is why live music is more effective than recorded music, for the musician can respond instantaneously to the needs of the listener/s by changing rhythm, tempo, key, mood, volume, instrument or switching between familiar and non-familiar music. For this reason, Therapeutic Music is considered to be non-intrusive and non-invasive as the needs of the listener are always central.
If you are a musician and interested in playing therapeutic music on harp, or your own instrument, then I would say, first, learn to tune in to your listener/s and try to intuit what they need in that moment. If you feel they need to be more relaxed, more energetic or whatever, then music will provide the way for them to get there. There are techniques to help you do this – Stella Benson’s book, The Healing Musician, is highly recommended. Ultimately, though, allow yourself to be guided what to play.
If you would like to give yourself the benefit of therapeutic music, then my suggestion would be to listen to whatever you are drawn to at the time. Give yourself permission to really immerse yourself in the music and listen. These days it is rare to completely give our attention to music unless we’re in the audience of a formal concert; it is usually just something we have going on in the background. Why not make it a regular practice to switch off, close your eyes and just listen to your choice of music for however long you need?
¹Levitin, Daniel This Is Your Brain on Music: Understanding a Human Obsession, 2008 ²Benson, Stella The Healer’s Way Companion 2: Calming Music for Anxiety, 20014, page 12 ³Therapeutic Music Patient Quoted in Roberts, Peter and Cox, Helen The Harp and the Ferryman, 2013, loc 778
The gong is indispensable for bringing back the full resonance of health and happiness to people all over the earth. Don Conreaux – The 7 Golden Years from 2019-2025
The sound of the gong is so comprehensive, dense and all-encompassing that it cannot be matched by any other instrument. The skilfully played gong gradually builds up into multi-layers of sound that contain all the tones and harmonics of the sound spectrum. Some of these tones we hear, but others are complex frequencies above and below our human hearing and these we experience as subtle energy. Thus, the gong’s sound has become known as the sound of total resonance because we hear it at all levels of consciousness. For many sound healers, it is the single most potent instrument there is.
THE HEALING POWER OF THE GONG
“Every gong bath is different and the sounds that come through are the ones that the recipient needs at that particular time. There is an innate intelligence at work and everyone gets exactly what they need in every moment.” Sheila Whittaker – In the Heart of the Gong Space
During a gong treatment, our physical bodies reverberate with sound and we feel cleansed and rejuvenated afterwards. Aches and pains may disappear and joint mobility may improve. The gong sound also increases our sense of mental and emotional wellbeing. Many people say that they feel more relaxed, peaceful and less stressed after a gong treatment, while others feel calmly energised and blissful. Blockages on a mental level are often cleared, leaving people able to change old thought patterns and out-dated habits.
Sometimes, simply being in the presence of the gongs and enveloped in their sound gives us the sense of being held in a loving embrace. This can feel like a gift of grace that connects us with a transcendent reality beyond our finite selves. In this state, healing can occur on all levels.
I work with an exceptionally powerful combination of five gongs: a 34” Paiste Symphonic gong and four Paiste Planet gongs: Mercury, Chiron, Nibiru and Uranus. You can read about their individual qualities on my Meet The Gongs post. See also my post about the Benefits of Sound Healing with Gongs.
I was at a festival in 1993 when I first heard Robin Williamson play the Celtic harp. I knew straightaway that was what I wanted to do. Still, it took over a year of obsessing about harps before I finally got my hands on a small, knocked about one. By 1995 I had grown out of my first harp and Eleanor, my first proper Celtic harp, came into my life. A few years later, Eleanor and I found ourselves in Ireland, where we had an 18 month residency at the luxury Gregan’s Castle Hotel, in County Clare. We then moved to Dublin, where we played in a children’s intensive care ward. Although I later took up the classical pedal harp and enjoyed a career as a wedding and function harpist, the Celtic harp remained my first love.
To understand the haunting allure of the Celtic harp, it helps to know something of the depth of tradition behind it.
The Music Behind the World
The ancient Celts were very aware of the transformative power of music. In the Irish tradition, music was said to be comprised of three strains – joy, sorrow and rest. Anyone who heard true music would instantly be compelled to laugh, sob or sleep.
The Celts also spoke of The Music Behind the World. This music can occasionally be divined during moments of communion with nature or loved ones, in dreams or entheogenic experiences, or in actual music. The music that is felt or heard, but not seen, reveals the invisible otherworld that stands beside this one. According to Frank MacEowen, knowledge of The Music Behind the World has always been a part of the daily awareness of Irish and Scottish practitioners of Celtic spirituality: to them, this primal music is known as the Oran Mór¹. He quotes Stuart Harris-Logan, who says “Out on the Isle of Barra, the people have long spoken of the Oran Mór as one of the old names of God. The Oran Mor is the Great Song from which all things have arisen.²”
The Bardic Harp
“The harp is the Bardic instrument par excellence. For many the Bard and the harp are inextricably entwined, and for some, the Bard’s ability to play it is their badge of office.3” – Kevan Manwaring
The Celts saw that the life and art of one who is in tune with inspiration is permeated by the Oran Mór. The quest for this inspiration – Imbas in Irish and Awen in Welsh (literally ‘flowing spirit’) – is the Way of the Bard.
The bards were and are musicians, poets, storytellers, lore keepers and remembrancers. Mediating between the seen and unseen, an inspired bard uses words and music to remind people of the Great Song that is continuously sounding at the heart of all Creation. This is just what Robin Williamson did that day when I first heard him play. And, as the bards of old before him, he did that through the music of the Celtic harp.
1MacEowen, Frank The Celtic Way of Seeing: Meditations on the Irish Spirit Wheel, 2010 2Harris-Logan, Stuart Singing with Blackbirds: The Survival of Primal Celtic Shamanism in Later Folk-Tradition, 2006 3Manwaring, Kevan The Bardic Handbook: The Complete Manual for the Twenty-First Century Bard, 2006
Have you ever sat listening in an art gallery? No? Then I highly recommend that you give it a try.
First of all, it’s deliciously subversive. You can bet that you are the only listener in a room full of lookers. You will hear the odd word as people discuss the art, sotto voce. Can you tell by listening who’s confident in what they are saying and who’s not sure? Can you tell who’s genuinely captivated by the art and who’s just read the book, done the course and parroted an opinion?
People who are moved by art SOUND different. They move and speak in a different way, their attention held outwards and inwards at the same time. They even sit or stand still in a different way, a way that has a quiet reverence about it. Try it and you will hear what I mean.
Before you ask, yes, I listen to paintings. Many of them, if not most of them, are unlistenable. Very few painters know how to paint for the ears, but some do. That’s one of the reasons I like it in the Blake room so much. We take Blake out of context now, with his plates and prints peered at in art galleries and his words prodded at in books. But his songs were intended to be sung and his prophecies were intended to be intoned and the images in his illuminated books were intended to represent the energies of his words in spiritual form.
If you get into this, try listening to Blake’s words. What you do see? Then, try his art. What do you hear? Do let me know.
I walked past Knavesmire several times on my way between my hotel and York city centre. A commemorative plaque situated near to the road informed me that it had been the site of public hangings until 1801.
On first acquaintance, I could tell that the place didn’t have any particular need of assistance and I had no interest in listening to it simply for the sake of it – a kind of aural rubber-necking, if you will. But eventually, I stopped. I noticed the flowers that someone had left on the plaque, but I also noticed something else. Can you see it too? How the benches, the trees, the paths, everything, was perfectly balanced. Interesting, I thought, and walked on.
Later that evening, I couldn’t stop thinking about the symmetry of the site. Was it a positive symmetry, showing balance and harmony, or an unnatural symmetry, showing constriction to the area’s life force? I couldn’t tell. At some time in the night, I had a vivid dream in which I dreamt that I was an “aural archeologist” investigating the symmetry question. One of the first things my dream showed me was that the plaque wasn’t situated exactly on the site of the gallows – it had last been about 2 metres to the southeast. Before that, the gallows had been reassembled several times in slightly different locations, but the strongest energetic imprint was from its most recent position. The design of the site, the placing of the raised platform, benches and path and the planting of the trees had indeed imposed a constrictive symmetry on the site, which was successfully containing its negative energies. But I could hear a low rumbling which – I knew in my dream – was the undercurrent of the trauma associated with the site that had not yet been cleared. If any of the surrounding containers were to change, the negative energy could well be released again.
