I’ve always found it intriguing that the beginning of all things is expressed so often in terms of sound. Science talks about the big bang. In the beginning, according to the Bible, was the word. For Hindus the moment of creation is signified by the sacred Om.
Human creativity and voice certainly have close links in my experience. I’ve written about it often here, usually in a metaphorical sense, using the word voice to stand for potential, identity and purpose.
But I’m reminded now of a time, some years ago, when I felt very uncertain of my own direction. This coincided with an equal certainty that I needed to work on my physical voice. Without at that point having figured out how, I sensed that the two things were connected. So I took singing lessons for about eighteen months. I also went to Devon to learn overtone chanting; at least that was the pretext given for a gathering of 100 people on a ramshackle estate in a lost valley where all manner of craziness ensued over the course of a week – but that’s another story.
Overtoning involves shaping the mouth to form a sound in such a way that the natural harmonics are released. It’s not unlike the effect of plucking a guitar with one finger stopping a string so lightly that only the higher frequencies of the note can be heard, although with overtoning the lower frequencies also remain present so one is in effect making two sounds simultaneously. The sound of a large group of people chanting together is like the droning of an enormous hive of bees over which the overtones chime out like the ringing of celestial spheres. It’s ethereal and extraordinary and after a while one’s whole skeleton begins to vibrate like a tuning fork.
Overtoning is generally believed to have originated in Mongolia where it’s still most widely practised. In Tibet it’s used by monks for meditation, and that’s the context in which we were taught it in Devon. Today I combine it with another technique which involves sounding vowels on a rising scale, one note short of an octave. Each sound – aw, ooh, oh, ah, I, ee, ay – corresponds to one of the chakras or energy centres, which in turn correspond to the sequence of rainbow colours, so there’s something there for the mind’s eye as well as the ear.
New Age nonsense? Only in as much as any form of meditation is. I find it quite impossible to silence my mind in a vacuum. Making sounds, especially the drone of overtoning, gives me something to focus on without engaging my thoughts (though I tend to wait till the house is empty). And it is beneficial. Twenty minutes in the morning before starting work invariably shifts my mood enough to dissipate the vague anxieties attendant on the day ahead and allows me to focus fully on whatever the first task happens to be.
I don’t do it every day, and I go through spells of not doing it at all. But whenever I do, it feels good and I’m fairly certain it helps me bring more energy and presence to whatever I’m doing. It’s as if the chant creates an actual bridge between my literal and metaphorical voices. It joins me up and allows me to give my best to my work, while also enjoying it the most.
As if in confirmation of which, I spotted this in a newsletter that arrived in my inbox this morning: ‘The only way to find your voice is to use it. It’s hardwired, built into you. Talk about the things you love. Your voice will follow.’ Sound advice, I should say.