Music as Meditation: Vocal Mindfulness


Guest post by Mollie Birney (from )

Meditation is evolving, and it’s evolving as quickly as we are. Think of humanity as a lion that’s growing stronger, more agile and more inventive; the lion tamer has to stay as strong, agile and inventive as the beast to have even a prayer of taming it. Likewise, we as human beings are growing lonelier due to a culture that facilitates habitual isolation (thank you, internet), more easily distracted (hold on lemme respond to this text), and more emotionally under-nourished (can you name three people who live on your street?). We are coming up with a whole new brand of 21st century suffering, and thus the ways we meditate must diversify to serve as the antidote. I want to clarify that none of this is to say that the teachings on meditation are incomplete – I’m not advocating for a re-write of Siddhartha texts, but I am suggesting that perhaps we have to consider ways to expand our meditation practice to create community for ourselves.

A recent study done by researchers from the San Francisco State University Institute for Holistic Health Studies and published in EXPLORE: The Journal of Science and Healing, examined the question “which kind of meditation is best?” The answer was not earth-shattering: whatever kind of meditation you will actually DO is the best. “Perhaps the evolution of diverse meditation forms reflects the fact that individuals differ in cognitive styles, such as a preference for analytical or intuitive thinking,” the authors wrote in the study.

As instructors in the meditation community, we are charged with the important task of exposing people to a variety of meditative practices in the interest of connecting them to a form of meditation that speaks to them. One they will actually DO.

Towards that end, I’m humbly offering a new form of meditation in the arena of mindfulness: Music as Meditation. The “as” in Music as Meditation is important – this isn’t merely listening to music while meditating. Here, the creation of the music itself in the body becomes the meditation, and yes, this means singing. This practice directly accesses a part of us that we all guard very carefully: there is so much rich emotional material around our attachment and aversion to our own voices! Whether it’s as simple as hating how we sound when we listen to our own voicemail, or wishing we could sing like we did in high school, or sing like ANYONE else for that matter, the opportunities for mindfulness in this arena abound. So much psychological dust gets kicked up for us if we are told we’re about to sing – it’s a perfect opportunity for mindfulness practice. In traditional mindfulness practice the object of mindfulness is the breath and its journey, but Music as Meditation draws our attention to the resonance in the body that is created by singing, and eventually to the sound of the voice itself.

Music as Meditation cultivates the participant’s authentic voice in the service of their own meditation practice. Linking meditation’s mindful focus on the breath to the vocal techniques used in singing facilitates an individual’s awareness of their voice’s resonance, linking the body and mind while highlighting the value of authenticity and truthfulness. A somatic, cognitive, and spiritual practice, vocal meditation and mindfulness helps individuals address their distorted selfimages and relational dissonances by providing a communication bridge between the body and the awareness.

Music as Meditation workshops begin with general introductions by all participants. One by one, I’ll ask everyone to describe something they like, and something they don’t like about their voices. Usually beginners struggle to come up with a positive comment about their voice, but negative observations abound (ask a child, and the reverse will be true). This organically leads to a preliminary discussion within the group about fear and anxiety within this practice, and establishes a safe community. Due to the vulnerability that people often experience when singing, it is important to set the bar very high for emotional honesty within the group. People cannot feel free to expose themselves if they find they are the only one being vulnerable.

What follows is an introduction to the basics of mindfulness and integrated mind-body meditation where instruction is interspersed with periods of meditation (sitting, standing and walking). I then transition into Vocal Meditations – the sung exercises that define Music as Meditation. These are simple exercises that range from a single note to more complex melodies. I lightly accompany these on the piano using scale degrees 1, 5 and 2 (to facilitate pitch discrimination and tuning) played in a block chord. When sung in this environment, these allow us to become immediately aware of the negative self-talk that inhibits our voice in that moment. Ultimately this is the same negative self-talk that inhibits our voice in the world).