When I woke up, I could still tune into the site as I had in my dream. The rumble was still discernible, but now I could also feel a tension between the plaque and the actual position of the gallows. Whoever had put the plaque in the middle had played a master stroke because it was pulling the energy into an uneasy, but relatively stable, alignment.
All of this is interesting enough in its own right. But what has really peaked my interest about the whole dream is that it has started me wondering about intentional remote listening. Is it possible to listen to places remotely? It’s certainly a question that is worth investigating further…
I know plenty of musicians who would rather be lowered head first into a pit of adders than improvise music. Even some gifted jazz and rock musicians, who would think nothing of creating endless variation on a pre-existing melody, would be petrified at the thought of improvising from scratch.
Which is odd, really. What leads an accomplished musician to be so terrified of putting together a sequence of notes? The answer, of course, is fear of doing it “wrong”.
So, to help anyone in this position, here’s a guide to improvisation that kills the fear of doing it wrong with one fell swoop. Because, in this approach to improvisation, there is no “wrong” to worry about.
1. Start Playing Anything. Anything at all. Music is Optional
You learn how to improvise by improvising. So, go on. Do it. There’s absolutely no need for it to be any good. It will get better, given time.
Now, I could end this post right here as, in a nutshell, you’ve just had the best advice I could give you. But, I hear you say, “I can’tjust improvise. That would be improvising and I can’t improvise.”
Ok. Here are some starting points. (Players of harmony instruments, such as piano, guitar, harp, accordion etc, stick to a melody line only):
• Sit somewhere where you can hear everyday noise. A kitchen with an open window would be ideal. When you hear something, play it. A dripping tap? Play it. A plane flying overhead? Play it. Your neighbour coughing? Play it. In this exercise, you are translating what you are hearing into music. This – in essence – is what improvising is.
• How are you feeling? Play it. This is especially useful for vocalists, but instrumentalists can play too. Maybe, you feel a grunt coming on, or a whoop, or a sigh or a scream. Allow them to come. They may want to take you over for a while and this is great, its good medicine. Eventually, after a few minutes, you will reach a point where underneath, there is music waiting to come. It may only be a single tone, but stay with this and it will lead you somewhere very close to improvisation.
• If you feel too exposed doing the above, take on a character. The sillier, the better. What would a one-armed panda play? What would your most/least favourite old school teacher play? What would you, aged 4, play? What you would you, 20 years into the future, play? Try to really feel that you are them/you, as you play.
2. No Judging
Just don’t. Seriously. If you did any of the above exercises, you will see that there is nothing to judge. The sounds you made came from your experience of the environment, emotions or imagination and were a true representation of your reality at that moment.
Feel silly? Annoyed? Vulnerable? That’s fine, but don’t judge that either.
3. Drone On
Most people in the west continue to believe that melody needs to be underpinned by harmony. You only need a casual listen to Indian classical music, to see that this is not the case. Indian musicians have no need for harmony – everything that needs to be expressed can be expressed through melody.
Choose any drone you like: Shruti box, harmonium, organ, tanpura, didgeridoo – anything that can provide a single sustained note. Pick a note and listen to it.
Few musicians listen enough. Especially score-based musicians. Just listen to the drone for a few minutes. Try focussing in on the drone and try listening to the drone as part of a soundscape that encompasses every sound that you can hear. Next, add your improvisation. Listen to the sound of the combination of the drone and your instrument; listen to the up and down motion of intervals between the two; listen to both instruments as a part of the soundscape; listen to anything that occurs to you. By listening to what is happening, you have no time to think about what is about to happen. You are just playing in the moment.
Place your awareness on listening to what you are doing, rather than what you will do or have done. Don’t plan or analyse. Just allow what happens to happen.
6. No Wrong Notes
What did you learn from the above exercise? There are no wrong notes. Whatever note you played formed a relationship with the drone that had congruence and meaning. Sure, it is possible to play a note you may not like, but that doesn’t make it wrong. And anyway, that would be judging again and you agreed not to do that.
Its only possible to play a wrong note when you are improvising over a harmonic structure. Once you have chordal patterns, then you have notes that are part of the chords and not part of the chords. Then, there is always one part of your brain looking out for the chord changes. At this point, you stop being free.
7. Modus Operandi
Once you are happy freely improvising over a drone, you may want to start to re-introduce a framework. Chose a mode or scale to improvise in. The key here is to understand that the music is in charge, not the scale – if you find yourself playing a note that does not feature in your particular scale and it feels right, that’s because it is. Go with it. Now you are learning to follow.
This is true improvisation. Think of a musical score, where the tune already fully exists in potential – all you have to do is play it. True improvisation is the same. The tune exists, all you have to do is play it. From here, you start to realise that the role of the musician is simply to translate “unstruck” music into audible music.
So then, if you are truly following the music that already exists, how could you ever play a wrong note?
What often strikes me as I listen to the land is how much there is to be heard on the non-audible level. This can translate as feeling, sensation and “knowing”, as well as sound, words or music that is heard or perceived internally. A word that is frequently used to describe non-audible sound is energy and I’m sure many people habitually tune into the energetic signature of a place. When I arrive at a new site, as soon as I have permission to approach, I become aware of its energy. The energy is transmitted as part of the permission, actually, because this is how you know whether or not you are welcome.
As I tune in more deeply, I start to sense whether the energy is longstanding or recent. Usually, longstanding energy is a natural part of the place, whereas recent energy has been brought to bear upon it – mostly by human activity. There are also instances when human activity has caused a longstanding effect on a place’s energy. Sadly, when a place’s long term energy has been altered by humans, it is usually of a negative kind, such as that at battlefields and other places of significant trauma.
When I pick up recent energy, it can be either positive or negative. I have felt some very chilling energy left by human activity at a certain stone circle, for instance. I wondered what I would find today on Wearyall Hill.
Legend says that The Glastonbury Thorn sprang up where Joseph of Arimathea planted his staff on Wearyall Hill – the first land he reached on his travels to Britain. The Thorn that has grown ever since on Wearyall Hill is said to be a descendant of that first Thorn. The most recent tree was planted from a cutting in 1951. I say grown ever since, but in reality, the Thorn was tragically vandalised in 2010: subsequent efforts to revive the tree were also brutally thwarted as shoots of regrowth were continually damaged by hands and motives unknown.
I remember well the outpouring of grief for the Thorn at the time. I was prepared for the energy of the place to reflect this, but what I found was something very beautiful. There was sadness, yes, but most of all there was love. A lot of people had put a lot of time into intentionally healing the place – and it was tangible.
I felt moved to add a song. There was no need for me to sing of remorse or sorrow. That work had already been done well by others. Instead, I sang a simple song of gratitude:
Thank you for bringing us together Bringing us together as one In love of you.
One of the most wonderful things about being a Companion of Chalice Well and staying at Little St Michael’s retreat house is the freedom to be in the garden at any time, day or night, for the duration of your stay. I fell irrevocably in love with the peaceful and nurturing presence of the gardens the first time I visited Glastonbury over 30 years ago and on that day I bought a small goddess carved from a branch of one of the gardens’ yews trees. This figurine keeps me connected to the gardens even when I’ve not visited for several years. But this year, it felt time to go again.
The Companions of Chalice Well understand well the value of silence. There are no mobile phones, radios, laptops or tablets allowed in the retreat house and the upper room is reserved for silent meditation. I slipped quickly into a state of peace and tranquility.
I hadn’t planned to do so, but I ended up spending time in the gardens, alone, during the two liminal times of dusk and dawn. Around 7.30pm, I stepped out of the backdoor of Little St Michael’s and made my way slowly through the sections of the garden, ending up at the well enclosure just as it was getting dark. Sitting here, I could hear a robin chirping and a light breeze rustle the ferns. I could also hear the well itself. Its difficult to describe what a well sounds like – if you’ve listened to one too, you’ll understand. You can hear the spring itself trickling down the hill, but the well cavity amplifies it in a certain way so that it sounds both more immediately present and also further away. I imagine it would sound similar if you were able to stand inside a conch shell and listen to the sound of the sea. I was in my happy place and I re-iterated my vow to those present that I would continue to listen my way through life, striving to know more and more deeply that which ever sounded on an audible and on a non-audible level. I also whispered my desire to learn how to embody the peace enveloping me in that special place and share it out in the world.
