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Jimmi Hendrix said “Music is my religion.” I believe it is mine as well.

Center of Nature Sanctuary, Findhorn

Altar at Findhorn

I was raised up in the Church of the Nazarene, a fundamentalist Christian denomination. We were at church every Sunday morning for Sunday school and worship, Sunday night for Bible study, Wednesday night for Prayer Meeting and Saturday night for, depending on my age, Pioneer Girls, Jet Cadets for Jesus or Youth for Christ. The BEST part of the church calendar for me were Sunday nights after Bible study when we would have an ‘afterglow’ – that’s when we would sit around, eat tiny sandwiches with the crusts cut off, and sing the old songs I still love to this day. When the Roll is Called up Yonder, Shall we Gather at the River, Blessed Assurance, Sweet Hour of Prayer . . .

When I sang, “I’ve got the Joy . . . “ I FELT IT! And when I sang, “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus sweetest name I Know, fills my every longing, keeps me singing as I go.” I just KNEW it was true because how else could the song infuse me with such feelings of love?

But then one day, I don’t know why, I decided to do a little test – and substituted “Jimmy” for ‘Jesus.’ To my surprise, I felt equally as good singing “Jimmy” as “Jesus” – – – – – – which, even at the age of 15, made me think the radical thought that perhaps it was the SONG ITSELF held the power to move me. Which left me with a lot of theological questions.

Many years later I discovered that the Hasidic Jews also believe it is the song itself that is the surest path towards achieving communion with the Divine —  the words are completely irrelevant. As a result they have composed a large body of songs called ‘niggun’ that use nonsense syllables, no words. [Think “If I were a Rich Man ya ga diddle ya ga diddle diddle da” as an example.]

I left the church at 16, breaking my mother’s heart, and became a SEEKER, sampling various religious traditions for over 30 years. Eventually, I began to see a pattern for myself — the part of each spiritual path that uplifted me and made me feel connected to ‘the Divine’ (by whatever name was used) – was the SINGING.

In 1998 I was at the Findhorn Community in Scotland, and every morning they offered Taize singing –a form of Christian worship that alternates singing and praying, with a few short scripture readings. No sermons! No homilies! I was hooked.

I took Taize CDs and songbooks back home with me to the US. I lit candles and draped scarves over a home altar. I added fresh flowers and beautiful stones. I sang along to the CDs. I observed silence between songs. The music was still beautiful, but it didn’t move me as it had at Findhorn. It just wasn’t the same. I had inadvertently stumbled upon the truth that singing is more potent when done in community with others.

I decided to create a spiritual practice that would be interfaith (including Christian Taize songs, but not limited to them) and have lots and lots of singing. So in 2004 I began offering Singing Meditation at my UU church in Wisconsin. It had only two ‘ingredients’ a) repetitive singing or chanting of songs and b) silence.

I was delighted to find that other people enjoyed these sessions of song and silence – shared in community – as much as I did!!

Ella Fitzgerald famously said, “The only thing better than singing – is more singing” and I couldn’t agree more.

And that is the story, in a nutshell, of how I started Singing Meditation, Ruthie

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You have probably heard about the book “Imperfect Harmony: Finding Happiness Singing With Others” by Stacy Horn just out July 2013. The author has been interviewed on NPR — so there has been lots of ‘buzz’ about the book. The book includes information about the physical benefits of singing and the emotional/spiritual components of singing in community — so of course I had to read it!

In a nutshell the book is about one woman’s experience with singing in a serious (albeit unpaid) choir once a week in New York City for over 20 years. I consider hers a ‘serious’ choir in that they sing major classical pieces such as A German Requiem by Johannes Brahms and Missa Solemnis by Beethoven. Horn herself writes that the director of their choir “invariably picks pieces that are described as so challenging that they are either rarely performed or attempted only by the most professional choirs.” That’s about as serious as it gets!

Reading this book reminded me of having lunch with a friend. You are talking about one thing — and then the conversation jump shifts to another topic — before one or the other of you picks up the threads of the original conversation again. Horn references Daniel Levitin’s book (the oxytocin hormone is released during group singing and ‘enhances feelings of trust and bonding’) as well as other scientific studies proving that the act of singing has a more pronounced positive effect on the singer than the passive listener in the audience. She also tells us about the bat she found in her apartment, the half-dead pigeon she rescued on the street, her failed romance, the Chatham Street Chapel Riot in 1834, how a 19th century music critic felt about all female choirs (“A female chorus cannot be a success, and if you should form one of angels from heaven, with Saint Cecilia as conductress, I would say the same.”) and some juicy tidbits about composer Ralph Vaughan Williams’ personal life.

I particularly enjoyed her observations about singing in harmony. She had been a first soprano all her life until she is switched (she uses the word “downgraded”) to the second soprano section involuntarily. Initially she tells us she is too devastated to even cry. But once she hits her first correct second soprano note she finds herself ” . . . feeling harmony. Not just singing it, but physically feeling it. It was a rush. You don’t experience this when you’re singing the melody.”)

