The Sacred Art of Singing

by David Eby
July 6, 2009

David is music director of Ananda worldwide. An accomplished cellist (he played with the Portland Symphony), he lives at Ananda Village, where he has dedicated his life to sharing Swami Kriyananda’s inspired music. This article originally appeared on the Ananda Village website.

David rehearses before a concert at Ananda Sangha, Palo Alto, California. (Click to enlarge.)
David rehearses before a concert at Ananda Sangha, Palo Alto, California. (Click to enlarge.)

What is it that truly happens when we sing? Are we merely creating waves of sound, or is there a deeper, metaphysical aspect that we can explore? For myself, I’m beginning to realize that every time my bow touches the cello, or a note comes out of my throat, I have the opportunity to witness the birth of an energetic field alive in every phrase, flowing outward to be shared with others.

What is this energetic field? It begins with the vibration of vocal chords or instrument. These grosser vibrations can easily be felt: by simply humming, you can tangibly feel these vibrations resonating in your head and chest. Now imagine that you could see these vibrations radiating all around you, shimmering in the air. Once you become more aware of these vibrations, imagine now that you could sense subtler vibrations infused within: those of thought, feeling, consciousness, and inspiration.

Just as the vibrations of water as waves can carry many things to earthly shores, the vibrations of our voices carry an incredible array of consciousness and energy to the ears of whoever is listening. On an obvious level our voices can carry emotions, easily betraying what we really feel. On a more subtle level, we have the ability to consciously transmit vibrations of peace, joy, love, calmness, and power as we counsel and teach. On an even subtler level, we can tune into and transmit vibrations that are more easily felt than described, similar to deep meditative experiences.

Each song that we sing has a unique seed of inspiration, lying dormant within its depths. Our greatest responsibility is to intuitively feel and attune ourselves with that inspiration and allow it to germinate in our own consciousness, and finally to bring it into full manifestation through our voices. We, ourselves, are not the ones who create the energy of the song, but are the vessels, the fertile ground through which it can come to life.

At Ananda Village there is a booming permaculture movement, in which developing the soil is a top priority. When we look at the soil of our own consciousness, what do we find? Is it a fertile ground filled with nurturing elements of calmness, joy, and love, or does it have the infectious weeds of contractive thoughts and energy?

We are all traveling directionally on this spiritual path, and wherever we are, we can still cultivate ourselves to the best of our ability as we prepare to sing to others. Granted, many divinely inspired songs are like plants that can flourish even in the worst of environments, which gives them great power to change negative consciousness. However, our role as performers is to give them the best possible soil in which they can blossom into their highest potential.

This, then, is our sacred responsibility: to bring to life and transmit higher vibrations of energy, inspiration, and consciousness through our singing. The more we become aware of what is happening on this deeper level, the more awe and reverence it can inspire within ourselves, which in turn can fertilize our own soil of musical manifestation with the openness of humility.

So what is the next step for us, individually as singers, and cumulatively as a choir?

When recently asked how we can make our singing more beautiful, Swamiji replied:

“If each person makes this music their sadhana, and if the music comes through their sincere devotion to God, that will make it more beautiful.”

To make singing a true sadhana, we must see it not only as a physical and mental discipline, but also as an act of devotion and attunement to God. Just as we calm the body and mind as we sit to meditate, we should sing from a place of deep centeredness, in which we can be fully conscious, not only of the sound we are making, but also of the energy that we are creating.

In Song of the Nightingale, Swami Kriyananda sings “without silence, what is song?” The stillness of meditation creates a blank canvas upon which the energy of the song can be truly appreciated. I remember a music workshop given at Ananda years ago, where I could feel each of the songs awakening a different subtle energy in my spine. Each feeling was unique, indescribable by words alone. I knew at that moment the depths from which music springs.

