I’ve always been musical, but I think it was almost the same day I realized I was a singer that I realized I was a harmonizer, not only musically, as it turns out, but in life. Over time, I’ve observed how, as my relationship with myself and the world evolved, so did my relationship with singing harmony. For some years, I have felt the pressure of a multi-layered insight about harmony building to deliver itself into my consciousness. It’s continued to drop clues and crumbs; and the messenger knocks loudest when I sing in a sacred setting, but the pressure is always there, when I join my voice to another’s.
Astrological influences aside, what brought me to harmonizing? Well, of course there’s the tender youth’s tale of a divorce-doomed household, tense with aversion to conflict. But perhaps equally significantly, I’ve always had a low voice, and could not, even in childhood, pleasurably join Olivia Newton-John, Judy Collins or Linda Ronstadt in their native registers. Thus was I encouraged, in my irrepressible singing-along, to default to a lower euphonic note. However, while the ideal might have been Joan Baez, I was quite content with Barry Manilow and the Beatles growing up. Who better to teach a kid harmony than Paul, John and George?
I also harmonized because I learned early that I could; it came naturally. It exercised an understanding of how music worked, at an age when learning how it all works (and how to work within it all) is a main focus. That sort of instinctual harmonizing reinforces impulses both to be distinct and to belong– thus to augment the Whole.
Even when I had no live singing partners, I found that harmonizing with my favorite artists, in my favorite songs, put me in the best company. Because I was singing harmony, my voice didn’t disappear; I became equal with those I admired, who, thanks to the power of remove and projection, felt more my equals than more accessible associates. And there was heart-stirring satisfaction in being a richening part of songs that most moved me.
Years along, though, I noticed how the harmonizing impulse had slipped into a habit, almost ossified into a sort of identity. Partly because I was singing far less with live people, more with recordings, it had lost some of its creative freshness, its sacred fellowship, and, even when singing with others, it began to smack of egoic quest, obligation to find the right note –or hold any note– distinct from unison.
Then another yearning emerged; I touched my desire to merge, to not keep my self (voice) distinct. I was weary of feeling apart and wanted again to feel a part of. Harmonizing, though, as an act, could still be transcendent and soothing, was, as a goal, still “once removed” from the origin; and it had become a subtle expression of existential anxiety. It reinforced separateness, contained an imperative to be recognized and deemed valuable, to remember where one fit in within the assumption that one did not. Something once effortless had become effortful and clanged with a stale dissonance, false and tired.
Again, this became clearest when singing in sacred settings. Many years ago, when I first began frequenting an Ashram in which Aarati (a Hindu liturgy) is sung twice a day, the key in which it was played obliged me to find harmonies, so that I would not be singing too loud or bouncing up and down an octave. As my relationship to harmony, to singing in general, and to all of life evolved over the years, I became unsettled with these default harmonies, which had nearly become my melody. I found a certain relief when I exercised the discipline and presence to override those harmonies and sing the melody. There was a whisper of relaxing back into a greater lap whose support I’d forgotten.
It was not just my own irritation I felt in the temple. I could clearly sense the drummer–we’ll call him Paul– was aware of the energetics of my singing and inner-tensions. And, like me, he was tolerating them less well. At one point, he said that it felt to him like I was fighting with the Aarati. At the time, I responded more generally that, increasingly, everything felt like a struggle in this body. Yet, I have very much appreciated how his words helped illuminate realizations that I’d been groping for through my pain at the time.
And very recently, I appreciated Paul’s position anew, when I attended a Kirtan at a local church. I enjoyed just singing with other voices that night, giving expression to stuck and agitated energies; and I noticed the satisfaction of singing in harmony, augmenting the whole. But I also observed a
distaste for my sloppiness, for the restlessness evinced in taking alternate harmonies with each repeated line. And I began to curtail these tired explorations. I would instead settle into a single harmonic line as my melody, or would choose to surrender altogether into the melody line, as the deepest central channel of praise.
Mere minutes following, another fellow began singing harmonies–in untempered, full bellow –not far behind us. And I noted tension and judgment building, within me and in the room, as his careening vocal stylings, wandering harmonies and apparent obliviousness to what the rest of the group was singing bombarded the sense of unity in which others were seeking to participate and find nourishment.
Obviously– and the metaphor for life continues here– there is a balance found in singing with others: among a) respecting the group endeavor and the objective of some ideal established in consensus; b) in fully expressing one’s own truth and passion; and c) in remaining in humble connection with the source of both, that intimate communication from human heart to Divine Ear: a vibratory Gnosis.
Sacred settings are the clearest invitations to set the ego aside. The Music of the Spheres is refined, the Elohim are subtle and feed on a pure frequency of Love, delivered in living prayer of gratitude and humility. Ego’s cacophony of self-concern trounces that like a rhino in a fern garden.
Hunger for recognition, validation or dominion is a poignant but noisy prayer for wholeness in one who seeks outside him what he has forgotten is his very essence, and which must be recognized in the inner silence. That which is sought externally can only ever be mirrored there.
Tom Kenyon describes the Gandharva, a host of beings who exist simply to “sing” to and for the Divine. Their song is a perpetual Hosanna. Kenyon further describes the discoveries of pianist Manfred Clynes, who found correlations between a precise and measurable “pressure” (expressed musically or otherwise) and a resulting emotional response. So, sentient, vibratory beings, human or not, respond to and can tune their instruments to precise and evocative frequencies (e.g., unconditional love, or unity). As humans, when we sing resting into the sweet-spot of this ineffable knowing, of tender and celebratory gratitude, there is an illuminating intimacy; a profound, loving resonance; a nesting of self within Self; a connection with the source of the beauty that is experiencing its own beauty through this connection; we begin to experience Union, or at least Return.
And it is in this intimate energy of connection that our intention and attention must rest, even as we join with other voices. The practice becomes to sing from that anchored heart connection, without becoming overly concerned with external correctness (pitch, meter, etc.) or group dynamic. A balance is perpetually sought, which requires both a sense of freedom and discipline. It is magnetic.
For me, my life’s isolation can tempt me to compensate when there is opportunity to tap group energy, to cut loose and sing, to bathe in the greater Voice. Yet, as with anything in life, if I sacrifice the vertical connection (metaphorically speaking) by losing myself too much in the “horizontal,” I collapse when again alone until I “restore” alignment in the “vertical.” That connection is never really lost, of course –the Divine is in everything– but few of us relate to the horizontal (human) world as purely as we can to the vertical; to the degree that we still experience ourselves and others as less than Divine and whole, these worldly relationships can be experienced as tuning into far weaker signals, or sucking on false teats.
So, what we find is that, every foray into the horizontal is best prefaced by a conscious prayer of alignment with the vertical (or immanent). (Again, these terms are metaphorical; the axes form a cross, and we are the intersection.) We tune our instrument to the tone of Divine resonance before we take the “A “ of any mortal concert master. From that prayer of dedication, we are guided to every note we take in the earthly choir.