After singing in a choir that sang in four to eight parts for over two decades it isn’t until SHE herself is singing a ‘harmony part’ that she falls in love with harmony. She wrote: “It was similar to falling in love for the first time.” and “. . . this intense visceral sensation of literally resonating in harmony with the people around me.”

I’ve spent most of MY choir time singing the alto line. I didn’t get ‘promoted’ to soprano until I was in my 50s. So the delicious sensation of singing in harmony is something I have loved for a long time and deliberately included in Singing Meditation.

Despite her rapture at singing in harmony, Horn does not sugarcoat what life is like IN the chorus. One singer snipes at another for sitting in ‘his’ place (even though the places are unassigned). She agonizes over the quality of her voice, “In truth, I don’t have a great voice. Those formidable runs we typically perform are especially demanding for me. But I practice night after night in order to keep up.” She is often anxious about rehearsals and when she makes a mistake in rehearsal she makes a big show of marking the passage in her score so the others around her will know that she realizes her mistake and won’t think too badly of her.

She is honest about her lack of interest in the Christian theology underlying almost all of the classical music she sings. And she points out that while some singers might attribute their ecstatic feelings while singing to a religious belief,  her ecstatic feelings come strictly from the music itself. She quotes another soprano in her choir, Christina Davis, to sum up her perspective on this, ” I am an agnostic verging on an atheist, but find that sacred music is not antithetical to my beliefs in the way that sitting through a church service is. I’ve come to the conclusion that music alone (and not the liturgy) represents the essence of that I would find palatable and comforting in religion. When I sing or listen to sacred music I feel a primary, essential proximity to my fellow-man . . .”

What I couldn’t help thinking as I read her book was this — here is a woman who loves to sing, who has tasted the sublime bliss of singing in harmony — but according to this book has only ever done so under the batons of  conductors who demand perfection from the choir in the nuance of every note. Would she enjoy a less stressful opportunity to sing in harmony and community? The kind of setting offered in Singing Meditation groups and song circles of various types? The hormones and endorphins would still be released and the energy between the singers (the ‘spiritual unworldly space’ described by one of her fellow choristers) would still be there — without the negative aspects, anxiety and angst over the quality of one’s voice. If she hasn’t already tried a less exacting environment for group singing I hope she will find one — and then report back on how it compares with her serious choir.

I hope Horn’s book is read by millions of people and that her persuasive arguments about the bliss and glory of choral singing inspire readers who haven’t been singing with groups to do so. Can you imagine how our whole society might change as a result?

It is my sincere wish that more people–  regardless of whether or not their third grade teachers told them they ‘couldn’t sing’ — will find the courage to test the choral waters. Humans have sung since the dawn of civilization. It  is our birthright! It is good for our health! Non-fattening! Burns no fossil fuels!

Sing! Just sing! Dip your toes into the river of harmony,  let yourself get caught up in the current of joy. Sing!

There will be a Singing Meditation session at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Wakefield, MA on Sunday May 12, 2013. Simple songs and rounds will be sung. Contact the minister, Rev. Maddie Sifantus, for more information. This session is open to the public!

Playing an instrument in a band is a relatively new endeavor for me. I had played third clarinet with the Eau Claire Community Band a few years ago and started playing with the Hendersonville Community Band this year. DSCN0021The way it works is this: you show up at the first rehearsal where they hand out the music. You frantically try to sightread the music as the whole band plays through the music.

Then you go home and practice. Alone. Now, with choral music you get to see all the parts all the time, and usually the piano accompaniment as well. If you play the piano you can easily play all the other parts while you practice your own part at home by yourself. You have a good idea how all the pieces fit together before you go back for group practice.

But with band music all you get is your one part. And when you play third clarinet you are doing a lot of background harmony and not much of the melody. So if you didn’t know how the song sounded before you started you aren’t going to know how it sounds after you are done practicing at home either.

But then the magic happens. You go to the next practice. And your little part that just goes ‘dum dum deedle deedle pause pause DAHahhhhhhh’ is transformed into a beautiful flowering of sound with percussion pounding away and the lead trumpeter wailing away and a section of trombones glissando-ing this way and that. Your puny little contribution is suddenly gathered up into the whole glorious sound and somehow your own heart swells with the music of the entire band and for the few minutes that the music lasts you transcend your worries about your reed and your tone and lose yourself in the sound.

Until the conductor drops his arms and starts pointing out the mistakes that the tuba section made. And our general lack of adherence to the dynamics of loud and soft written on the score. That brings the euphoria down with a crash!

But playing with the band reminds me, each rehearsal, of the synergy when we make music together in a community. In Singing Meditation there is no need to practice your parts at home and alone. The facilitator of the group will never stop and chastise the singers for mistakes. When we are singing in community in Singing Meditation there are no mistakes — just musical improvisations. So we never ‘crash and burn’ as you might playing in a band or orchestra.

Singing in community, as we do in Singing Meditation, lets us experience the ephemeral feeling of connecting with Spirit as we contribute our one voice to the harmonic whole. May Joy Fill Your Heart today!

Joy Singing

I facilitated Singing Meditation last month for the first time in two years.  With ‘fresh eyes’ and a completely new venue for me (North Carolina), it gave me a chance to re-assess everything about singing meditation. I’d like to share with you my thoughts.

