Chaitanya Mahoney on Singing — “She Is the Greatest Teacher!”

Chaitanya is Ananda’s premier resident Irish tenor. With long-ago roots in barbershop, he has sung Swami Kriyananda’s songs for decades and serves as manager of the Ananda community in Sacramento, California. This talk appeared in Conversations With Ananda: How We Serve (Amazon).

Q: Please tell us how you got interested in singing. 

Chaitanya: I was at St. Francis de Sales High School in Columbus, Ohio. I think it was in my sophomore year that I tried out for a variety show and discovered that I could sing. I sat next to two guys, and one day at rehearsal they said, “Let’s start a barbershop quartet.”

We knew someone whose father was a barber shopper and we started learning the music, and I sang with them for seven years.

Chaitanya leads a kirtan in the garden of the Ananda Community in Mountain View, California.

At one point we were doing amusement park gigs in Cincinnati, and that’s when I first saw Autobiography of a Yogi. Then while we were doing a show in Washington, DC, I picked up a copy of the book.

Later on, we were doing a summer gig at a Gay Nineties restaurant in Cape Cod, and it was making me unhappy because it wasn’t what I thought I wanted to do, so I finally picked up the book and read it, a year after I had bought it, and that’s when I got into spirituality.

To cut a long and winding story short, I came to Ananda Village for a program, and I visited the boutique at The Expanding Light. Nakula was there, and I told him I wanted to buy some music. He asked me what kind of music I liked, and I told him I liked harmony, and he gave me The Joy Singers in Concert.

When I returned to upstate New York I listened to the tape and thought, “Oh, that’s nice.” But in truth, I thought it was kind of hokey. Then on the drive back from visiting friends in Montreal I listened to the tape again, and when I heard “Cloisters” it really struck me – it hit my heart and I thought, “Wow!” and on the two-hour drive I learned both parts and memorized them.

Years later, I moved to Ananda Palo Alto, and I hadn’t been there long when Kirtani said, “You ought to join the choir,” and I remember turning to her and saying, “It’s inevitable.” [Laughs] That was 1990. I had lived at Ananda Village and worked at the dairy early in the year, so I’m giving you the shortened version.

Q: Did the Ananda music feel like a fit from the start?

Chaitanya: Oh, yes. After the “Cloisters” experience I was hooked. I really like harmony and it’s why I loved barbershop. We don’t have the same “ring” in our Ananda music, but of course you don’t get the depth of spiritual experience from singing the stupid lyrics of the barbershop songs. [Laughs]

I sang some barbershop recently, and it was fun, but I was mainly singing with the Ananda choir and an ensemble, plus doing solos and teaching. I did the barbershop as vocal training, because you have to be very accurate when you’re singing those close harmonies.

When Swami wrote the Oratorio, he came to Palo Alto and we gave a big public performance at the Mountain View Performing Arts Center. Some years later he wrote the recitatives, and while I was learning them I recorded myself, and I realized that there wasn’t enough energy in my voice. So I kept recording and listening until I could change one song, then I would do the same for the next song until it had energy. I did that with all of the Oratorio songs, and it really changed my singing. I discovered that you need ten to twenty times more energy in your voice than you think you do. It’s a kind of internal energy, and it’s hard to describe it, because you have to experience it.

Q: Did you feel it was a process of attuning your energy and consciousness to the music?

Chaitanya: Yes, absolutely. Swami gives us the melody, and when we tune into it we’re really trying to get in front of the window that it came through, and the inspiration behind where that window is, and it takes a lot of energy to do that.

Q: Is it a process, as you said, of going over and over a song until you find the inspiration?

Chaitanya: The process with the Oratorio was to raise enough energy so that I could get a flow going inside myself. But then there’s always the issue of “getting out of the way.” So there’s a constant process of finding a balance between will power and surrender. But I didn’t truly understand that until later.

Q: Do you find there’s a point where will power and surrender merge in a flow, where you feel you’ve actually gotten out of the way?

Chaitanya: It does happen. I’ve developed an exercise that helps me do that. I talk about it in the syllabus that I give the students when I teach singing classes. [See syllabus at the end of this conversation.]