The next morning I woke at 4am and couldn’t get back to sleep, so again I went out into the gardens. I spent some time recording the fountains on the lower lawns and in the Lion’s Head Courtyard on my Zoom recorder. I was hoping it would be quiet so early in the day, but there was already quite a bit of traffic on the A361 and I only ever managed to get about a minute’s worth of clean audio. I didn’t feel drawn to the well as I had the previous evening, so I went up to the Meadow and listened to a small but exuberant dawn chorus of robin, wren and blackbird, while watching the sun rise on the Tor.
On my way back to my room, I passed the silent minute bell. A plaque in the garden describes its purpose thus:
“Around midday and mid afternoon we invite you to take a minute’s silence with us.
A moment of silence A moment of reflection A moment of inner peace
On most days the ringing of a bell will signify these times.”
Here is a really good recording of the silent minute:
The tuning fork was invented in 1711 by John Shore, Court Trumpeter and Lutenist to Queen Anne. Originally intended as a pitch standard for tuning musical instruments, the accuracy, constancy and purity of the tuning fork’s tone has led to it becoming a valuable tool for healing and the development of spiritual consciousness.
The tuning fork is used in two complimentary ways:
1. The stem of the activated tuning fork is applied to the body so that the sound vibration is received directly by the body’s tissues and bones.
2. The tuning fork is activated away from the body so that the vibration is received as audible sound waves.
I work with tuning forks in both ways and will usually combine them during a treatment session.
ON BODY APPLICATION
Disharmony can manifest in the body as stress, tight and sore muscles and fatigue, creating blockages to our Qi or natural energy flow. These blockages can lead to illness. The sound waves created by the tuning forks work like kinetic energy to move disharmony and tension from the body, remove Qi, stagnation and helps to restore a sense of balance and well-being.¹
Osteophonic – or Otto – tuning forks feature a weighted prong which is designed to strengthen the fork’s vibration as it is transferred to the body. Osteophonic means “to vibrate bone”. During a treatment, the recipient can feel their body vibrate in resonance with the tuning fork: it is a very relaxing and pleasurable experience.
In a typical session we will apply one or two otto tuning forks to acupressure points, including Heavenly Gathering (SI11), Bubbling Spring (K1), Central Treasury (LU1), Sea of Qi (REN6), Primordial Child (REN17) and Gathering Bamboo (UB2). This opens up the body’s energetic pathways, removing energy blocks and allowing the Chi or Qi to flow freely.
It is a feature of tuning forks that their sound naturally decays into silence. In a healing context, this silence is vital because it allows the sound to be absorbed fully by the body.
Off Body Application
Accompanying the Otto tuning forks are a range of forks that are designed to be sounded away from the body for a range of different purposes. Here are the main sets that I use:
Brain Tuner Tuning Forks
Brain tuners use sound to shift the brain into different states of consciousness. They work through brain wave entrainment, which alters the frequencies of brain waves. For example, experiencing the slower alpha, theta or even delta brainwaves can bring about healing for the typical stress-ridden “Type A” personality who is normally dominated by the faster beta brain waves associated with peak concentration and heightened alertness.
Solar Harmonic Tuning Forks
This set is tuned to the Pythagorean scale – a scale built on the naturally occurring overtone series. It is ideal for exploring the healing effects of natural musical intervals and can also be used in meditation. Musical intervals can have a powerful effect on our mind-body. For example, tuning fork expert, John Beaulieu, believes that the interval of a perfect 5th triggers the release of nitric oxide, antibacterials, antivirals and free radicals:
Research suggests that vibration transferred to neuronal, endothelial and immune cells through tuning forks stimulates nitric oxide and sets off a cascade of physiological events which directly influence our health, well-being, state of mind and consciousness.²
Fibonacci Tuning Forks
This is an extension of the Solar Harmonic Tuning Fork Set, based on the Fibonacci number sequence. Their main purpose is to open gateways into alternate realities and to explore higher states of consciousness in order to empower a creative healing response. They are intended for work on a deep level and therefore, we would approach this tuning fork set once you have worked with the Solar Harmonic set.
The Solar Harmonic tuning forks work well in conjunction with other Sound Healing treatments. Likewise, if we are struggling to unwind, the brain tuners can be used to induce a slower brain wave pattern, helping us to be in in a better place to receive the sounds of the gongs and other instruments.
¹ De Muynck, Marjorie Sound Healing: Vibrational Healing With Ohm Tuning Forks: A Practical Application Manual 2015 ² Beaulieu, John Human Tuning: Sound Healing with Tuning Forks 2010
“Drumming provides solace, retreat from anger, courage when afraid, even ecstasy.” Michael Drake – The Shamanic Drum
The Reiki Drum Technique is a transformational combination of Reiki* healing and shamanic drumming: both are gentle and non-invasive, yet deeply powerful. The two were brought together as Reiki Drum™ by the American, Michael Arthur Baird, in 1999: the technique is still relatively new to the UK.
I am a fully qualified Reiki Drum Master Practitioner. My Reiki drum is a vegan Buffalo Drum that has been specially attuned for the purpose of healing body, mind and spirit. I offer Reiki Drumming as a stand-alone treatment.
The Three Reiki Drum Techniques
There are three Reiki Drum techniques from which you can choose, depending on your needs and interests. The first two treatments are available to all clients:
1. Reiki Drum Healing
Receive a Reiki healing session enhanced by the energy of the drum.
Healing Reiki energy is channelled through the drum while it is softly played over the body. The gentle, yet powerful, sound of the drum directs the Reiki energy to where it is needed, promoting the release of blockages on all levels.
The session concludes with a traditional Reiki treatment. Here, we use the hands to encourage the integration of the drum sounds into the physical body.
2. Reiki Drum Mental & Emotional Reprogramming
Make lasting changes to your life with the transformative power of sound.
This technique uses positive affirmations to actualise a desired life change. We work together to verbally formulate the desired change. Then, supported by the gentle Reiki energy, the repetitive rhythm of the drum influences your subconscious mind, helping to permanently programme the new positive intention.
A series of three – four sessions are recommended for maximum benefit.
The third technique is open to clients who are ready for this level of spiritual work:
3. Reiki Drum Journey
Set off on your own healing journey to the beat of the drum.
For thousands of years, shamans have known that rhythm is an effective way to alter consciousness. Rapid repetitive drumming at 180 beats per minute – known to shamans as the Eagle Beat – slows down the brainwaves and take the listener into a trance state. In this ecstatic state, the shaman connects with spiritual dimensions and accesses healing knowledge on behalf of their clients. In a Reiki Drum journey, you yourself undertake your own journey for healing or insight into any questions you may have.
The drum guides you on your journey deep into the knowing reality of your subconscious mind, while the Reiki energy gently and safely supports you throughout the process.
You will need to make an initial journey to meet your power animal, if you do not already have one. Your animal will then accompany you on future journeys. This initial journey to meet you power animal may take one or more attempts.
Please note that due to Covid-19 restrictions, I am currently unable to offer in person Reiki Drum sessions. I shall resume treatments as soon as it is possible to do so.
Reiki can be translated as universal life energy. It is a gentle healing energy that can be channelled through the practitioner to dissolve blockages and bring relaxation and balance to the recipient, allowing Ki/Qi, or life force, to flow unhindered once again.
I have been trained in the original Japanese style of Reiki, as re-discovered by Mikao Usui in the early 20th Century. This is a simple, uncomplicated style of Reiki, that was intended as an aid to spiritual development and places emphasis on intuition, rather than strict method.
I can’t resist a good well. I’ve listened to all sorts in my time, from secret springs in woodland grottos to echoing concrete baths with creaky taps. But never anything remotely like St Winefride’s well. As a well, it was on a scale beyond anything I’d ever seen before; as a shrine, it was a similar experience to visiting Knock, the main Marian shrine in Ireland.
I loved St Winefride’s well. I loved the damp-infused stone of the intricately carved pillars and the emerald green of the water. I loved the votive candles and the collection of discarded crutches and walking sticks. But I didn’t get much listening done. The problem was that one of the guides just would not stop talking. It was all good and fitting stuff: history of the well, problems with funding and maintenance, visitors that lacked the appropriate piety, his aunt’s bad back and so on. He’d pinned a couple to the bench in the main well house. They were discussing the state of the A55 and the man looked over at me, desperately trying to draw me into the conversation: “What did I think of the A55?” he enquired of me.
