Notes On Tone Yoga

My passion for pure tone (which has led me to create what I call 'tone yoga'), began in earnest when I first came upon the writings of W.A. Mathieu, especially his Harmonic Experience. I subsequently contacted W.A., and he suggested I find an in-person singing teacher versed in the Hindustani tradtion. Shortly thereafter, I attended a two hour, participatory workshop on Hindustani singing that was offered at the Old Town School of Folk Music on the north side of Chicago. It was a lot of fun, and very valuable. I received a packet of materials detailing several aspects of the North Indian music tradition, we listened to some wondrous music. Best of all we sang.

The teacher, about my age, played a harmonium, which is like a small organ. He led us (a group of ten students, all beginners) through round after round of singing. We worked on the primary modes (or scales) of the music, using Sargam, which is the Hindustani version of what the West refers to as solfege. All the while, there was a drone machine that established a consistent sense of tonal home. There was drum machine, made to sound as a tabla. We also tapped out several primary rhythms (talas) that point towards the complex rhythmic cycles of the music. We even began to sing a short raga, and learned some common embellishments and pitch combinations that singers can use in their vocal improvisations. In actuality, we barely poked our head above water. If we would have, there still would have been a mountain range in front of us. Two hours in this music is barely a pebble on Mt Everest.

The Hindustani tradition is probably the most pitch-sensitive music in the world. As a Westerner who is educated in 20th C British-American pop music, American Blues and Jazz, and European classical, naturally I have to understand the limits of my own ability to grasp any other music tradition, and especially Hindustani vocal tradition. Every tradition has its deep nuance, impenetrable to outsiders. You can never leave where you come from, no matter how hard you try. Every tradition, though, also has its gifts to the world, which I believe are open to anyone who brings an open attitude, a desire for deep embrace, and the willingness to learn from square one.

So what can I learn from Hindustani music? That music is felt best through singing it. Through singing, I can learn to experience a substantial part of the aural/harmonic sensibility that informs the tradition. I can learn to feel why the music is several orders of complexity beyond the ability to notate it adequately. I can learn to hear better, and to sing with more sensitivity. I can learn to feel into the various pitches, the music between the pitches, the ways that the pitches can work together. I can learn some tendencies of when singers choose to improvise, when they choose to sing a repeated melody, and when they are somewhere in between.

When I study a tradition other than my own, what I'm looking for is simply a deeper immersion into the expression of Music, felt by all of humanity, framed through particular cultures into a tradition. I'm not looking to steal from the tradition. I'm not too proud to know that the tradition, in truth, is safe no matter what little me does. I am quite small in the face of a music tradition that goes back many, many centuries. My intention is to gain discreet experience, and then use that experience as a new window upon my own background, the traditions that make up my approach to my own music.

I think you honor the Hindustani tradition by acknowledging one of its primal gifts to humanity, namely its full and vibrant exploration of the most subtle pitch intonation. And to honor means you have to get down and sing these notes. By dutifully singing scale after scale, pitch after pitch, reflection after reflection, always against the drone, I feel like I say to the world: "I am small. I cannot learn music without being a beginner. I can't do it in a vacuum." And that in itself is freeing, and allows more play.

Singing pure tones over a simple drone (in my case, a guitar) has become part of my practice. As I sing pure tones against the drone, I feel like in my smallness, there is something beyond me that I nonetheless touch, even just a bit. Pure tones are available to every one, no matter what culture or tradition. Pure tones are what light us up, rev our engine, and squeeze our juices. Pure tones are what goose us as the Kosmos, and what paints our world. Pure tones mean pure tonality, which is like breathing the freshest of air. A little, everyday, is all it takes. The experience endures, and forever alters your approach to the very next note you sing.

Chicago, Illinois
November 2005

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