A group of people stand quietly. Together, they breathe deeply and begin repeating certain phrases, their voices blending until, in unison, they return to a state of quiet rest. This could describe either a group meditating or a chorus singing—the two practices have more in common than one might expect.
Plainchant, the root of Western music, and the use of mantras in meditation, are so similar that the definitions of chorus and mantra are nearly identical, describing a practice of repetitive utterance.
The difference between the two is in the intent. With meditation, the intent is to free the mind and cultivate a state of equanimity in order to be more present to what is happening. With choral singing, the intent is to come together with others to create something beautiful for the purpose of spiritual and/or artistic expression. Though the intentions are different, they are certainly complementary, which is why many singers who practice meditation find that it supports and enhances their choral music experience.
Vance George, former conductor of the San Francisco Symphony Chorus, has practiced meditation for several years. He integrated elements of his practice into both rehearsals and performances and says such simple things as having the singers close their eyes and breathe for a few moments (sometimes done slumping forward in their chairs) helps people to let go of where they've just been. Especially, he says, the "type A personalities." Other times he finds it useful to take a break like this if the rehearsal seems to be getting tense or difficult. He is even known to invite his audience to participate in a meditation though, he says, "I don't tell them they're meditating."
The purpose of meditation, however, is not to be a "good meditator," but rather to be more fully present in one's own life.
Meditation can seem a revolutionary act, separate from daily lives in which we are so often outwardly focused. The purpose of meditation, however, is not to be a "good meditator," but rather to be more fully present in one's own life. A group meditation at a chorus rehearsal is an invitation to the singer to tune in to him or herself, apart from the group for a few moments.
What is known as vipassana, or insight meditation, has been practiced in Asia for more than 2,500 years. Over the course of the last century, Westerners who studied and practiced abroad returned to start meditation centers in the U.S. and Europe. The practice of insight meditation begins by focusing attention on the breath. The purpose of this is to see past the mind's conditioning and live more fully in the present moment.
Beyond this simple practice, there are many Buddhist teachings (collectively called the Dharma) that help to support more mindful living. These include the precept of non-harming, among others. While Buddhism has a long tradition and many teachings, central to these teachings is the idea that freedom is attained through one's own practice.
The Buddha (literally "the Enlightened One"), who was born as Siddhattha Gotama in northern India in 563 B.C., asked that nothing he taught be taken on faith, but rather that each person discover the nature of things for him or herself. Through the practice of meditation, your own mind and conditioning are revealed and you begin to see a deeper level of truth, including your true nature beyond an ordinary sense of identity such as teacher, mother, singer, etc.
Here are some basic instructions for insight meditation practice: Sit comfortably, spine long, with eyes closed. Hands should be resting in your lap or on your thighs so there is no stress on the neck. Begin to observe your breath going in and out. You can silently note, "in, out" or "inhaling, exhaling." The awareness can be either on the abdomen rising and falling or on the nostrils where the breath comes in.
As thoughts or feelings occur to you (and they will!), simply notice them and return attention to your breath. You might also note them silently: "thinking," or "planning." Repeatedly returning attention to your breath is the practice. Each moment you notice your thoughts wandering and return attention to your breath is a moment of awakening.
Meditation for Choruses
There are several ways to apply meditation techniques in a chorus rehearsal or performance setting.
Choose A Time
For the same reasons it is often best to meditate at the beginning of the day, meditating at the beginning of a rehearsal is optimal for allowing transition and focusing energy, though it can also be useful as a break during a long rehearsal. Before beginning the meditation, some physical movement can be helpful. Popular stretches include a few head rolls, shoulder rolls, stretching the arms overhead one at a time to expand the ribcage, etc.
Choose A Leader
Consider inviting someone other than your conductor to lead a group meditation. If there is an experienced yoga practitioner among your singers, perhaps he or she can lead the stretches. If there is an experienced meditator (sometimes called a yogi), perhaps he or she can lead the meditation. If your conductor is comfortable in this role, then he or she would be a natural leader in these practices.
Vipassana for Choristers
Have the choristers sit as described above. Let them know about how long you will meditate (five minutes or so is usually adequate). As they begin, offer simple instructions about how to follow the breath and return their attention to the breath if the mind wanders. Then fall silent.
At some point during the five minutes, speak again and remind them that if their attention has wandered, to bring it back to the breath. At the end of the allotted time, you can end the meditation with the following mantra practice, or by simply ringing a small bell.
Mantra practice is a meditation practice that uses the power of sound to access certain energies in the universe. The derivation of the word "mantra" has two parts. The first syllable, "man," means mind; the second syllable, "tra," means to protect or to free from. As with silent practice, mantra practice is intended to free us from a cluttered, unfocused, more habituated mind.
For your group mantra practice, choose what is called a "seed syllable" such as "ah" or "om." Though many extended mantras exist ("om mani padme hum" being perhaps the best known), teacher and author Jack Kornfield describes the syllable "ah" as a distillation of all the teachings into one sound. When he offers this meditation, he reminds his students that this is the first sound you make when you are born and the last sound you make when you die. Lead the group in nine repetitions of the chosen sound. After the first three, invite them to add harmony.
The Sweep: A Way To Body Awareness
As an alternative to the vipassana practice, consider leading the chorus in a guided meditation sometimes called "sweeping." Once they are quietly seated with eyes closed, instead of having them focus on the breath, invite them to bring their attention to the body, one part at a time.
For example, ask them to bring their awareness to their feet, how the feet feel touching their socks or the floor. Then, slowly, one by one, ask them to move their attention to their lower legs, knees, thighs, pelvis, abdomen, ribcage, shoulders, arms, throat and neck, chin and jaw, face and head. Consider ending this guided meditation with a single "om."
Metta: Loving Kindness Practice
Lastly, the practice of loving kindness, or in the Pali language, metta, is what is called a concentration practice. With the repetition of certain phrases, the attention is focused on one's fundamental wish to be happy. Over the course of the meditation, that wish is extended to others.
For this practice, the body awareness should be brought to the heart center in the middle of the chest. Traditionally, the wish to be happy begins with one's self, then moves to a person for whom you feel great love and appreciation (known as a benefactor), then to a good friend, then to someone about whom you feel neutral, then to a person with whom you have some difficulty, then to all beings. This is an exercise that can be used in rehearsal or performance.
When Vance George used this practice at the San Francisco Symphony Chorus holiday concerts, first he invited audience members to think to themselves, "Be well, be happy, be safe, live with ease." Then he invited them to think of the person nearest to them and silently repeat, "May they be well, may they be safe, may they be happy, may they live with ease."
This process was repeated with the person to the right, to the left, in front, in back, to everyone in the hall, the city, the state, the country, the world, and the cosmos. The purpose of this practice is not to force feelings of goodwill, but rather to identify with one's own wish to be happy, and to realize that all beings, whether we like or agree with them or not, share that wish.
Whether you call these practices meditation, yoga, chanting, centering, warming up, or getting quiet, any exercise you bring to your chorus that helps them to pay closer attention, be more present, be more aware of the breath, be more peaceful and even happier, is a gift to the individual singer, to the chorus, and to your audience.
Happy singing, happy meditating.
This article is adapted from the The Voice, Summer 2006.