I knew what he was up to. Get the guide’s attention on me so that they could do a crafty runner. The stakes were high. How could I get out of it? I waited for inspiration, but none came. Then… something… a glimmer of a plan formed in my mind… yes, that was it! “Sorry” I said, in an accent not native to anywhere on Earth, “I don’t speak English.”
The man’s face fell and the guide scowled. I then had to keep up the accent, which kept mutating, for the rest of the visit. Back in the shop, the guide scowled at me again. I realised that I was carrying a guide book in English. Rumbled.
Back in the car, I mused about it all. Was pretending that I didn’t speak English a reasonable ploy to get out of small talk with a stranger? Perhaps not. But it did underline to me how much I dislike pointless conversation and would – clearly – do almost anything to avoid it. I’m not saying that anyone whose conversation is sub-Oscar Wilde level should never speak, but there’s something to be said (pardon the pun), for thinking a bit more about what we say. Does this really want to be said or am I just saying it to fill a space? Are my words welcome to others? Or do they make others desperate to get away from me? And really, what this all boils down to is listening. Yet again, my experience has taught me the importance of listening – not just to the land, but to other people and to the words we say to them.
Cerridwen lives under Llyn Tegid, or Lake Bala, so if I didn’t find her on the Black Road yesterday, I may well find her here. This was where Taliesin served his apprenticeship, stirring Cerridwen’s cauldron for a year and a day until he accidentally imbibed the brew that was intended for her son, thus becoming the awen-filled poet with the shining brow. As such, Llyn Tegid was an unmissable stop on my Welsh pilgrimage and poetic odyssey.
My introduction to the lake was a little more prosaic: I took the narrow gauge railway along the southern shore from Llanuwchllyn to Bala. Along the way, I realised that one of my challenges would be to find access to the lake itself: the shores seemed to be mainly private land and those parts where the public did have access had the feel of a crowded beach resort.
That evening I drove out along the north shore and got lucky. From a deserted lay-by I found a steep path that led down to a secluded part of the lake shore. It was exactly what I wanted. I sat and began to listen. The water of the lake lapped against the stones at my feet in an ever-changing pattern. Nevertheless, the constantly changing and evolving lake song began to take on a steady rhythm. There was nowhere to go, nothing to do, but sit and be. I wondered if stirring a cauldron for a year and a day would induce a similarly meditative state. Perhaps that was a formative factor in Taliesin’s poetic development?
I heard voices coming down the path. A man in his 20s spotted me first: “Don’t let us spoil yer evening, luv” he said. “Don’t worry” I said “you didn’t. I was just going.” I had nowhere to go, nothing to do and so I could just as easily go do it somewhere else.
I just back to Llanuwchllyn in time to see these remarkable orange clouds. That, and the hot chocolate back at the B&B, were a perfect ending to the day.
Today was a big day. For years, I have wanted to pay my respects at the grave of Taliesin, Primary Chief Bard of Britain. Never mind that this is a Bronze Age round cairn and the real Taliesin lived sometime in the 6th century. If you’ve read any of Taliesin’s poetry you’ll know that such a thing would present no problem at all to this shape-shifting and time-bending master poet.
Anyway, I’m not in the mood for the dry factuality of history. Today is a day for myth and poetry. Such a monumental day, in fact, that I was actually feeling a little jittery when I pulled up to the farm; not least because it felt weird driving through the closed farm gate, past the farmer and parking outside his house.
The cows weren’t helping either. The first thing I heard was some very indignant bellowing in the field next to the cairn. Had they picked up on my nervousness? I tried saying hello to them, but they were not to be appeased. They just kept staring at me and mooing in a most disconcerting manner. I was glad there was a fence between us.
The cairn itself is in a glorious location overlooking the Dyfi Estuary, with Snowdonia shimmering away in the distance. I don’t doubt that the location of the grave was chosen exactly for its commanding position. It also appears to be on the crossroads between two ceremonial roads: Sarn Helen and The Black Road. Both roads are associated with Welsh goddesses: Cerridwen and Elen of the Roads. I had previously read that the Black Road led to a ceremonial site associated with Cerridwen. However, when I tried to find the reference again, there was no trace of it. Sarn Helen is said to be the road built by Macsen Wledig for Elen of the Roads, after she visited him in a dream. It links South and North Wales, from Carmarthen to Caernarfon, and felt a very appropriate road to walk as part of my south-north Welsh pilgrimage.… I looked longingly along the track…and then swung right and started walking up The Black Road. As Taliesin’s initiatrix, it was Cerridwen that I had come to meet.
A bit along the road I realised that I had forgotten to listen at Bedd Taliesin. How on earth did I manage to do that? I was certainly in a giddy mood and the cows had really thrown me. But, I couldn’t blame the cows. I would listen as I walked instead.
It was a bright, warm August day with a light refreshing breeze. The skies were clear, the rowans were in berry and I could see the mountains of Snowdonia ahead of me. I was totally and utterly alone and I was off on an adventure in search of Cerridwen. I couldn’t have been any happier.
Until I met the cows. They were standing on the road and there was really no way around them.
I think they must be linked on some cow wavelength to the cows back at the farm, because it looked as if they had been expecting me. When one of them took a step towards me, I did what anyone with a shred of self-preservation would do: walked sharpish back the way I’d just come.
Well, I’d failed to listen to Taliesin’s grave and I’d failed to find Cerridwen, all because of the cows. All because of the cows? Just Listen to myself! Ah, Listen to myself. Perhaps THAT was what I should be doing here.
Back at the grave, it was just as I suspected it would be. The cows had gone. I sat down next to it and listened to myself, really and fully for the first time in a long time. To my hopes, dreams, longings, worries and regrets. Then, I told them all to Taliesin. Just in case he was listening too.
I am writing this on the day of the Royal Wedding. Some neighbours are playing amplified music in their garden at such a loud volume that it has penetrated into my study through closed windows. The music is not to my taste and, yet, my brain cannot help but engage with it. This is interfering with my ability to concentrate on what I am writing. I feel invaded, angry and stressed. Such is the power of music.
The more time I spend working with sound and music, the more convinced I am of its power. Although sound healers utilise this power to bring about beneficial results, it needs to be more generally acknowledged that the opposite is equally true: careless, inconsiderate use of sound and music is pollution and, like all pollution, it is harmful.
An Unsound Journey
This has been brought close to home at the last two Sound Journeys, which both suffered from unwanted music coming from outside the hall. In the case of May’s Sound Journey at Great Missenden, the proximity and scale of the noise pollution from the fun fair forced me to cancel the Sound Journey. This was certainly not something I did lightly, so what made me take that decision?
First of all, I knew that the deep bass, repetitive beats and intermittent sirens would have initiated brain stem responses that would have raised heart rate, pulse, blood pressure, body temperature, skin conductance and muscle tension – not what we had an mind for an evening of relaxation. The noise would also have affected the body through the process of entrainment. This is a natural phenomenon whereby a weaker vibratory pattern will change to align with one that is stronger. For instance, brainwaves of students will largely oscillate in harmony with – or entrain with – the lecturer. Likewise, a healthy organ will have its molecules working together in a harmonious relationship with each other and will be of the same pattern. If different sound patterns enter into the organ, the harmonious relationship could be upset. If the foreign sound pattern proves to be stronger than the organ, it can establish a disharmonious pattern in the organ, bone or tissue and this is what we call disease.
Sound is a potent force that communicates directly with the unconscious as well as the conscious body/mind. The intention and performance of the musician, the musical elements of the composition, the frequency range used and the timbre of the instruments are all carriers of information. According to Torkom Saraydarian:
“From whichever centre a piece of music originates, the corresponding centre of the listener will gradually synchronise its vibrations to the originating centre. This is how contamination works.”
So, ultimately, I could not, with any shred of responsibility, invite people on a sound journey, open them up to receiving sound on all levels, with the very real possibility that they would have been wide open to receiving something that would have been harmful.
But what about less extreme cases, or when avoiding the noise is not an option? Is there anything I can do right now to mitigate the effect of the noise from my inconsiderate neighbours? After all, if a vast majority of illnesses are caused by stress, then by stressing about it, I am making myself ill.