Most singers aren’t conscious when they breathe, and when I talk to singers, it’s the only thing I talk about. It’s very simple. I urge them to be more conscious when they breathe, to breathe in through the heart, and to bring that energy up onto their face, and then it becomes prana – spiritual energy. It’s a packet of information that has its own intelligence and its own direction. It’s always changing, depending on who’s listening. Does that make sense?

Q: It does, in a subtle way. I can see why it would be hard to talk about it.

Chaitanya: I spent a lot of time writing the syllabus. The words didn’t flow easily, but I kept revising it until I could say “I like that.” Everything that’s in that syllabus is something I like. It’s concise, but it says what my experience is, and what I can teach. My experience with the young students here at Ananda is that these things are teachable.

Q: That brings up another point. I’ve learned the songs by listening to recordings of the tenor parts that you and Dambara made. First it’s just scrambling to get the notes right, but then I begin to pick up the “melody” that Swami wrote for the tenors. But beyond that, there’s a quality in the way you and Dambara are singing, as if you’re wholly immersed in the song. There are no distraction or doubts – all of your attention and energy is in the song. It’s like a song “being sung,” where I’m listening and I’m not aware of any personality factors or distractions. I’m wondering if that’s a state you strive for consciously when you sing, to be one with the song.

Chaitanya: I hear what you’re saying. I’ll see if I can break it down a little.

Q: It seems a question of experience also.

Chaitanya: That’s definitely true. When I breathe, I’m trying to take in the energy consciously. And then by feeling that energy going out to the audience, it doesn’t get stuck in my body. That’s when you get nervous. If you’re just singing from your body, without that flow, that’s when the nerves take over and it starts to affect your voice, and then you hear your voice get affected, and it makes you even more nervous. I always get nervous in front of a crowd. But if you take that energy, with all of the adrenaline, and put it into that flow, it expands the flow of breathing where you connect with the song and then express it to the audience. You deepen and expand it because of the performance-energy factor. If you get stuck in the body, that nervous energy snowballs – it cascades in your voice and makes you more nervous.

Q: Are you saying that you’re trying to get out of the ego?

Chaitanya: What I’m describing is a very technical way of doing it, but it’s not technical if you’re getting into that flow. What I’m feeling when I’m truly in that flow is that Divine Mother really loves everybody. [Laughs] You can feel that love and then try to let that love express itself to everyone. When you take a breath and start to sing, if you’re not just playing your own tape in your head Divine Mother can express a certain way for whoever is in front of you, especially if you’re doing a solo.

When you’re singing in a group, you’re tuning into the whole group and the consciousness of the group. You’ll have experiences with the group where you think “Wow, that was amazing.” You won’t always have that experience, but that’s when you know that Divine Mother is expressing through all of you, and She’s expressing something for the particular people who are listening out there.

That’s what I talk about at the bottom of the syllabus, where you ask and you ask and you ask to be able to serve, and it opens you so the energy can serve through you.

Q: I was going to ask you about the last part of the syllabus, because it seems essential to the process.

Chaitanya: Yes. I’m teaching students at Ananda University who might not be part of Ananda, but they all like Swami’s music, and they’re not much interested in doing other music, and when I handed out the last part of the syllabus, they liked it.

Q: Did you write the syllabus to help people learn more quickly what you’ve learned over the years?

Chaitanya: Nischala wanted something to put on the Ananda University website, and it’s what I’ve learned and what I teach.

They say that inspiration can’t be taught, you either have it or you don’t, but our teaching is that you can learn to connect and sing from inspiration.

Q: What would you say to a person who’s new to Ananda, and they’re timid about starting to sing the music?

Chaitanya: The first thing I would say is that most of the people in our choirs aren’t soloists – they’re not going to be able to stand up by themselves and sing a part. But they can stand next to someone and sing and feel the inspiration and expand it.

Maybe fifty percent aren’t great singers, and occasionally some pretty bad singers will float through the cracks, but I like to let people think it’s possible for them. I’ll ask them to let me listen to them. I’ll take them into a private room and start singing with them. I’m very comfortable with that, because of barbershop. In barbershop, you go anywhere and sing with anybody, and you only need four guys, so I’m very comfortable singing with people, where most people are not.

