3 Listening Lessons for the Choir… And for Life!

3 Listening Lessons for the Choir

As part of an ongoing series about spiritual practice and music, this blog post will focus on the art of listening.

Music practice is an awesome place to explore larger ideas. When we practice music, we create time for working on ourselves as well as our songs. Of course, nothing happens in a vacuum, and so it’s my hope that these skills will translate into other parts of your life.  This deepens our connection with music and offers another kind of spiritual practice.

1. Listen to yourself.

With a critical, but not judgmental ear, listen carefully to the sound you were making. Ask yourself “Is this the best tone I can make today?” If not, play around with all of the variables to see if changing one thing makes the sound better or worse. Concentrate on the physical action of the body. Assess if you are moving from a place of comfort or discomfort. When practicing, focus your complete attention on the music. Can you relate to the mood of the piece? Always be searching for ways to connect breath to sound and stay active with your listening. Practice non-judgement by not allowing the negative voices to diminish you. Instead, turn the inner judges into voices that offer encouragement and gentle, constructive observations.

2. Listen to others.

Try focusing on a different vocal part, perhaps even one across the room. Or listen to the singers on either side of you. Can you listen so intensely that your neighbors sound louder than you? Be mindful of the blend of the entire choir. Notice when the group wants to change tempo, change dynamics, or where people are taking breaths.

3. Be playful and curious.

By engaging your inner child, the music will always stay interesting. Imagine that you have ears in the far corner of the room. Try listening from those ears, not the ones on your head. Listen to how the sound is bouncing off the walls or people or the furniture in the room. Maybe you will notice if something is sympathetically vibrating. Continue to play with all of the variables in your body that change the sound. Give yourself permission to think out of the box. For example, how does the sound change if you curl your toes in your shoes?

listening to a soprano on her head

A Soprano on Her Head

The playful approach to music-making is inspired by Eloisa Ristad and her book A Soprano On Her Head. It is an inspiring work that has been an inspiration for my teaching since I first read it in 1996.

Other blog posts related to this topic:

Hearing vs. Listening

Reinvigorating Flute Practice

Music as a Spiritual Practice

Music as a Spiritual Practice: My Path

Music as a Spiritual Practice: My Path

The Beginning

spiritual practice at church

Covenant Presbyterian Church

Like many people, I first began to connect music and spiritual practice while a young child. I attended a large, stone Presbyterian church with my mother. The church was well endowed and had a huge organ, robust choir, bell choir, several children’s choirs, and occasionally an orchestra. It was a rich place for music.

My favorite service of the year was Easter. The church was full of people, the altar adorned with lilies, and the choir was resplendent in their robes. At the end of the Easter service, organist Trudy Faber would take the organ to its full volume and open the trumpet stops. I remember the sanctuary filled with sound, feeling the floor vibrate under my new white shoes. Even now, just thinking about it, the hair on the back of my neck stands up. As I listened to the organ in the grand sanctuary while gazing at the stained glass windows and flying buttresses, I felt divine ecstasy. This was an awe-inspiring experience that forever linked music with spirituality.

Music still has that power over me. When I am moved by music, I feel its spiritual force within me and a reconnection with the divine.

Practice, Practice, Practice

I don’t know where I got the idea to play the flute, but my mom remembers me telling her that I wanted to play and insisting on it until she relented. Practicing the flute was a pleasant escape from the intensity of my home. While other teens were talking on the telephone or listening to the radio, I was playing the flute in the safe cocoon of my room. This is where I learned how to be alone to be comfortable with silence, and to direct my own learning. (Just to be clear, I had no guidance on how to practice and consequently had terrible practice habits that wasted a lot of time.)

Practicing also cultivated grit because my commitment to the flute was unwavering. In fact, I never missed a day of practice during the entire four years of high school.

Much later, I would learn to meditate. I have come to understand that my music practice is a meditation, reaching that same place of calm and flow.

Music has also opened me up to a range of emotions. For a melancholy piece, I must channel the composer’s pain and reference difficult moments in my life. On the other hand, jubilant music makes me feel energized. Little by little, music has expanded my emotional intelligence. It helps me to simply sit with people who are sad without trying to “make things better.” I am learning to be present with uncomfortable feelings… without trying to change them. Performing music demands that a musician stay present and fully engaged, no matter the emotional intensity.

Music practice can be a spiritual practice. I learned how to be still, how to listen, how to commit mind and action to a singular goal. Music cracked open my heart to the joy and suffering of life.

University Studies

degree

MM from CU

The Apprentice, Dancing with the Stars, American Idol, Top Chef… the judging tables in these shows are less intense than music school. Universities accept only a fraction of students who audition. Fewer make it through the first year. Every week, professors offer criticism in lessons and studio class. Then there are the yearly juries and solo recitals. Music students are required to make fast progress while working through stage fright and self-doubt.