In Music and Sound in the Healing Arts, John Bealieu offers two approaches to coping with environment noise. The first method involves voice and body movement. He suggests that we let our voice imitate the sound and let our body by moved by the sound. For example, a car horn suddenly honks and we notice that our body tightens. Our mind is cursing the driver and are emotions are held in. This is similar to touching something hot without letting out a sound. He says, therefore, that instead of holding the sound, jump back from the car, allowing your body to unwind the tension and then allow your voice to make a loud spontaneous “honk”! Its got to be worth a try…
By now, my northward road had taken me as far as mid Wales and the second stop on my Welsh pilgrimage: the isolated, ruined abbey of Strata Florida. I had gone to pay my respects to the 14th century bardic poet, Daffyd ap Gwilym, who is believed to be buried there.
I find it hard to describe my feelings about Strata Florida. Luckily, I bought a book of poems inspired by the abbey and the introduction says it for me:
“Visitors to Strata Florida often remark that it seems a special place. What they consider to constitute this specialness varies – some feel it is the natural beauty, some its mythic and historical associations, and some its tranquility or holiness. Poets tend to perceive this specialness as inspiration. Often a visit is described as a ‘pilgrimage’, even where there is no spiritual intent.1“
In the Bardic tradition, Awen is poetic inspiration. It’s always present, anywhere and everywhere, but some places have an abundance of it. Strata Florida is one such place. I found a bench out of the wind and, as three green-veined white butterflies danced around me, I listened. At first I could hear a family speaking in an affectionate German; then they left and I was alone. Strains of music danced through my mind like the butterflies, along with voices uttering sentences of beauty in languages I don’t speak but understood. I knew it was useless to try to capture it – none of it was mine to be reproduced, anyway. Hearing it for that moment was enough. Many places that I have listened to seem to need healing and I try to do what I can. But here, I was the one receiving. When I opened my eyes, the butterflies had gone and so had the words and the music. But the sense of Awen itself remained.
I could see why Dafydd was a regular visitor here. Remembering the purpose of my visit, I went to find the yew tree that is said to mark his grave and pay my respects.
The yew-tree for the best young man By the wall of Strata Florida and its mansion, God’s blessing on you, paradise of trees, That you have grown to be Dafydd’s house. To the Yew-tree above Dafydd ap Gwilym’s Grave.
Gruffudd Gryg (trans. Dafydd Johnston)
As I left, I passed the two Taliesin Stones. I took this as a good sign, for tomorrow, I would be seeking out the great bard, Taliesin, himself.
1Poetry from Strata Florida: An Anthology of work inspired by the Ystrad Fflur landscape, 1350-2013, edited by Martin Locock
So, with happy anticipation, my Welsh pilgrimage has begun. The plan is to take three days heading north from Monmouth until I reach St George/Llan San Siôr on the north coast of Wales. My mother’s family have their roots in this small village, but I’ve never been there before. I’m also planning to visit three sites associated with Welsh bards. So really, it’s a personal pilgrimage, a listening tour and a poetic odyssey rolled into one.
My first stop, Talybont-on-Usk in the Brecon Beacons, is associated with the metaphysical poet, Henry Vaughn (1621-1695). Known by the Bardic name of The Swan of Usk, I’ve had a soft spot for Vaughn and his teacher, George Herbert, since studying the metaphysical poets when I was 17. I wanted to see the river Usk that I’d read about in his poetry. I also wanted to follow the Henry Vaughn Walk, which promised to lead me through places associated with Henry and his twin brother, Thomas, a hermetic philosopher and alchemist. After dodging cars and cyclists in Talybont, I was glad to cross over the river and out of the village.
A small sign alerted me to the Henry Vaughn physic garden and I entered. A group of volunteers had been busy re-creating the garden with the herbs that the Vaughn brothers would have used as physicians and alchemists. There was no one else around and it felt like a very good place to stop, sit and listen. A stanza of Vaughan’s was going through my head:
They are all gone into the world of light! And I alone sit ling’ring here; Their very memory is fair and bright, And my sad thoughts doth clear.
It seemed very appropriate, expect for the fact that I wasn’t feeling sad at all. Quite the opposite. It was a warm August day, with a light breeze; I’d had a good lunch; I was on a pilgrimage-tour-odyssey. But the stanza would not leave me alone. How was I going to be able to listen to the garden when these words kept going around my head? Turns out, I wasn’t. I closed my eyes and began to sing them, softly at first, but sensing that all was well, I sang them out loud. When I finished, I felt a contended hush descend on the garden. I wondered if the words had wanted to come home again? It certainly felt right that some words that had been brought forth over 400 years ago, should be brought back to where they came from, along with my thanks and appreciation to those in the world of light. And that’s the thing about listening to the land: sometimes, its not you that’s doing the listening, but the land itself.
My trip to listen to the Harold’s Stones turned out to be a masterclass in how not to listen to the land. If you are looking to have a rubbish listening experience that leaves you feeling vaguely disappointed in yourself, just follow my handy point-by-point guide.
1. Try to find the Harold’s Stones using a 4 miles to 1 inch road map of the whole of Great Britain, because you are too tight to buy an OS map of the area.
2. Assume that if you get lost you will have a mobile signal so that you can google your way out of it.
3. Fail resoundingly to find the Harold’s Stones.
4. Get annoyed with yourself.
5. Be too proud to ask locals for help.
6. Get even more agitated because the evening light is perfect for photography. Torture yourself with thoughts of the amazing images of the stones you could capture, if you could only find them.
7. Nearly cause an accident by driving with one eye on the road and the other on the hunt for a field with stones in it.
8. See the Harold’s stones! Drive for ages to find somewhere to park.
9. Rush back to the Harold’s stones to capture the last bit of light, with bits of camera, lenses and tripod flying akimbo.
10. Be in such a hurry to take your photos that you forget to honour the site. Just dash up and without asking, start taking photos as if you were born to be on Instagram.
11. Realise what you’ve done. Say you’re sorry.
12. Half-heartedly and shame-facedly try to listen, knowing that you’ve just shown the Harold’s Stones that you are a disrespectful buffoon.
And if you really want to make an extra special mess of it, here are couple of additional pointers for later:
13. Find out that your photos weren’t any good, anyway.
14. Realise later that you missed two other sites – a holy well and a Norman motte – in the same village.
One of the constants of listening to the land is the trouble one often has with finding the more off-the-beaten-track locations. If I do find somewhere after a challenging search, I’m usually a little high with pleasure just to be there. King Arthur’s Cave, however, is the first place I have found after having completely given up looking for it. I’d gone back to the car and pulled into the first available lay-by to turn around. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a noticeboard. I like noticeboards a lot because they always teach you something interesting about the local flora, fauna or geology. So in the hope of learning something new which might mitigate my cave finding failure, I got out of the car to take a look. I liked this noticeboard even more than usual because it informed me that King Arthur’s Cave was ¼ mile away to the east.
When I arrived, it was the golden hour. I could hear red kites calling and sheep in the fields below. As is often the case when I’m on the land, I felt joyful. I sat outside the cave for a while, just soaking in the summer evening. In truth, I was reluctant to venture out of the life-affirming light into the darkness and goodness know what of the cave.
But eventually, the cave called and I entered. As the light from outside dimmed, so did the sound from outside. But soon the quiet of the cave became very loud. I started to feel a little scared, but checked myself and sat on my stool in the dark. I often have difficulty finding the language to describe what I hear and this is one of those occasions. Because what I could hear was the breath of animals that weren’t there.
I sat with that for a while and it was fine and then, suddenly, it wasn’t fine. I got spooked and left. Outside the cave I met a friendly terrier followed by its friendly owner and everything was fine again.
Why did I leave the cave so quickly? One of the tasks in listening to the land is to offer healing in whatever way seems necessary and I and many others do what we can. I’ve encountered some weird stuff on my listening travels and I like to think I’m pretty sturdy when it comes to uncomfortable energies. But this was something that, at the time, felt beyond me. I think its important to acknowledge to ourselves when we come up against something like that. If in any doubt, it really is best – for us and for the land – to venture no further on that visit.
There are five gongs in my studio space: a 34” Paiste Symphonic gong and four Paiste Planet gongs: Mercury, Chiron, Nibiru and Uranus. I work intuitively and, depending on what is needed, I will play any combination of these gongs in any order.
Symphonic gongs contain the fullest range of tones of any of the Paiste gongs. My symphonic gong has a warm, gently compelling, feminine energy, which balances the more masculine energy of my Planet gongs.
