Singing Bowls: A Wordless Call
This article by Diana Macalintal first appeared in Simple Gifts, Vol. 7, No. 1, February-March 2001.
So much of the Western culture is based on words and speech, and sometimes we saturate our liturgies with words thinking that verbal explanation and direction are more effective than sound, color, and gesture. Yet imagine these two scenarios. Both take place at a Sunday morning Mass in Lent. Both Masses are packed, many are children. People are gathering in the church, many greet each other catching up on the week’s events, some spend time in quiet prayer, parents settle into the pews with their children, the choir finishes up the last moments of rehearsal. The cantor begins to rehearse the psalm with the assembly, half of whom are still trying to find a seat. Most aren’t paying much attention to the rehearsal. From all this activity, the Mass must begin.
Now, in one scenario, the cantor instructs the assembly to stand, repeating the instruction a few times before the whole assembly hears the direction. People flip through the hymnal searching for the opening song. The music begins, the singing is weak, the procession is hurried, and hearts and minds have not yet begun to gather.
In the second scenario, the cantor steps away from the mic and stands quietly for a full minute. Then she moves slowly but confidently to the front of the assembly where all can see her. She is joined by another music minister who stands next to her holding a small golden bowl. They wait again there, slowly making eye contact with as many people in the assembly as they can. Then without a word, they both raise their arms in a giant sweep beginning from the side of their legs and slightly forward to just above their shoulders, all the while maintaining eye contact and a gentle smile. The assembly stands. The cantor lowers her arms while the music minister raises the golden bowl higher for the whole assembly to see. In his other hand he holds a short wooden stick. After another thirty seconds of silence, he brings the stick to rest at the side of the bowl in preparation to strike it. He waits another thirty seconds before he strikes the bowl. A pure clean piercing bell tone sounds throughout the room. After a few heart beats, he strikes it again and finally a third time. He slowly lowers the stick as he lets the bowl resonate and the sound drift away. When the tone is almost inaudible, the cantor begins a cappella, “Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom….” The assembly easily picks up the song on the second phrase since it has been their lenten gathering song for all the Sundays of Lent for the last couple years. The choir adds harmonies while a Celtic drum gives a steady downbeat. Every other refrain the golden bowl is struck again on the first down beat, offering its own unique voice to the choir.
In both scenarios, the assembly was called to worship, but in which did the assembly feel gathered together? While the first relied on verbal direction and visual cues from the hymnal to gather the assembly, the second used silence, sound, gesture, eye contact, and memory to unite people’s hearts and minds.
The second also used an instrument called a “singing bowl”, traditionally employed in Buddhist prayer and healing services. Singing bowls come in a variety of sizes, from as small as two to three inches in diameter to large flowerpot sizes. In Tibetan tradition, they are usually made of seven different metals corresponding to the heavenly bodies: gold for the Sun, silver for the Moon, mercury for the planet Mercury, copper for Venus, iron for Mars, tin for Jupiter, and lead for Saturn. The sounds they make are used to purify spaces (the larger ones are even used to purify whole villages), to heal the body, and to calm and center a person for meditation.
There are two ways to play a singing bowl. In both methods, the bowl must be free from anything that would unnecessarily dampen its vibration. So the bowl would rest in the palm of your hand or on a small cushion. If in your palm, do not cup the bowl, but hold your palm flat, or use just your fingertips to balance the bowl.
In the first method of playing, the bowl is struck on its side with a wooden stick. The tone produced is clear and piercing. But every bowl will have its own unique sound, based on size, shape, and quality. Also, the type of stick you use will affect the sound. Some sticks are wrapped in leather or felt, producing a softer attack. Finally, the tone will change dramatically depending on the force used and the location on the bowl of the strike, for example on the rim or just below the rim.
In the second method of playing a singing bowl, the wooden stick is rub around the rim of the bowl, in the same way a person would rub the rim of a wineglass. For this method, holding the bowl on the tips of your fingers may work best. Rub the stick around the rim of the bowl, keeping the stick slightly angled inward, and use a steady, even pressure toward the center of the bowl. It will take more pressure than you expect to get the bowl singing. As you do this you will feel the bowl begin to vibrate and the sound will start to come out. If the bowl begins to “chatter”, decrease the rate of the movement while keeping the pressure constant. The slower the pace, the louder the tone. If you have trouble getting the vibration started, gently tap the bowl with the stick, then begin to rub the stick on the rim of the bowl. This second method produces a deeper tone than striking the bowl. It also can accentuate the harmonics of your bowl, so that you may hear several pitches. Because of the deeper tone, it may be quieter and may need a microphone to fill an entire church.
Many communities have begun to use these instruments to start their Masses and other liturgies. The unique tone centers and calms the assembly and focuses their attention on the ritual. However, as we saw in the opening scenarios, other “non-verbal” elements can help to make the use of a singing bowl more effective.
Look at how you gather your assemblies. How do you give instructions? Do you say, “please stand” when a solid gesture would be enough? Do you creatively use percussion instruments, such as bells, gongs, singing bowls, and hand drums? Do you remember to poise yourself confidently, using eye contact and large strong movements to communicate? Do you rely too much on printed text and not enough on repetition, mantras, and ostinato chants learned from memory? Let’s take a non-verbal cue from other cultures and learn to speak without words.
Click here for some tips on purchasing a singing bowl.