Singing as as Spiritual Practice
Ways of using music and the voice for healing and connection to spirit
By Ruth Cunningham
I have always found singing to be a healing practice. I spent years singing beautiful medieval chants and polyphony with the group Anonymous 4. So many people told me stories of how our music helped them in their lives that I actually left Anonymous 4 for a while to study music and healing and to understand how I could work directly with the power of sound and the voice. These are some of the practices that I learned and that I teach in my workshops. I have been using them in my own sound/prayer journey for a long time. It is wonderful to do these practices in the context of a workshop with other people singing and sharing but they are equally powerful as part of your own personal practice.
The first thing I want to talk about is humming. This is a very simple practice, that can have a profound effect on the body and the spirit. It is in itself a meditation and people with a connection to sound and music have found this to be a very helpful practice. Simply sit quietly and hold a single note – whatever note feels right – anywhere from two, perhaps, building up to 20 minutes. You can experiment with putting your lips slight forward. You can also shift the note up and down a little to find the note that resonates best. Notice where you are feeling the sound in your body. Just a soft hum is fine. It’s not about volume. Don’t judge anything about how long you hold the note or not. Just come to the end of your breath, allow a natural breath to come in and continue humming. So, this is also a very simple way to put you in touch with your breath. When you stop just notice how your body is feeling, notice your mind, your breathing, your heart. See if anything has changed or settled. Take a breath and sigh. If you have a meditation or a prayer practice already this is a great way shift the energy and settle into it. If you don’t, as I said earlier, this IS a meditation using your voice. You are sitting in your own vibration. When I started this practice, I kept a journal just to see what I noticed each day. Sometimes emotions would come up, colors, awareness of parts of my body that needed the energy of the hum, or it would just settle me. No judgements about what happens or doesn’t. Just allow the experience of using your voice and breath in this way to unfold. Everyone is different. You may find a certain time of day is best for you – or you may just find moments that you need it to settle yourself. Experiment and listen.
Toning is a kind of expansion of humming except instead of being a more interior experience you’re actually putting sound out. It’s not about having a good singing voice or not, it’s much more about exploration. Each of the vowel sounds works in a different part of your body. For instance, the “ah” sound resonates in your heart and chest area, the “oh” sound lower down, and “eee” resonates more in your head. When I do a toning practice, I like to make up a short slow melody of just a few notes. And then I slide from note to note and really feel what each of those vowel sound feels like in my body. The sliding allows you to explore the sound and your voice in a different way than standard vocal exercises. I spend a bit of time on each vowel sound (ah eh ee oh oo) noticing where it is and what it feels like in my body. After doing that I’ll just sit quietly and notice how the whole body feels having been opened up by these sounds. You can also simply do long tones on each of the vowel sounds.
If you make a practice of both humming and toning you will see that each day is a different experience. Some days you will need certain sounds more than others. Trust and follow your intuition. Don’t be surprised if emotions come up. Be very gentle with yourself. Never force anything.
Many of you may have used mantras in yoga classes or heard recordings of Kirtan with people like Krishna Das. Chanting the names of God in Sanskrit is a powerful practice and it is a whole world, well worth exploring. You can also create your own mantras. Take a short phrase and make a simple melody to go with it. Psalms are a great source for these or short phrase from a prayer or poem that speaks to you: “Be still and know that I am God,” “Ave Maria,” “open my heart,” “peace be with you.” Spend some time singing that short melody that you made (just a few notes are fine), and then take it with you throughout your day. Return to it in odd moments or moments of stress. Let that bit of sound-prayer live in the back of your mind. It will change your vibration as you move about your day and interact with others.
Improvising prayers and poetry
Another practice I love is working with prayers and poetry. Choose a poem or prayer that you love and simply sing it every day. No plan for the tune – maybe one will develop or maybe not. Just sing it even with a few notes. Enjoy the words. Maybe speak it first then try singing. Over time a melody may develop or it may be different every day. No judgement or need to make it be a “song” just sing your prayer or poem. Sometimes it’s good to do this at the end of your humming session so you will already feel settled in to the quieter space. If improvising seems too daunting just sing a favorite hymn and connect into the words.
Just make sound
Set a timer for 5-10 minutes and just sing or make sounds for that amount of time. It can be anything – vocal sounds, percussive sounds, gibberish, hymns, rock and roll – no judgement. Have fun! Just keep it up and see what happens. It will be different every day.
So, these are just some practices to try that I have found very helpful especially in these challenging times. Take what resonates for you and enjoy the exploration.
My website: www.ruthcunningham.com You can contact me here for workshops and individual sessions.
During the pandemic I made a lot of videos. Subscribe to my YouTube channel and be sure to check out the playlists that relate to this article: improvised prayers, simple chants and rounds. www.youtube.com/ruthreid/
Photography is a meditation for me. There is some music here as well. Here is my Instagram: www.instagram.com/ruthreid11
Ruth Cunningham is a sound healing practitioner and was a founding member of the group Anonymous 4. She specializes in early music performance as well as improvisational sacred music from varied spiritual traditions in both liturgical and concert settings. She works with individuals and groups on using the voice and music for healing and creating a spiritual practice using sound.
With Anonymous 4, Ruth performed in concerts and festivals throughout the United States, Europe and the Far East and made thirteen recordings. Ruth’s own CD releases are Light and Shadow: Chants, Prayers and Improvisations and Harpmodes: Journey for Voice and Harp. She has released two CDs of multi faith chants with colleague Ana Hernandez: Blessed by Light and HARC: Inside Chants.
She is a member of the core faculty for The Chartres Academy Wisdom School that meets in Chartres France each summer. She has also performed and recorded renaissance music with Pomerium and is a regular member of the professional choir of St. James Church in New York City. She studied sound healing with Pat Moffitt Cook and vocal improvisation with Rhiannon (a colleague of Bobby McFerrin).
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