I’ll start singing with them, doing scales or a tune they know, so they’ll feel comfortable, and then I can hear how good their ear is, and their tonal placement, their intonation and so on, and I can make a decision about whether they’re ready to sing in the choir.

If they don’t make the cut, the best thing people can do is to chant. If they play the harmonium and chant the wires will start getting connected over time and they might be able to join the choir.

Q: What would you advise people about improving their singing – the quality of their voice, getting in tune with the inspiration of the songs, and learning to channel it to others? You cover a lot of this in the syllabus, but I’m wondering if you have any other thoughts.

Chaitanya: They can ask for help. Karen has taught people in Palo Alto, and Ramesha gives classes in person and online. Ramesha has very good tonal placement, and he’s very good at helping people learn to sing.

What I teach is how to sing from inspiration, and it’s another approach. And then you can learn a lot about tonal placement by learning to sing from inspiration, because inspiration improves everything.

Q: It’s refreshing to hear you say that.

Chaitanya chants with Ananda Sangha friends.

Chaitanya: The choir might be singing a little flat, and lots of directors would point upward, but one of our former choir directors did it differently – he would stop the choir and tell a story, and it would improve the quality of the singing, because they would feel inspired. By telling an inspiring story, he was able to turn things around vibrationally. He would tell stories about his experiences singing with the choir in Assisi. Many of the stories would have humor in them, but there were stories with serious themes, and it was interesting to see how people would be able to hit the notes after that.

The breath is important. The breath is conscious – it has information about placement, but it’s very demanding. Sometimes one of Swami’s songs will require that you sing a series of high notes very softly, and you’ll think “I can’t do that!” But if you don’t think about it, but just work with the breath, all of a sudden you find that you’re doing it. You think “How did I do that?” And you don’t actually know how, but it doesn’t matter, because if you stay connected you can do it.

You don’t have to do this or that, but if you can get the placement of your voice right, it becomes a question of staying connected to the right energy and vibration. The right flow of energy will support singing a high note softly.

Q: As you sing, are you always aware of your breathing?

Chaitanya: I’m trying to be, but it’s not easy. Fortunately music has melody, rhythm, and breathing, so there’s a cycle that allows the mind to come back to a starting point. When you’re singing it’s easier to keep the mind focused than when you’re meditating, because the melody is captivating. And if you can develop the habit of taking a breath consciously, it deepens the whole experience it makes it all more alive and inspiring.

Q: Is it like the experience where you’re out in public and you want to get calm, and you’ve been doing Kriya and meditating, and you know that if you breathe deeply for a while there will be a gathering of energy in the heart. And once you have the energy gathered in the heart you can direct it easily to good thoughts, expansive thoughts, praying for people, singing, or whatever. Is that the same thing, that gathering of energy in the heart and then using it to sing?

Chaitanya: Yes. I always recommend that people practice during the Festival of Light when they’re singing “Father, Mother, Friend, Our God.” It’s fairly easy to practice breathing with that song, and it’s easier in rehearsal than in performance. A performance has activity and adrenaline that are stimulating the mind, but if you keep practicing it will have an effect over time.

Q: Do you reach a point where performing becomes relaxed, like practicing? Where you aren’t running down a checklist of things to remember, and you can just sing?

Chaitanya: I have a certain level of consciousness when I sing, but I think the potential for tapping the higher consciousness is unlimited. We can always deepen and expand that awareness, and I don’t think I’ve gotten close to being fully aware of the source of this music. I don’t look at the process as being easy. I look at it as something I have to work at, and then there are no limits to the inspiration. If you feel the hand of God coming through your heart and going out and blessing people, that would be something to aim for. I definitely feel energy moving, but I don’t always know what it’s doing. I feel inspired, and I feel love for the audience, and I realize that the love isn’t coming from me.

Q: Is it going inside and finding oneness with Divine Mother’s love?

Chaitanya: I don’t know. It’s all in a flow. As I deepen and expand the experience of the breath I feel more of it. It is a oneness that reaches out to help everybody who wants to be an instrument for it. Because Divine Mother is always looking for instruments.