While many teachers tried to be constructive with their criticism, the voices in my head were more destructive. Am I good enough? Do they like me? What if I shake/get sweaty hands/can’t breathe? Facing these fears has been difficult. At times, the negative self talk was deafening, paralyzing. My playing suffered from performance anxiety. So I took classes in Alexander Technique and performance anxiety. I developed a tough skin.  Eventually, I learned that obsessing over these minor details did not serve the music. We do our best and then we move on.

Confronting self-doubt is a kind of spiritual practice because it leads to love and forgiveness.

Post-Graduate

flute studio in 1997

studio photo 1997

After graduating with a masters degree in flute performance, getting married, and moving back to Ohio, I worked to build a career in music. Very quickly I learned that there were lots of other people trying to do the same thing and they were just as driven, just as talented (often more talented.) It was thrilling to land a good gig but it also sent me into a spiral of over-work, self-doubt, and anxiety. Teaching, however, has always been something I love. I have a terrific home studio of flute students, teach classes for preschoolers at recreation centers, and work as a music director for a wonderful church, which is aligned with my spiritual beliefs. This wasn’t the career I had envisioned, but I have a passion for it. All of these jobs allow me to help others find joy in music.

Finding my place in the music community has taught me humility and given me a sense of purpose.

Growing a Soul

Meditation, prayer, ritual, yoga, fasting, and writing are all examples of common spiritual practices. I believe that studying and performing music can also be part of a spiritual practice. For some people, the point of spiritual practice is achieving a closer connection with a higher power. For others, it is liberation from this world. But for me, the goal of any spiritual practice is to grow a soul. Music has been part of my life since the beginning. I am aware of ways that it has shaped me into the person I am today. The lessons I am learning are about

Traveling a spiritual path means greater self-actualization. Music continues to reveal new ways to explore the journey.

Music as a Spiritual Practice

Since the beginning, music and spirituality have been inextricably linked.

Every culture in the world has used music as a spiritual practice in rituals for healing, connecting with the Divine, communicating with the spirit world, celebrating important events, and so forth. Ancient people knew the power of music and we do too. In the book Why You Love Music: From Mozart to Metallica- The Emotional Power of Beautiful Sounds, by John Powell, the front endpaper asserts

Music plays a hugely important role in our emotional, intellectual, and even spiritual lives. It impacts the ways we work, relax, behave, and feel. It can make us smile or cry, it helps us bond with the people around us, and it even has the power to alleviate a range of medical conditions.

This blog series will focus on how music can be used as a spiritual practice. Religious or not, all people benefit from activities that foster more compassion, more love, more generosity, more wholeness.

Look for the helpers.

How do you respond when something awful happens? Perhaps you feel sad or angry at first. But in the days and weeks that follow, do these events leave you feeling hopeless or are you spurred to action?

This week marked the 15th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. Once again, the news featured stories about the victims and about a world that was changed by senseless violence. However, alongside the tragic stories, the news this year also told about the people who were helpers.
Look for the helpers

The stories told about September 11 offer many examples of people who responded with generosity to the tragedy. For example, the people of  Gander, Newfoundland, didn’t seek out a charity project, but they offered generous support to the more than 7000 travelers who became stranded when American airspace was closed. Those travelers, after returning home, returned the favor by setting up a well-funded scholarship for the children of Gander.

There were many other hopeful stories too. Mental health professionals volunteered their time to talk with the first responders and attend to their emotional needs. Others went to NYC to help with the recovery efforts, risking their own health. And fire stations all across the country reported gifts of food, homemade cards, and other donations. I remember long lines at the Red Cross blood donation center in Boulder, where I was living at the time.

We have a choice when something bad happens: we can be paralyzed by fear and depression or we can work to make things better. Because we never know when we will called to be “helpers,” we have to be ready.

Be a helper.

I believe that the people who are best able to respond to a crisis are the people who are healthy – physically, mentally, emotionally. It’s normal to feel sad or angry when tragedy strikes, but I want to be the person ready to respond with action and love when called to help.

My goal is to stay balanced and spiritually whole enough that when the need arises, I will be able to respond immediately and generously. As a music teacher, I understand how important it is for me to be psychologically healthy when working with others. Music is my passion as well as my livelihood. It is also a source of strength when I’m not feeling grounded.

Music as a spiritual practice.

There are as many paths to the divine as there are people. Just as practicing yoga has multiple benefits, so too the study of music offers many spiritual lessons. For example, listening to music can help regulate our emotions. Participating in an ensemble can help us commit to something larger than ourselves. Practicing a musical instrument teaches us how to be comfortable when alone and how to listen deeply. Performing makes us confront negative self-talk. Vocalists must take a deep dive into the words, transforming text into something meaningful.

music and spiritual practice

music at NUUC

In this blog series, I’ll discuss ways to integrate music into a meaningful spiritual practice. I’ll offer some exercises and share my experiences as a performer, teacher, and church musician. I’m aided in this journey by my wonderful choir at North Unitarian Universalist Congregation. We have made it a priority this season to explore the role of music and spirituality in our lives and in our community.

How does music play a role in helping you become the person you want to be? Please respond below with your thoughts.

Music and Healing

Music as Medicine: Healing Tunes.