The Planet gongs were created specifically for Sound Healing work and have been given sound characteristics that evoke the planet they represent.
Mercury is the Divine Messenger of the Gods and Master of Healing. Associated with speech, communication, intellectual prowess and creativity, he supports the throat and thyroid. Mercury comes into his own when we have been denied our right to speak our own truth or think for ourselves, as so many of us have. I have seen clients undergo profound changes after Mercury has played for them, often surprising themselves with their new-found confidence in their own truth and ability to speak up. As a Master of Healing, it is appropriate that Mercury should be a very effective healing gong.
Chiron is the Wounded Healer. He is associated with alchemy, vision, wisdom, compassion and healing. He “stands for the deep karmic wound in the subconscious that we have come in this life to heal¹.” He also brings these wounds to the surface so that they can be healed.
It has been my experience that Mercury and Chiron work together as a team. Mercury goes first and then Chiron will step in if a wound is very deep or undetected. Together they make a deeply powerful pair of healing gongs.
The second pair of gongs are Uranus and Nibiru. These gongs are especially concerned with change and transformation.
The planet Uranus is an ice giant, named for the primordial Greek god of the sky. In astrology, Uranus rules Aquarius and is the harbinger of change. Associated with revolution, liberation and spontaneity, Uranus moves against the flow, inspiring originality, free thinking and discovery. The Uranus gong can also help with problems of the reproductive system. If there is something specific you want to change, Uranus is the gong for you.
Nibiru is the hypothetical tenth planet², also known as Planet X. Some believe that it has a 3,600 year orbit and is about to cross paths with the Earth once more, causing widespread destruction. Others believe that its very existence is a fantasy. Either way, by taking their inspiration from such an enigmatic planet, the master gong makers at Paiste have created a gong like no other.
Some gong players choose not to play Nibiru because of its association with destruction. Yet, for me, this gong acts in a similar way to Shiva, the Cosmic Destroyer, clearing away that which is no longer needed and allowing new consciousness to emerge. At the same time, is it not a gong I approach lightly, but with full composure and respect. As with Uranus, Nibiru is all about change. Here, however, we are looking at deep transformation on the evolutionary or quantum level. This gong resolves genetic and deep soul issues and facilitates our self-exploration and understanding of our true purpose for being on the Earth.
“Now is the time of Nibiru, now is the time for us to recognize our timeless connection to our home planet and to heal her ravaged wounds as a transit to healing ourselves.” Acutonics Website
This native American style flute in western red cedar with a stylised bear claw block was made for me by David Cartwright of Second Voice Flutes.
I often play it during a sound journey or a words and music performance. It song is evocative, mellow and soothing for the listener.
The origins of the native American flute are lost in the mists of time but there are many legends of how the flute came to be. Some say that people heard the music of the wind when it sang through the holes in branches made by woodpeckers and fashioned those branches into the first flutes. Others say that there was once a man with holes in his body which produced music when the wind blew through him. Still others talk of a young man who was directed by a kindly woodpecker how to make a flute to win the heart of his beloved.
In all these stories, the flute is born from nature, where the sounds of birds, trees and the breath of the wind are never far away. This is how the flute feels to me when I play it: sometimes it seems as if my own breath becomes the wind, my tune becomes the song of birds and the flute itself become, once more, a living branch in my hands.
This is my hitzaz tuned flute, made for me by David Cartwright of Second Voice Flutes. It is in spalted ash in the key of E, with an Arabian stallion carved block.
The hitzaz/hijaz scale is common in Arabic, Persian, Turkish and Jewish music and the hitzaz flute is intended to evoke the plaintive sounding ney – the traditional Arabic, Persian and Turkish reed flute.
In order for a wooden flute to suggest the sound of a reed flute, David adds a “shoe” under the block. My hitzaz flute came with five shoes in various thicknesses, to offer various degrees of “reediness.” I’m using the thickest/reediest shoe in the video.
A little while ago, someone posted a request on Facebook for help with stage fright. I did not know her personally, but a friend of mine had commented on the post, so, by chance, it appeared on my time line.
I read through the suggestions: “picture the audience naked;” “say to yourself that you are better than they are;” “give yourself a high five before going on” and “look at the back wall.” All were intended to be supportive and some suggestions were sound.
Yet every single one of them came from a place of duality – of us against them. Is this really how we want to approach our audience? If playing before people makes us confrontational, defensive, superior, or any other mask of the fearful ego, what are we doing up there anyway? Is this why we became musicians?
The best way to avoid stage fright is to love the audience. It is as simple as that. Just love them.
Before I perform, I sit still and breathe in and out a few times. I then concentrate on drawing my breath down into my heart area until I can feel a sensation of warmth and expansion. Some would call this practice opening the heart chakra. For me, this is usually enough to put me into a calm, centred, joyful and love-filled state. For others, concentrating on a much-loved person or pet works in the same way. The trick is not to try to convince yourself mentally that you love the audience, but to fully experience the feeling of love and then go out on stage and share music from that place.
I was visiting my cousin and her husband in Dundee. They very kindly offered to take me on a road trip around their beautiful part of the world. As we passed through village and town, it was like all the Scottish harp music I’d played throughout my life was coming home. I recognised place names on signposts connected to songs and tunes I’d previously encountered only as sheet music: Dunkeld Hermitage Bridge, The Birks of Aberfeldy, Killin’s Hill of Fairy, Kinloch of Kinloch and on and on. I gave my cousins a little rendition of each from the back seat. I bet they loved it.
So when we got to Loch Tay, it was time for the Loch Tay Boat Song. Little did I realise that I was setting myself up for a fall.
I left them in the Kenmore Hotel with their coffees and slipped out for a little while for a listen. It was a calm, but chilly, early evening. I could see the boats bobbing up and down in front of me and not too far away I could see the crannog in the distance. But what could I hear? Nothing but the Loch Tay Boat Song. I could NOT get it out of my head.
I’m no stranger to having tunes inside my head. In fact, I have one playing pretty constantly, like the background score of my life’s movie. Even my breathing has a simple tune attached to it. The tunes unfold as they please reflecting how I’m feeling. I’m aware that if this is not your experience, it could sound crazy-making, but actually I find the tunes comforting. Its a bit like inner whistling. But every now and then I get an ear worm and these are not the same thing at all; an ear worm repeats the same phrase over and over again and it can even be a tune that I dislike. The easiest way to get rid of an ear worm is to replace it with another one. I tried, but no. I could not shift the damn Loch Tay Boat Song.
This got me wondering about what was going on? Sure, I was on Loch Tay, but that didn’t really explain why I couldn’t shift the tune despite my best efforts. For instance, right now I’m writing about my experience at Loch Tay, but the Loch Tay Boat Song is not in my head. I’m having to search for how the tune goes to remind myself of it.
I wonder. Was there something so right and correct about the original music that it fitted perfectly with the land? So, that when listening in this location, was I, in fact, picking up the song of the loch in the same way that the original composer of the tune had? So it wasn’t an ear worm at all? I wonder.
“There are days when an uncanny silence seems to hang over the surface of ‘Silent Pool’, a small lake surrounded by trees a mile west of Shere in Surrey. And if the legend that is told about the lake is true, this silence recalls the murderous lechery of a prince and the tragic deaths of a woodman’s children.”
So says my Readers’ Digest Folklore Myths and Legends of Britain. This may have been true in 1973 when the book was written, but it was not true today. Far from it, thanks to the throngs of motorcyclists congregating in the area and the attendant cacophony. I enjoy a bit of irony as much as the next person, but my visit to The Silent Pool gave me little reason to smile.
I loathe the sound of motorbikes. All human-created noise destroys the tranquility of the environment; this includes the noise my car made to get me to the place in question. I acknowledge that. But motorbikes are specifically designed to make more noise than is mechanically necessary. Why? Because noise = power. Those that have the technical ability to make a high volume noise completely control the aural fate of others. It’s the same warped mentality that uses noise as weapons of war and torture. It says “listen to me, I’m important and you are not.” So motorcycle manufacturers make bikes that inflict ever-increasing amounts of noise on others and motorcyclists buy them, either because they don’t realise, or don’t care, how devastating the noise is.
The noise of motorbikes is impossible to ignore. It devastates peace and tranquility, spoiling the natural environment for everyone else. At a time when people like me are trying to show that we need, more than ever, to listen to the land, motorcyclists are robbing us of our ability to do so.
