Esoteric Music - Tibetan Singing Bowls and Khoomi Overtone Singing

Reflections on an introductory workshop with Michael Ormiston & Candida Valentino

A 4 minute read

My Introduction

During my time in India, I am being initiated slowly into esoteric music practices.

It started with my morning vocal workshops with the Adishakti actors, and in particular Nimmy Raphael. My singing and music theory classes with her soon turned into an exploration of the limits of her voice, and the extraordinary sounds she can make at the very edge of vocalization. There was something of Meredith Monk in her voice, spanning 3 - 4 octaves, capable of great expressive power.

Kathakali singers and performers

In our sessions we talked a great deal about esoteric and spiritual voice traditions. Her guru and the founder of Adishakti, Veenapani Chawla, had brought Tibetan monks from their exiled enclave in Karnataka to train the actors in their ritual practice.

They had learnt Kathakali padam singing, the stylized Sanskrit chanting that accompanies Kathakali theatre, with its swinging head movements that reminded me so much of ultra-Orthodox Jews davening at the Wailing Wall.

They studied the ancient Indian treatise on the arts and breathing, the Natyashatra, and built on its theory of rasas - the evocation of the nine core emotions through breathing patterns.

illustration from the Natya Shastra

They studied Sanskrit shlokas from the Rig Veda, the incantations at the heart of Hindu spiritual tradition, from Dr Sampadananda Mishra, with whom I am lucky enough to be getting my own Sanskrit lessons.

And so back in London in November, I jumped at the chance to delve further into two traditions in a single day - Tibetan Singing Bowls and Mongolian Khoomi Throat Singing, with longtime practitioners Michael Ormiston and Candida Valentino.

The Tibetan Bowl Session was extraordinary. It started with a performance on the small brass bowls, which took me into a deep, meditative state. I was fully awake - and could hear the performers moving around the room, but as they walked up behind me and played the bowls in my ears, I experienced the change in dynamic as a narcotic rush that sent me into a semi-conscious state of pure pleasure. As the performance came to a close, I felt as if in a lucid dream. No amount of money in the world could have made me open my eyes to bring that feeling to a premature end.

In the afternoon was an initiation into Khoomi throat singing, as practised in Mongolia. If you haven’t heard it before, it is the art of singing more than one note at once, using the vocal apparatus to highlight overtones in the voice.

We learnt ‘palette style’ - using the position of the tongue against the soft and hard palette in the roof of the mouth to create the singing overtones, but subsequently I have had some success in using the lips and throat too.

It was a fantastic workshop that really opened my eyes and ears to the relationship between pure sound and healing. The khoomi session was even more exciting, as it showed me that to heal another, you don’t even need any instruments, but only your voice. More experiments coming soon.

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