Try this: meditate for a minute, and then choose a song to sing. Before singing, listen in your heart for the energy that the song wants to project. As you sing just the first phrase, be conscious that you are creating an energy, and not just sound. Try to keep your concentration centered on that energy, but also be aware of your own singing. Stop after just the first phrase, and feel. Sing it again, just that same small phrase, and see if you can deepen your awareness of what is happening. Once again, feel for any change in your energy and consciousness. As you sing it for the third time, try to sing from that energy: allow it to show you the best tone, timing, and emphasis to use. By this time you may feel yourself pulled upward into quite a blissful state!

Can this solve all of our singing challenges? Ah, if it were only that easy! However, when you do work on technical things, always maintain your awareness of that energy. In other words, don’t let your mind stray all the way into the technique: As you work on intonation, diction, openness and tone, always do so through the lenses of your deep centeredness.

The best way to develop this ability is to do lots of short phrases, taking time between each one to recenter and come back into deep awareness. The more you do it, the deeper you will go!

Each of us has the ability to feel at different levels, depending on many factors. The important thing to remember is that you need to work with whatever tiny seed you might have.

Another image you can use is a double exposed picture or video of yourself: the underlying image is you in deep meditation, over which the act of singing is superimposed. Try to infuse your singing with the great centeredness, calmness, and receptivity of meditation. During every pause, return your body, energy, and consciousness to that deep state as completely as possible.

One of the wonderful aspects of this practice is that it leads to greater receptivity. As we become more centered and aware as we sing, we can relax out of our own egos and begin to open ourselves more and more to our capacity to feel devotion.

How then, can we sing with more sincere devotion to God? By expanding out of our egos and residing ever more completely in our hearts with full awareness. When we are performing, there are always two directions for us to go: back toward the ego or upward into our role as channels of Divine Inspiration. Even the most seasoned of performers is tempted by this slide back into the ego, for it is a constant, omnipresent pull and temptation, solidified by many years of habit. It is amazing to me how this force can lurk about, even in the most uplifted of environments and performances!

Not many realize how difficult it is to keep constant concentration on channeling inspiration and energy. Every note we sing presents an opportunity for us to say “Wow! Look what I can do!” With so many technical aspects to focus on (diction, intonation, tone, stage presence, ensemble…) this challenge makes singing truly a sacred art, as it requires all our concentration, all our focus, all our energy and awareness for every note that we sing.

There is a great misconception of what it means to be a “master singer” – one who makes it all look easy. As we do things over and over again, like tying our shoes, we can do so without focusing all of our attention on it. This can, unfortunately, lead people to think that as musical skills are developed and become easier to accomplish, singing takes less energy and concentration. I’ve seen some who think “Well, I don’t want to look like a complete beginner, so I’m just going to pretend it’s easy for me, too (and not give it my full awareness)!”

The exact opposite is true: the better the performer, the greater their awareness, concentration, and energy output will be. If you want to develop into your highest potential, you must apply all of the above to every note that you sing. There simply is no other way. Does this mean that it becomes a strain? Of course not — just as a deep meditation requires all of those skills, we can do so from a very relaxed, centered point of view.

If you have ever had a voice lesson, you may be familiar with the floundering feeling that can come when you’re given too many instructions at once. With so many things demanding your attention, you may inwardly plead, as I have on many occasions, “Will somebody please tell me what I should concentrate on?” The answer for us is always clear: the energy of the song. This is our lifeline that can always take us back to the true purpose of why we sing: to be channels of Divine Energy.

For us all, beginners and veterans alike, I strongly urge you to return again and again to the unique seed of inspiration for each song. What happens when we do? Try it right now! You will feel yourself opening more in your heart to receptivity, to a humbling sense of awe and wonder at the presence of the Divine in our souls. This is our eternal point of origin, without which we would simply be “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

It is written in the scriptures that every breath is an opportunity for new life. As singers, every note that we sing is an opportunity to re-attune ourselves to the divine energy and inspiration flowing through us. When we begin to sing with full awareness, not only does the singing become more beautiful, but the more beautiful we ourselves become.