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reflections on Music and Healing

by Norma Gentile

excerpts from this article were published in Early Music America Magaizine, v.5, no.4, Winter 2000

About ten years ago I had my first experience of sound as a vehicle for healing. At that time I was the director of a semi-professional vocal ensemble dedicated to early music. Each December members of the group would 'carol' in theUniversity of Michigan Hospital, going from room to room singing to those too ill to leave for the holidays.

They stopped in one room where a patient had been unresponsive since coming out of a coma in July. The family requested a song, and the ill man became more alert. Upon completing the third song, the man began to speak, and insisted on being placed in a wheel chair so that he might follow the group as they moved around to other rooms. Understandably, this incident has been widely recounted by the hospital's Arts Program.

In my own performances there are tears and joy, often simultaneously, in the faces of those listening. One of my first meditation concerts of chant included a woman who had, upon completing her undergraduate music degree, discarded music-making completely. It had been 20 years since she had sung at all.

According to her husband it wasn't until half-way through my concert that she braved to hum the drone. After the concert she told me how difficult it was to sing again, and that she recognized it was an important step for her emotionally. After years of therapy and self-reflection, she reclaimed her right to sing. As I write this today she is recording her composer-husband's songs, and is preparing for her first live concert since college.

I write this believing that most musicians have had similar experiences to my own, and may have disregarded some or all of the occurrences, because few professional musicians talk about such things. At least not in public!

The first years of my study at the University of Michigan consisted of going to early music concerts 'on the sly'. It was considered unacceptable for a voice major to be interested in such music-making. In the same way the act of including a conscious acknowledgment of the role spirituality plays in a musical performance is 'hidden'. It is my hope that others will talk and teach, by example, how to invite the magic of spirit into sacred music.

Often people tell me they see or feel the presence of God or someone important to them while they are singing or listening to music. One Saturday afternoon I found myself in a run-down community building where a friend was presenting an open house based on Hildegard's work. I thought it was a nice outreach idea, and agreed to sing and talk about her music.

The room was anything but acoustically ideal, and the setting less than deeply sacred. But those who gathered were taken with the music, and soon lost themselves in the experience of listening. I felt a presence behind me, one that I recognized, and concentrated on it as I sang.

The sound of my voice began to bounce off of the walls and acoustic tiled ceiling. A faint echo was audible in the room, and the noise of the street and basketball court faded. A fullness grew in the silence between the musical phrases.

As I finished, I heard humming in my ears. A chord. The fundamental was low and easy to duplicate. I hummed it gently, focusing on the sound, and inviting the presence I felt behind me to step into the tone.

I immediately flushed. My entire body was covered with a light perspiration. It was as if little bits of electricity came out from my fingers and toes. Without having to think, I spoke, explaining the context of Hildegard's music in the life of the monastery. Then, continuing to focus on the presence behind me and allowing all of the physical sensations to continue, I moved onto the next set of pieces.

There was a palpable sense of contendedness among those listening. Everyone was sitting still, including the young children. It was as if no other place or time existed. Just each chant, in each moment. I noticed that there had been a shift in the quality of the room. It had felt physically cold and unwelcoming upon entering, with its blaring florescent lights highlighting the peeling paint. But now after singing it felt warm and welcoming. The lights seemed less glaring, and paint less important.

At the end of the concert I struck a small tibetan meditation bowl. It's sound seemed to signal to those listening my intent to conclude our time together. As people roused themselves and came forward to speak with me, many asked about my religion. Was I deeply involved in the church? Was I aware of the presence of Mary behind me? "What about Jesus?", asked another woman. Did I know this particular guru in India, who was standing over me? two women asked independently of each other.

My answer is that I believe that music allows each of us to experience the divine nature of ourselves in our own unique ways. If it is Jesus, or Mary or an Indian it not all of the sacred? By focusing on my own connection to spirit, which often feels like a presence supporting me from behind, I illustrate an example of spiritual connection. This example is carried within the music itself to those listening. How anyone then defines or experiences the music is within their own belief system.

For those who want a brief left-brain explanation, here it is:

Sound acts as a carrier wave. It carriers the experience of the performer to the listener. It carries information about the emotional, mental, and physical state of the performer to the listener.

It is the quality of singing to one's self, to one's own soul, that attracts me most to the music of Hildegard. I find Hildegard's music to be contemplative. As I sing, I invite the audience into a space that exists between myself and my soul.

I see this reflected in the language we use as musicians. The root meaning of the word'concert' is 'bringing into agreement'. This to me is the origin of making music together. I ask people to participate in concerts by adding their voices, and hence their intents, to the chants. As they hum, their very thoughts travel on their sound, much like sound travels through the air itself, creating a unified field in the room.

Healing with music is the art of creating this space, by inviting the participation of each person present. It is not invasive, because it never insists upon participation. It merely invites, just as one is invited to listen, rather than simply attend, a concert.

Norma Gentile is a singer, teacher and clairvoyant healer specializing in sound healing through the Heart of Light. Her healing recordings include Unfurling Love's Creation, chants by Hildegard of Bingen, and Meditation Chants of Hildegard.

Norma is now leading a series of workshops across the country based on the Heart of Light. For the one nearest you please see her Itinerary.

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