When I was an undergraduate at The Ohio State University, the flute studio was involved in a collaboration with the hospital. We worked with a researcher on a study about increasing air capacity with the regular use of an inspirometer. The flute students were asked to keep a log of our use of the device and our lung capacities were measured in the lab before and after using the device.

Another part of the collaboration involved the Flute Troupe being invited to perform at the opening ceremony for the cancer memorial garden on campus. I was very honored to take part in that beautiful outdoor ceremony.

The flute studio worked for a couple of years on various projects linking music and healing. The project that I remember most vividly was being asked to play at the hospital. Our flute troupe played in the lobby once or twice for the people in the waiting room. It seemed to make the mood lighter and help anxious loved ones pass the time while they waited for news.

Individually, we prepared unaccompanied solo music to play in the surgery recovery area. I remember going by myself to University Hospital and being led back into a space where people were waking up after cancer surgery. Gurneys were being rolled in and out, there were beeps of monitors, and nurses were busy tending to patients. I played “Syrinx” and some Irish tunes. I improvised peaceful music. I’d like to think that maybe someone waking up from surgery was comforted by the sounds of the flute. That experience changed me. I found a quiet in the middle of the hustle and bustle of a busy hospital. I felt like I had something special to offer, that maybe my music would be meaningful to someone. Some of the nurses smiled. I hope that it was comforting to them and I hope I wasn’t in the way of their very important work.

The belief in music and healing continues to inform my playing.

Years later, I would play my flute for my grandmother when she was in the hospital. When my grandfather was at the end of his life, my sister and I sang at his bedside. More recently, I sang to my father-in-law when he was in his final hours. Bringing music into these sacred spaces felt good, human, comforting.

So when I came across an article about the use of Sufi music in Turkish hospitals, I felt an immediate connection and wanted to share my story with you, dear reader.

In Turkey, Sufi music is used to decrease patient stress.

Do you have a story about music and healing? Perhaps a time that music was medicine to you? Please share!

 

 

Improvisation Inspiration

Improvisation Inspiration

beatboxing improvisation

As part of my “file cabinet” method for organizing practice, I encourage everyone to add improvisation to their daily practice. Remember, improvisation can take lots of different forms from trying to figure out at favorite song by ear to playing a solo with a jazz band.

Flutists can do some really cool things with their instruments, like using the keys to make percussion sounds, singing and playing at the same time, or flutter tonguing. These “extended techniques” give us a big sound palette and modern composers such as Robert Dick are taking full advantage of them.

Greg Pattillo is a flutist who is pushing the boundaries of the sonic capabilities of the flute. He beatboxes while playing to create a totally new and exciting sound. You can find him on many YouTube videos. Here’s a link to some of the videos he has posted on his personal website: http://pattillostyle.com/Beatbox_Flute/Video.htm

Greg has a video “Beatbox Flute 101” to help get you started: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rEqhJy5ODAg

Want to be the coolest flutist in the band? Try beatboxing and impress all your friends!

 

“Alive Inside” film review

Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory. 2014 film by Michael Rossato-Bennett.

At a recent family gathering, a cousin told me about a film she had watched the night before. She dared me to view it and not cry. Since it seemed to fit in with the research I’ve been doing lately on music and the brain, I thought it would be a good addition to the bibliography. It’s hard to make me cry. Challenge accepted.

About five minutes into Alive Inside, I was weeping. A stone would be moved by watching this.

You can watch the trailer on YouTube with this link.

Alive Inside is a documentary about social worker Dan Cohen’s determination to help the elderly with music therapy. In the film, we watch as Cohen talks to Alzheimer’s patients, most of whom remember nothing about their childhoods or are in catatonic states. These are people who have literally forgotten who they are.

Cohen, who is the founder of the non-profit Music and Memory, works with elder care centers across the country. He seeks grants to buy iPods and headphones. After conducting interviews with patients, he creates a playlist of music specific to that individual. In the film, we see elders “come alive” before our eyes as they listen to the music. Memories miraculously reappear. Words, language, singing are spontaneous. The body moves, even dances, walkers flung to the side of the room.

We don’t need science to tell us that music touches our minds and bodies on a very deep level, but research on the brain continues to confirm it. In the film we learn that “when we are young, music records itself in our motions and emotions. Luckily, those are the last parts of the brain touched by Alzheimers.” Music somehow reconnects the physical and emotional parts of the brain, releasing memory. Elders with dementia can feel increasingly isolated, but music makes them “flow” again. Music provides a link to “living in concert with each other and our own selves.”

The film Alive Inside challenges us to look at the way we treat older adults in our culture. Hiding elders away in nursing homes and filling their bodies with pharmaceuticals may not be the best choice. Dan Cohen and filmmaker Michael Rossato-Bennett suggest that an inexpensive iPod may be life-changing.

A link to the movie’s website is here. Have your tissues ready.

[For more information on music and the brain, check out my blog posts Brain Imaging on Musicians, Essential for Being Human, The Musician’s Brain, and How We Learn.]