If you strolled past Heritage Port on a recent Monday evening just before sundown, you may well have heard some striking, eponymous calls.
Chelsey Keding led a sound bath meditation for more than a dozen people in the amphitheater at the port’s north end. Reclining on yoga mats, the group formed a semi-circle around Keding; her mat was populated with four cloudy-white bowls of various sizes and something that looked like a small suitcase with bellows between its walls.
Keding started the class by inviting everyone to blow “raspberries.” Imagine forcing air past your slack lips like a horse. This is a technique that singers use to warm up, she explained. Maintaining a loose jaw and facial muscles aids in producing a pure, unstrained sound, and it’s great for anyone looking to release tension throughout the body.
“We rarely explore what we sound like. We don’t want to feel silly or embarrassed. But there is so much we can express and get out through sound,” Keding told the group as they moved into the next exercise. “So now I want us each to take whatever we are feeling and put that into saying our name. It might be something you felt at work, or some tension with you just don’t know what, or some excitement about trying something new.” Each person in the ring should say his or her name, and then the group should repeat whatever sound and motion came out, she suggested.
Then the calls went up. Keding started with a raucous cry that, with her encouragement, everyone echoed. The group took it in turns to stick a tentative toe into the waters of shouting in public. One woman added a jumping jack to her recitation. Another person made a tune of her name, laying out a few notes for the group to follow. A man took the opportunity to go as low as he could go with a wail worthy of a basso profundo. Whatever apprehension remaining after the raspberries was cleared away by this communal invocation. There were smiles all around; as the skies grew darker, the mood grew light.
Keding then introduced her favorite sound meditation technique: toning. “It’s basically humming, but it is powerful.” She said that studies have shown toning to be associated with lowered blood pressure, improved mood and decreased anxiety; some people even experience a blissful feeling. “You don’t have to worry if you don’t sound like your neighbor. We are just going to hum for five to seven minutes and try to be present to whatever that feels like. Just breathe in deeply, and then the whole exhale will be a hum. Once you’re out of breath, just take another and come back in.”
Keding ventured into the silence first and began toning. Voices rose from around the group to join her — some high, some low; some forceful; some quiet and steady. Sound flowed around the circle and across the amphitheater as people came in and trailed out with their humming. And a rising and falling chorus of crickets neatly complemented the toners.
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The group then toned again, but this time standing in a tight circle. Keding invited anyone inclined to step into the center to see what it’s like to be at the focal point of such vocal energy. “Sound is energy,” she said, “and everything has a sound. No matter how big or small, the particles that make up everything in our world are vibrating, making sound, giving off energy. So take the opportunity to be at the center of our energy. It can be restorative in so many ways.”
With the sun’s glow receding from the horizon, stars and streetlights joined the group for the final activity. Keding thanked the participants for being so open to sharing their sounds during the toning and readied them for the sound bath she was about to perform. She had everyone lie on their backs with their heads facing the center of the circle and the assortment of instruments on her mat.
An arresting tone went out from one of the opaque bowls as Keding struck it with a mallet. The sound bath had begun. Then she hit another smaller bowl; the two sounds interwove, creating a mystic aura. She also drew a rod around the rim of the bowls. (You may have seen someone do something similar with their finger and a wine glass when looking for amusement at a dinner party.) This produced an ethereal sound that felt as though it were reverberating in your chest.
“Crystal singing bowl” is the proper name, Keding said. These, and most of the other instruments she was soon to use, were developed in the Indian classical music tradition or as a part of Buddhist meditation practice.
With the bowls still resounding, the Shruti box added its full-throated hum. Keding had compressed one of the walls of what looked like a wooden case with sides that expanded via purple flaps. It sounded like a small organ. And the amphitheater made a fine cathedral to house it.
Keding deftly brought in more instruments, often playing two at once. What sounded like a recorder and looked like an oblong piece of ceramic turned out to be an ocarina flute. The distinctive ting of tuning forks rang out as well. Keding even added her own voice, singing mellifluous and enigmatic syllables. “There no name for what I do vocally. I just sing what I feel,” she said.
Eyes closed and lying on their mats, this band of bathers let the mingling sounds wash over them. Keding had each instrument make its entrance and take its leave. And as the last vibrations faded away, calm pervaded the group.
There are three more chances this month to take part in a sound bath meditation at Heritage Port. Keding welcomes all to these Monday evening donation-based classes: 7 p.m., Sept. 10, Sept. 17 and Sept. 24.
• Ryan Norman hails from a suburb of Cleveland and earned an English degree at Wheeling Jesuit University. He lives in East Wheeling where you might find him listening to Gustav Mahler or Keith Jarrett, reading David Foster Wallace or Dave Eggers, and thinking along with Martin Heidegger and Roger Scruton. Ryan is also a chorister at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church and a member of The Prosers, a group that performs original poetry and prose at Towngate Theatre.