1) I think the name should be changed. The word ‘meditation’ means so many things to people. Although I always explain both orally and in all written materials that the silent periods between songs can be used to just

Spiral staircase in Melk Abbey, Austria.

savor the sweetness of the song, or pray or meditate or contemplate — it
still remains the undeniable first impression that there will be ‘meditation’ involved. This is unfortunate in two ways — one because many people are turned off by meditation and will turn away from trying ‘singing meditation’ because of the meditation part, even though it is completely optional; and two because people who have serious meditation practices can be disappointed that the silent intervals are too short for them to sink deeply into meditation. I’m now thinking of calling it “Joy Singing” if I continue to offer it, since joy is the ultimate goal of this practice.

2) The social aspect — I have always stressed the importance of singing in community as opposed to just singing alone by yourself. It is obvious to me that there is an entirely different dynamic that arises when my voice is combined with the vibration of other voices who are right there in the same space with me, and I mean this in a more spiritual way than simply the fact that additional voices can result in harmony and/or polyphony. I revel in the ‘ephemeral sanctuary’ that is created when singing mindfully with others. But in the first six years I led singing meditation I made a deliberate choice to avoid having social activity immediately afterwards. I wanted people to have a chance to leave the singing meditation session holding their silence — or music — within their hearts. I was afraid these feelings might dissipate all too quickly in the banter of friends over muffins. But this time I was wondering — why not provide a social time to bond with the people you have just bonded with in a different way during the session? So my friend Nancy kindly baked muffins and most people stayed around to chat afterwards. The jury is still out on this one, and I’d be interested to hear thoughts from others on this topic.

3) The importance of ‘teaching’ a song first is something I remain convinced of. Attending the session last month were a graduate of Julliard, another who has played professionally with a symphony for 28 years — as well as two women who claimed they could not carry a tune in a bucket and did not read music. Playing the song through twice on the piano, and asking everyone to hold silence and NOT hum along with the piano during this time, levels the playing field and made it possible for the two who couldn’t read music to participate as fully as everyone else. This remains an aspect of Singing Meditation that I am committed to continuing.

4) Until last month the only instruments we had included in Singing Meditation were piano, percussion and very rarely the guitar. Since an accomplished cellist was part of our group I asked her to play a base line for us. This didn’t work out quite as I had planned, as it turned out to be a strong ‘pull’ to the novice singers and created confusion for them as to what they should be singing. There would be absolutely nothing wrong in people singing the melody line, or what the cello was playing, or improving a line of their own — but the feeling of ‘confusion’ while singing is not one that should be fostered in singing meditation. If I were to include an instrument again I’d have to think of a way to avoid this problem.

5) I did experience joy myself as I sang!!! I was curious to see whether I would or not, since my voice is still not fully restored, and as Facilitator one has several concerns in mind that sometimes overshadow the joy factor. I am delighted to say that JOY did fill my soul! Another good reason to contemplate a name change to “Joy Singing.”

I’d love to hear about your adventures and experimentation with Singing Meditation!

May joy fill your heart this day!

On Sunday, October 21 at 7:00 PM at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Wakefield, located at 326 Main Street, Reverend Maddie Sifantus, will lead a contemplative hour which will combine singing with periods of silence. Before the hour begins on the occasion of the Bicentennial of the Church, she will give a short talk about Singing Meditation. It is not about performance for an audience but rather the blending of voices in simple song and chant interspersed with silence. Songs will be eclectic and come from a number of spiritual paths including Unitarian Universalist, Jewish, Christian, Taize, earth based, and world sources. It is an interfaith practice that can lead to the inner core of wisdom Join in this spiritual practice which is suitable for beginners as well as experienced singers and/or meditators. This group is open to all. There is no charge but a suggested $5 donation to the church is welcome to defray expenses. For more information about Singing Meditation you may wish to read the book, Singing Meditation, by Ruth Rosauer and Liz Hill. For more information, call Rev. Maddie, at her home office at 508-358-7091, email her at msifantus@uuma.org or leave a message at the church office: 781-245-4632.
Maddie Sifantus has been the minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Wakefield since January 2009. In addition to her parish ministry, she has for many years been a community minister, most often using music to build community and with elder singers and audiences. She is the Founder and Director Emerita of the Golden Tones elders chorus which she directed for 20 years and under whose leadership the group became a Best Practices of the National Endowment for the Arts. She is the former Director of MUSE Inc. (Music Serving Elders). She is a founder of and continuing singer in TVS (The Vocal Section). She leads a Rise Up Singing group at the church on the third Friday of the month, with the next one scheduled for October 19 at 7:30 PM in the Social Hall of the church. She is former Music Director of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Reading. Rev. Sifantus has been leading meditation practice groups for many years.

Hello to the Unitarian Universalists interested in Singing Meditation who will be attending General Assembly in June 2012. If you would like to post notes to others similarly interested in the topic for a singing meditation session –and/or — to compare notes with each other, please feel free to use the Singing Meditation Facebook fan page or this blog for the purpose. — Ruthie