Q: Is there is a process that you use to prepare yourself spiritually before you perform? Do you meditate or pray?

Chaitanya: I’m embarrassed to say that I don’t, other than that I try to breathe consciously. When Swami wrote the recitatives for the Oratorio, there were four soloists who sat in front and sang most of them. Swami sometimes sang bass, and I sang tenor. One time he was singing bass and he said, “I wrote this for a bass – here, you sing it.” [Laughs] Because some of the songs were a bit high for a bass.

That’s just a small aside. But I noticed that before a concert he would always meditate. He would sit up here and start doing alternate breathing, with the fingers on the forehead, where you close one nostril and breathe through the other for a count, then hold and exhale through the other nostril. He would do that for fifteen minutes, so that would be a good thing, and I’ve thought about it, but I’m embarrassed to say that I haven’t done it.

Q: But you are thinking of the audience.

Chaitanya: I do think of the audience. It’s easier if we’re singing at Sunday service because we’re meditating during service. And whenever I pray I always ask to be able to be open, and for Divine Mother to shine through us. That’s the only prayer I pray, really – to breathe and to be open to that energy.

Q: I remember asking you how you were able to sing the high notes purely and with a nice, full energy, and you said, “Singing this music changes your voice.”

Chaitanya: I did say that, because it’s a real experience. The more you sing – especially drawing the breath through your heart, and connecting the heart chakra to the throat chakra where the voice is – the more it affects the quality of the sound. And then Divine Mother demands a pure tone up on the high notes. So you keep singing until it sounds beautiful. Keep practicing and singing the music until it sounds nicer. And then all of a sudden if it’s making that connection, it’s happening, and then when it’s not happening, say you’ve got a cold or something, it’s frustrating.

Swami once had me put my hand on his back while he sang, and when he breathed, his ribs came apart. It was a huge movement – his chest was expanding in all directions – 360 degrees. When you breathe like that, you can feel more of the diaphragm. That’s because you feel more of the diaphragm, and you create more support, which makes it easier to sing the high notes.

I usually start by having the students do the Half Moon Pose, where you breathe deeply into the back part of the ribs, the floating ribs, and you try to expand that range. And when you exhale you come down sideways, and it stretches those ribs. Then you breathe in again and you exhale and stretch. You do that maybe four times on each side, and then you keep your chest erect.

Then we do bubbling and trilling while we’re breathing in deeply and expanding the rib cage so we can feel the diaphragm. Then you can sing more from the diaphragm than the throat. The breath for singing a note starts with the diaphragm squeezing in on the air, instead of from constricting the throat, and it allows the throat to be more relaxed.

Bubbling allows you to be aware of the various passages of sound in the head, and to be able to go in and out of them more easily. The main passage for everyone is straight up, and then for the men, when you get up as high as E-flat, it goes back. It’s like an air column that rises from the diaphragm and then turns back. You get the air up and then it goes into different chambers in your head. When we go really high – men don’t sing that high, but the women do – there’s another passage that’s even further back.

But you do the exercises – the trilling and bubbling – because they allow you to go in and out of these passages smoothly with support from the diaphragm, and it makes a natural connection. The vibration of the bubbling and trilling also relaxes the face and opens the cavities that resonate with the voice, and when they’ve opened and your throat’s relaxed, there’s no distortion.

We sang in Palo Alto at an event where Joan Baez sang. I was about twenty yards away, where I could hear her voice clearly, and there was no distortion, just a clear, ringing bell. It was like a Stradivarius instrument.

I’ve had to help people learn to sing, starting with an average voice where there’s lots of tension in the throat, using these methods with the breath to make the voice pure, without distortion.

Q: I find it’s hugely helpful to do exercises that open the rib cage. I had spinal surgeries eons ago, and that area can get tight. I find that loosening the spine by stretching backward and sideways and opening the rib cage makes a tremendous difference in how the energy can flow – I feel almost like a different person. It makes it much more harmonious and smooth.

Chaitanya: We’re usually not aware of the back half of our bodies, but in singing, if you’re aware of the heart chakra in your spinal column, and if you breathe into it, you’ll have a different experience. I’ve practiced this for four or five years, and I can feel the heart chakra as a flower, and it shines upward when the breath comes across it, and it makes me smile.