Yet, its not just spoiling the enjoyment of others: it is actually harmful. It has been proved beyond doubt that excess noise causes mental and physical disease in humans. Studies have also shown that wildlife is harmed by loud noise: to survive, creatures are forced to alter their behaviour as a result of noise-induced stress. This can even permanently impact the environment causing lasting degradation to the natural soundscape. According to Bernie Krause:
When unwanted noise occurs, human and non-human creatures alike are denied an experience of their important acoustic connections. Humans especially lose that positive interaction between themselves and the living world.1
The above quote comes from Wild Soundscapes: Discovering the Natural World. Along with Krause’s The Great Animal Orchestra: Finding the Origin of Music in the World’s Wild Places, its an important book because it shows how human noise is intruding upon wild places ever more insidiously. It also shows what we stand to lose if we allow this to continue. I recommend it highly.
All sorts of myths and legends have arisen surrounding Ambresbury Banks: according to some it was the site of the last stand of Boudica against the Romans in AD 61; according to others, it was re-purposed by Aurelianus Ambrosius against the invading Saxons sometime in the 5th century. Who knows? What is known is that it is part of a group of Iron Age hill forts in the area that were probably built to defend the Trinovantes (Essex area) against the Catuvellauni (Hertfordshire area).
Other legends talk of ghostly sightings and eerie presences: Romans, black dogs, highwaymen, Boudica herself. Take your pick. But, take it from me, there’s something a bit weird going on here. There’s definitely an unwelcoming vibe. Its not malevolent exactly. If I had to put my finger on it, I would say the place felt wary of me.
Ambresbury banks did not want to be found. I had a right job locating it, far more so than I should have done. When I finally found it, I asked if I could approach as I always do. The answer was no. I pushed a bit and felt quite an energetic push back; I took a step forward and sank down to the level of my ankles in a leaf bog. I absolutely should have taken that as a no and I would have done and left any other time. That’s my rule. But, for some reason, I didn’t. I think it was because the place felt like it was protecting itself against me and I wanted, in my human hubris, to show it that it had nothing to be frightened of. I wanted to see if I could help it. So I pushed forward.
I sat on the bank and listened. The wariness had turned to sadness, tinged with bitterness. What had happened here??? My attention became fixed on the sound of the traffic on the nearby road. I’m up against traffic noise all the time and (with the exception of motorbikes And military jets) I’ve become adept at filtering it out. But today, I could not get beyond the traffic sound. Was that the problem? Not the energetic remains of a battle at all, but something as simple as the natural frequency of the place being disturbed by a road? It seemed crazy, but the more I sat there, the more convinced I became that that was the problem. I told the place that I understood and that I was truly sorry for the traffic noise. I then asked whether it would like to share its true song with me. Nothing for about 25 minutes. Then I heard the song. With tears streaming down my face, I began to sing along out loud, gifting back the song that the place had been deprived of by my own kind.
This is simple healing work. Its not complicated to hear and sing the song of the land, but it does require patience, stillness and a willingness to listen deeply. As I learned today, it also requires the occasional breaking of rules – and the intuition to know when to do so.
The Use of the Drone in Sound Healing and Spiritual Development
(This essay, in slightly different form, was initially written for, and submitted for my Gong Practitioner diploma from the College of Sound Healing.)
In this essay, I will explore the role of the drone in sound healing and in spiritual development, by looking at how the drone manifests in three contrasting musical instruments.
When played with circular breathing, the didgeridoo produces a continuous drone. Ashley Tait calls the didgeridoo his “healing tool¹” and indeed, there are practitioners such Gregg Chapman² who specialise in didgeridoo sound therapy. So, what is it about the didgeridoo that makes its drone so useful to sound healers?
If the didgeridoo is a good one, it will be highly resonant. Dick de Ruiter likens listening to the didgeridoo to “bathing in sound vibrations.³” These sound vibrations can bring parts of the body back into harmony through the principle of forced resonance, whereby the weaker vibration of out of balance cells and organs will entrain to the stronger vibrations of the didgeridoo. When I play my didgeridoo, I can feel my chest, upper thighs and feet vibrating in response. I like to think that the didgeridoo is giving me a heart massage, while, at the same time, gently reminding me to remain grounded.
Another feature of the didgeridoo’s drone that is important to sound healers is that it is rich in harmonics. These high frequency sounds are needed for optimal health. They resonate the upper parts of the body, head, ears and brain. Radiology specialist, Dr Jarrah Ali Al- Tubaikh goes even further, stating that it is the high frequency sounds which produce healing on a cellular level4.
Harmonics also affect consciousness. A good didgeridoo player, like an overtone singer, will continuously modify the shape of their oral cavity, resulting in an ever-changing array of harmonics. This, along with the constant rhythm and monotony of the drone itself, has the tendency to put listeners into a trance state. There will be more on altered states of consciousness later. Here it is enough to mention that the trance state, known to the Australian Aborigines as The Dreamtime, can produce insights and visions, as well as being a precursor to healing.
So, the didgeridoo can be beneficial in sound healing for its ability to re-harmonise and charge the body’s organs and cells and for bringing people into a trance state where spiritual insights and healing may occur.
The setar is a long-necked lute from Iran, prevalent in Sufi music. It features two melody strings and two drone strings: the drone strings are tuned in octaves and provide a fixed tonic through the piece. I have weekly Skype lessons with Master Shahab Azinmehr in Tehran and often I find myself close to tears as he plays. I believe that I am so moved by the setar because its drone, which – along with the nature of Persian classical music itself – intensifies the effect of musical intervals on the listener.
It is believed by many sound healers that intervals have a predictable effect on the listener. I have read lists of these effects in numerous books and been given similar lists on courses. I am not certain that I agree with such a prescriptive approach, but I do believe that intervals have an effect and that a practitioner or musician can intuitively know which interval is needed for their client or audience and play accordingly.
So, given that we accept that intervals can affect the listener’s feelings, what is it about the setar that produces this effect so deeply in me?
The setar provides both its own melody and accompanying drone, so these share the same tonal quality: I believe the similarity of the two tones enhances the effect of the interval they produce. In addition, Persian classical music is modal. Therefore, unlike Western music, the tonic does not alter and so the interval is always charged with the same meaning. The continuous drone and the reiteration of this charge has a cumulative effect. Equally, unlike Western music, there is no third note (or more) to dissipate the effect of the intervals. This all goes to produce intervals in their most fundamental and potent state and would explain why I am so moved by this particular instrument.
I also believe that modal music based on a drone affects the way one hears intervals. Since I began studying the setar, my relationship to intervals has changed. Recently at a tuning fork workshop we were asked to determine whether intervals were consonant or dissonant. Eyebrows were raised when I stated that each interval sounded consonant to me, including the 2nds and 7ths. I am sure it appeared that I did not understand the concept of consonance and dissonance, but after months of hearing these intervals in relation to a fixed drone, they all sounded equally acceptable to my ears. It would have helped that we were using Pythagorean tuning forks tuned to natural intervals, as the setar is, and not to equal tempered tuning. How could intervals that appear in the natural harmonic series not be beautiful and perfect as they are?
Now that I have experienced how it is possible for one’s relationship with intervals to change, I can better begin to understand why Rudolf Steiner links the evolution of human consciousness to humankind’s changing perception of intervals. Steiner holds that music, in essence, is spiritual. He says that “the spiritual element in music is found between the tones [and] lies in the intervals as an inaudible quality.5” I would now like to look at what it is that lies between the tones and its possible effect.
The application of binaural beats is well known in sound healing. This is a phenomenon that occurs when one frequency (i.e. 500Hz) is sent to the left ear and another, slightly higher (or lower) (i.e. 505Hz), is sent to the right ear. The brain “hears” the difference between them – which in this case is a binaural beat of 5Hz – and becomes entrained to that frequency. This causes an altered state of consciousness that depends on the binaural beat frequency: here, at 5Hz, we would expect dominantly Theta brainwaves.
Dameon Michael Keller has written at length on brain entrainment and he has some surprising information about musical intervals, for he alleges that they have the same effect as binaural beats:
If you play any two notes together, you hear the pulsed, beating, third note. The brain of the listener perceives the frequencies whether they are consciously aware or not… This is exactly how binaural beats are produced for brainwave entrainment, but what most people do not realise yet is that those same frequencies are present in every piece of music we listen to6.