The inherent vulnerability that most people experience with singing, attributed to the fact that the instrument is housed within the body, often generates fear, resistance, anxiety, and most significantly, judgement. The exercise then becomes meeting whatever sounds, and sound induced reactions arise with mindfulness and compassion. With the foundations of mindfulness and a safe environment in place, these Vocal Meditations create an opportunity to become starkly aware of our self-criticism and our relationship to it. Between Vocal Meditations participants are asked to share their observations and experience, and offer feedback to one another. Due to our great tenderness when it comes to our own voice we are harsh critics – we all tend to suffer from a kind of vocal dysmorphia. Whatever our experience may have been in these initial Vocal Meditations, whether it’s appreciating the voice, feeling disconnected, feeling frightened and judgmental or simply anxious, checking in with the community for honest feedback helps reframe our (often faulty) perception of self within the context of reality. This is a chance for the community to exercise mindful listening, authentic reflection, and compassion.

The second portion of this practice is enriched further by turning the attention to the group dynamic using ensemble vocalism. There are few things as powerful and inspiring as communal singing! With instruction, Music as Meditation expands from singing in unison to include singing in harmony! In order to create a more homogenous sound I often find it helpful to introduce gestural language (conducting) and aural meditation. Here participants are asked to experience their own voice (and others) in a larger harmonic context provided initially by a piano, and later by the voices of other participants. As an ensemble, vocal technique, vowel modification and blend (community sound) all become objects of meditation. The result is a sweet, meditative choir created by authentic voices.

Participants leave with a unique sense of connectedness to their own body and voice (both literally and metaphorically), and with more tools and techniques for deepening their personal meditation practice. The most significant take-away is the experience of having made music with other individuals, not for the sake of artistic accomplishment but in service of being a part of a musical community built upon consciousness, vulnerability and curiosity. If the goal of any form of meditation is simply to engage people to return and cultivate their practice, Music as Meditation is simply another offering towards that end, with the added bonus of an artistic community and unique emotional nutrition that only music can provide.

Music as Meditation is not about having a pretty voice; the unique community created by ensemble singing is for novices and professionals in both music and meditation. All of the meditations and techniques are designed to facilitate efficient, easeful singing, and you needn’t have any previous vocal experience. You already have the instrument, you carry it with you every day. Through this process you can feel at home in the music, in your body, and in your practice. All are welcome, participants needn’t consider themselves a musician or a monk to take part.

Ultimately Music as Meditation will expand to include multiple communities in which to practice. The primary level of open, by-donation workshops will offer an introduction both to mindfulness practice and basic vocalism. I envision the workshop element of Music as Meditation becoming a traveling offering, one which be adapted to fit the needs of everything from a yoga retreat to a corporate team-building event. The secondary level (secondary only in that it is suggested that complete novices participate in at least one workshop in order to enroll)will be a Community Mindfulness Choir (working title), where in six week blocks, participants join together once a week for a community meditation sit and a rehearsal of repertoire, taught with the principles of mindfulness in mind. The end goal of these sessions can be a small performance for friends and family members, or perhaps a recording of their efforts. An offshoot of the secondary level might include the occasional crash-course in sight-reading to facilitate the streamline nature of the Community Mindfulness Choir. The tertiary level of Music as Meditation will be an elite, lightly-auditioned ensemble, Sung Sangha (working title) which is primarily a repertoire-based ensemble meeting to rehearse once a week with the foundations of mindfulness always at work. This group would perform at local events, retreats, schools, and spiritual centers.

The long-term opportunities with Music as Meditation rest upon it’s marketability as a musical and meditative pedagogy, one in which one can become certified to teach in their own communities. Additionally, Music as Meditation is a wonderful enhancement to yoga and team building retreats, and especially retreats for corporate executives looking to create a more cohesive bond. The nature of this work exposes a tremendous amount of vulnerability and humility which always serves to establish community among participants. The exercises, which encourage awareness of one’s relationship to their own thinking, generate compassion that translates to the relationship to self and others, a quality which is highly lacking in corporate communities. This impacts one’s ability to offer and receive honest feedback, conduct themselves with transparency, be imperfect in stressful situations and implement all of these qualities within their professional relationships. The safety created by the dynamic of this workshop sets up a standard for trust and vulnerability as the foundation of personal relationship among participants. It returns the humanity to what are often fractured and competitive communities.