Singing, Breathing, Connecting – Karen Richards

Along with many other socially based activities that used to be done ‘in the flesh’, since the Coronavirus pandemic, our local Sunday morning Sangha meeting is now done via Zoom. Conducting our lives on the internet can have its limitations but there is also a unique quality to it, in terms of staying connected, that more conventional methods lack. Obviously, a phone, tablet or other form of compatible technology is needed and it helps to have enough IT ‘know-how’ to troubleshoot any minor technical difficulties but aside from that, anyone can join in, making it accessible to all.

Recently, I have been taking it in turns to precent at these meetings. The precentor’s function is to facilitate the singing of the scriptures along with striking the gongs to signal the offering of incense and striking the inkin or hand bell to signal the bowing, which helps to harmonise the ceremony and keep it flowing. When we are all together, in the same room, there is plenty of opportunity for the precentor to take a breath because once the scripture is underway the congregation carries it forward. The congregation will be chanting together online, of course, but the difference is that because of potential feedback, people’s microphones are muted and the only voice that can be heard is that of the precentor.

It’s an interesting experience singing on your own, knowing that others are listening to you but not being able to hear them back. There is a feeling of being exposed, a self-consciousness, and it’s a challenge to get the breathing right, so that you don’t suddenly find yourself gasping for air. As a result, I have become much more aware of my breath, the function of breathing and how the breath is affected by any emotion that I may be feeling – that is any residual emotion that may already be there and those that arise during the ceremony. The latter sometimes applies if the words of a particular scripture touches me (this happened during the recitation of The Scripture of Great Wisdom, shortly after my mother had died) or if I am concerned that someone might bang the front door and affect the sound, as has happened on more than one occasion. In short, I find this offering both a joy and a challenge.

Sometimes, it’s good just to accept the foibles and idiosyncrasies of both the situation and yourself but, trying to get it as ‘right’ as I could, I decided to get some online singing lessons, not to try to be ‘perfect’ but so I could understand the technicalities of breathing and singing and maybe relax a bit more.

At my first lesson, the teacher spent most of the time getting me to stand properly, become aware of all of the tiny muscles in my head and face and relax my jaw. She also asked me to observe the bodily sensations that arise from humming, as opposed to blowing – closed mouth v open mouth. It was helpful and I was grateful but once I’d listened and practiced a few times, she said, ‘Really what you’re there for is to support other people. You need to adapt your tone and pitch to help them. Pow!

Of course, it isn’t always possible, when you are connecting via the internet, to know exactly what other people’s needs are but the principle of moving from awareness of yourself, to awareness of others and their needs was a bit of a game changer. Strangely, it made me relax.

Dogen said, To know yourself is to forget yourself’. I thought it interesting that in Buddhist training we start by becoming aware of ourselves and what is going on with us. Then when we have done this for awhile, the barriers soften and we see our connection with others more clearly and can harmonise.

I don’t think that all the singing lessons in the world will prevent me from continuing to find precenting and managing my breath both a joy and a challenge but that is the point, I guess. It’s not meant to be easy, is it?

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