It’s from consciously doing this exercise over an extended period. But then it gets easier, and all of a sudden these things are working for you, without the boredom of doing an exercise over and over without much response. Of course, the inspiration of the music really helps. You keep coming back and having the opportunity to do it again.

Fortunately we have the Festival where we sing things that demand it. I look forward to the Festival, and I recommend it as a chance to practice these things. I have a powerful experience of the Festival every Sunday because of the singing – because I engage it. I don’t merely sing it, I engage it. I’m trying to deepen and expand it. When a song is over, I say, “Oh, the song’s over – shucks.” By the time they do the touch of light, I am in tears, usually. That’s my experience. That’s why I recommend the Festival as a way of practicing.

Formerly when I would teach I noticed that nobody would practice the technical stuff, so I thought, “Well that’s stupid. I’ve got to figure out something else.” And this exercise is what came to me.

If you listen to Swami’s voice, he has it. In a video and audio that he made called “The Voice,” he said one sentence that’s a part of who he is, and that had already become my whole teaching. I expanded my whole syllabus from that one sentence. He talks about using the body as a “sounding board,” and I extrapolated from that simple statement, and then this whole practice came to me that eventually became the syllabus.

It definitely works. I’m thinking particularly of the young college students who come to this place that’s very unusual for them, and I’m thinking of one student particularly who’s very talented and could do what I taught him, although he couldn’t do it all the time, and it was frustrating for him. But he knew it was a real thing, and if his experience is like mine and he keeps practicing, I’m sure it will be easier for him over time.

Chaitanya: Conscious Devotional Singing

Singing Technique. Learn to expand the area of the floating ribs, and be aware of how the diaphragm connects to this area, and how a flow of energy starts there and creates power in the voice. Certain exercises will help you make this connection and learn to move in and out fluidly through the different registers of the voice.

Breathing. Most singers go unconscious when they breathe. In this particular style of singing, you learn that it’s when you breathe that you need to be the most conscious. If you can develop the habit of using conscious breath, all the other aspects of singing will become easier.

Connecting. Once you can make a habit of conscious breathing, you can start learning to connect to a greater awareness that gives direction, power, devotion, and humility to the voice.

Conscious Devotional Singing. It then becomes a matter of practicing and enjoying your practice, which changes the quality of your voice. You gradually begin to “Self-Realize the Divine Voice” as yours and unique only to you.

Performing. Finally, if you wish to perform with your voice, you can work to overcome nervousness and stage fright, which this style of singing will help you naturally transcend. Conscious Devotional Singing is (a) opening to the breath (inspiration), (b) directing your will power with conviction inwardly upon a phrase, which then (c) creates an experience of consciousness that you can (d) direct outwardly to touch people.

Further Steps

The purpose of Swamiji’s music is to serve!

How does one do that? How can we learn to serve through singing Ananda’s music?

By asking, asking, asking, and asking to serve before one sings!

When you are able to do this correctly, the energy of the Divine Mother comes from the back, supports and shapes your instrument, then moves outward to express Her qualities and touch the people in front of your instrument as She chooses.

This is done through the in-breath, where Divine Mother will enter as prana, giving power, direction, devotion, and humility to your voice.

Through practice and experience, the instrument then begins to feel love (Divine Mother) entering on the in-breath, and Her love moving out on the out-breath, as you observe it (without judgment or thinking) to touch the people in front of you. You feel Her loving the audience.

Anyone can do this, no matter what your voice is like. Bharat is a glorious example of this!!! His instrument may not be able to sing in tune, but spiritually he is very much in tune with this practice. He is a great example for all the Ananda singers. When I sit near him at Sunday service, I am inspired by his devotion, because I’ve learned to look past his instrument and feel the Divine Mother expressing devotion through him.

The lesson is that if you say you cannot do this style of singing because your instrument gets in the way, it simply is not true. Your voice can be transcended if you truly want to – and through transcending everything will improve, including the instrument, and especially the soul’s expression.

She is the greatest teacher!