So why do we not experience altered states of consciousness whenever we turn on the radio? I think it is partly because Western harmony and instrumental arrangements diminish the effect of the intervals, as discussed above. I also think it is connected to the shorter length of modern pop songs, as it takes approximately ten minutes for brainwave entrainment to take effect. This probably explains why Persian classical pieces are so long. I believe that the altered state of consciousness that results from musical intervals is very much present in Persian classical music. Indeed, Iranians have a word for the state of ecstasy that is the desired result of listening to Persian music: hal. During hal, both the musician and audience are expected to be in an altered state of consciousness: this is an integral part of the musical experience.
There is a further advantage of the drone for the musician and audience. When playing or improvising over a fixed tonic, there are no strictures of harmony, or shifting tonics to watch out for and so, ultimately, as I found with my new appreciation of intervals, no “wrong notes”. Without the necessity of keeping one ear open for the rules of Western harmony, it is easier for the musician to be in a state where they can surrender and allow things to happen. This is an important concept in Persian music where the musician is expected to become an empty vessel and, ideally, will not even be fully aware of what they are playing. According to Master Morteza Varzi “Persian music is one of the most powerful means of spiritual transformation7.” It is precisely because the musician is free to be a channel that this becomes possible.
We have seen, then, in this discussion of the setar and Persian music, that intervals can affect feelings and consciousness and that the drone of the setar can support and intensify this effect. This is beneficial in both sound healing and in raising spiritual consciousness.
The third instrument that I want to explore is the ichigenkin. This is a rare, single-stringed zither from Japan. Like the better known shakuhachi, the ichigenkin comes from the Zen Buddhist tradition and is intended not to be played as a performance instrument but as a tool to teach the student about ultimate reality.
The ichigenkin should be played with the consciousness anchored in the hara, which my teacher, Randy Raine-Reusch, calls the “the ground of silence.” Peter Wilburg goes even further saying:
The Hara is not only a still point of inner silence. It is also the gateway for a descent into silence which leads us into a world of inner sounds or “sounds of silence.8″
It took me about two years to experience playing “from the hara”, but, once that happened, I became aware of these sounds of silence that Wilburg refers to. Moreover, I began to experience the inner sensation that I am playing the ichigenkin above what I can only call a continuous drone of silence. My perception of the silence is that it is in continuous flow, dynamically moving forward with the melody line, supporting it, as if it were both a musical and a metaphysical ground. I believe that this “drone of silence” is similar to what Hazrat Inayat Khan calls the “undertone of existence9” that goes on continuously and with which, eventually, all will merge.
Whether the ichigenkin has further lessons in store for me remains to be seen. But it has already taught me to experience the reality of inner silence. No wonder that the ichigenkin is considered a tool for spiritual development. Furthermore, once the ichigenkin player has reached a certain level of spiritual attainment, they are able to transfer this to their audience. Randy Raine-Reusch calls ichigenkin concerts “a meditation in action and non- action, sound and silence and one note and many notes. Audiences gently slip into another world, another reality.10” The other reality of which he speaks is, of course, Ultimate Reality, where the audience members experience action/non-action and sound/silence as the two aspects of vibration from which all things emerge and re-merge.
Bringing it All Together: The Gong
I hope that I have shown how the drones of these three instruments can be of use in sound healing and spiritual development in a wide range of ways. If these effects could be combined into one instrument, it would be an extremely powerful tool for healing and spiritual development. Luckily, we have such an instrument in the gong.
As the didgeridoo is used by sound healers for its resonant qualities and rich harmonics, the gong is known as an instrument of total resonance: its sound encompasses all tones and harmonics, meaning that it is able to entrain any part of the body through forced resonance, as needed. The gong is also a powerful brainwave entrainer, slowing listeners’ brainwaves to Alpha, Theta or even Delta frequencies, bringing them into a meditative, trance or blissful state. Gongs have a fundamental tone, which functions in a similar way to a fixed tonic. The difference tones that cause the effect of binaural beats are also present when two gongs are entrained together. When this happens, these difference tones manifest as extremely low frequencies (ELFs). These are powerful healing agents that can be felt in the physical body and sensed in the subtle bodies. Finally, as the ichigenkin introduces its player to inner silence, so too there is said to be silence at the heart of the gong tone, ready to bring those who can hear it back in tune with their true nature.
1 Tait, Ashley, An Interview with Ashley Tait in Drury, Ed Sticks and Drones, 2011, ebook location 4378 2http://www.didgesoundtherapy.co.uk/ 3 De Ruiter, Dick The Healing Sounds of Didgeridoo: An Invitation to a Personal Spiritual Journey, 2001, page 29 4 Keller, Dameon, Michael Sounds Great! The Spiritual Science of Sound and Vibration Volume II, 2015 5 Steiner, Rudolf Music: Mystery, Art and the Human Being, 2016 6 Keller, Dameon, Michael, ibid 7 Caton, Margaret, L. Hafez: Erfan and Music as Interpreted by Ostad Morteza Varzi, 2008, page 8 8 Wilburg, Peter The Little Book of Hara, 2011, ebook location 374 9 Khan, Hazrat, Inayat The Music of Life, 1988, page 57 10 Raine-Reusch, Randy, The Zen of One String, http://www.asza.com/zenone.shtml
Drizzle, the distant sounds of a tractor and the conversation of cows. An occasional sports car. But the Longstone of Minchinhampton is making more noise than any of them. Not audible to human ears, but I can feel it banging out a LOT of static.
I read in TheModern Antiquarian1 that the Longstone was used as a healing stone; apparently parents passed their offspring through the hole to cure childhood ailments. I’m not too sure I would. When I go to new places, I generally test the water before leaping in and so I cautiously closed my eyes and felt around with my inner ears. Almost immediately, I could hear the whoosh of a tunnel and then the sense of an all-encompassing void of silence. It wasn’t frightening exactly, because I felt in control. There was a nano-second where I knew I could rescind control and be taken on the journey of a lifetime. But not today. I opened my eyes and thanked the stone for giving me the choice. I then gave it a gentle pat and received a gentle electric shock in return.
1Cope, Julian The Modern Antiquarian: A Pre-Millennial Odyssey Through Megalithic Britain, 1998
After Climperwell, I drove to Painswick to see the famous clipped yews in St Mary’s churchyard. After the peace, quiet and joy of Climperwell, it was a shock. The churchyard seemed to be a major thoroughfare and there was the sound of a violin and piano practising in the church – probably Haydn, I should think. In a way, the stiff classical music fitted the restricted clipping of the yews, but it didn’t fit my mood. I’ve met a lot of churchyard yews in my time, but none of them were as silent as these. I couldn’t even get them to acknowledge me, let alone share a song. I guess they’ve had it clipped out of them, like a songbird in a cage. I left as people began queuing outside the church for the concert. There was nothing for me here.
It was a cold, blustery, bleak day when Apollo the nose-kissing Malamute hitched a ride on my back seat from a south London pound to Cheltenham Animal Shelter. Not an ideal day to go listening, but, I reasoned, at least not many people would want to be out and about so I may get some places to myself. So after dropping Apollo (and a piece of my heart) in Cheltenham, I went on a listening tour of Gloucestershire.
First on the list was Climperwell Spring, one of the sources of the Gloucestershire River Frome. As I drew near, I felt a sense of lightness and joy; even the light here was brighter. I felt immediately welcome. My delight was tempered somewhat by the sight of a man approaching from the opposite direction. To my shame, I sped up and, as was my intention, I reached the spring before he did. He continued walking past me. Result! I had the place to myself.
I sat in front of the spring and felt the same stirring of joy. I could hear a gallimaufry of birds and a far distant plane. The spring sang a song of youthful delight, adventure and promise. It invited me to ask for something I wanted. Oh, I don’t know, I replied, how about an unexpected gift?
After about 10 minutes, I looked over my shoulder and saw the man sitting on a wall. It was a respectful distance away, so I hadn’t even felt his presence. I got the sense that he was patiently waiting for me to finish. I took another five minutes to really savour the joy I could feel all around me and then, feeling that I had had my turn, I left. As a walked back to my car, I passed the man, who was eating a sandwich. “Thank you” I mouthed to him. He smiled and nodded back. When I got back to my car, I saw him put his half eaten sandwich away and set off toward the spring.
Peace. Quietude. Time and space to have a place all to myself. I had indeed been given an unexpected gift by a stranger.