Zen in the art of traditional singing

I used to believe I had permanently destroyed my voice.

As a teenager I sang serious classical stuff in various choirs and music school. Then I moved in to a student dorm, and switched to screaming on top of my lungs while drinking and smoking heavily.

After a year or two of such practice, I could no longer sing opera. I would jokingly say that at least I sound like Freddy Mercury now, but I was all devastated inside. Losing my precious voice was the only thing I ever truly regretted in my whole life.

***

Only after several long years I finally got the courage to join a singing workshop again. I chose traditional folk as there’s a part of my soul that has always strongly resonated with it. Besides, it’s so different from opera that I wouldn’t spend too much energy comparing how I sounded with what used to be.

The weeklong workshops I’d signed up for were organised by Fundacja OVO. This is a Polish non-profit established to promote Eastern European traditional folk culture and music. As it turns out, there’s an amazing community built around them as well. There were almost 70 people attending the workshops, most of whom had known one another already for a long time.

We were getting split into 4 workshop groups, so on the first day we all had a chance to take a short demo class with each of the teachers, and choose the one that worked best for us. For the most of the time we were learning beautiful polyphonic songs from Ukraine and Serbia. Only one of the teachers – Witek – didn’t prepare any songs for his demo class at all.

Unlike other lessons, this one consisted entirely of laying down on the floor, running around on tip toes while making awkward sounds, or violating personal space of complete strangers and vice versa. After half an hour of this madness we were asked to start improvising a melody, all of us at the same time. What I heard during these few minutes got me so intrigued I decided to join that group in the end.

***

Our class of 10 was the smallest one. This was a good thing cause all the crazy stuff we did required a lot of trust, and we were able to built that trust much faster than we would in a larger group.

When we weren’t exploring the most awkward forms of physical contact like massaging someone’s back with the tip of your head, or laying down on their belly trying to synchronise breaths, we would ridicule ourselves in other creative ways. There was shouting nonsense stuff to a tree on the other side of the road. There was purring like a cat as loud as we could. There was a whole concert of goat and sheep sounds, with different experiments that aimed at making them sound more goaty. If anyone used to consider themselves as a serious adult human being, there was no way to maintain that facade after a day or two.

Once we finally got to practice some singing still on our first day, it wasn’t as smooth and easy as I thought it would be. I was terrified to hear my voice collapse near the end. I asked Witek if it’s normal to end the workshop with a sore throat – he said it’s not normal at all. I went straight back to my room, almost certain I will never be able to sing again.

I decided to take as much care of my voice as I could during these few days. This meant no alcohol, no fizzy drinks, and breathing gymnastics practice every morning. At first it felt weird when I came to a party with a bottle of still water. Soon I felt weird it ever made me feel weird.

***

One of my biggest discoveries was an exercise in intention. One person had a wall a few meters behind their back. The other one was supposed to push them against that wall as fast as they could. Both sides fought hard and it took a decent while for each of us to complete the goal.

Then we were asked to do the same thing with a focused intention to push, and using a sound to help. Never in my life have I heard such a battle cry, especially performed by women. Every single one of us ended up on the wall in no time. This worked even when we already knew what to expect.

Another revelation came when we were lying down in a circle. Witek guided us to relax every single part of the body one at a time, just like during my favourite meditation for sleep. Then we watched our breaths for a longer while and were asked to make a long lasting sound with each outbreath. What followed was an incredible concert of magical, otherworldly harmonies. I felt totally hypnotised, hearing my own voice resonate with the others in ways I never knew possible until then.

“See, we naturally tend toward the harmony.” – our teacher said later – “The harmony is already here between us. If you find yourself constantly out of tune, ask yourself: What am I doing here that doesn’t let me harmonise with the world around me?”.

***

This was the day when I finally stopped struggling so much. At one point I just watched myself, hearing a song flow effortlessly through me for the first time. Somehow I just tuned into the stream and followed along with all the ups and downs.

As soon as I got it right, I realised what I’d been doing wrong for the whole time. Whenever there was a part of the song I considered difficult, I’d clutch the throat and my whole body, getting ready to tackle the challenge. Once I stopped behaving as if I had an exam to pass and chose to have fun with the song instead, all that tension was gone and the sound could just flow with no resistance.

This observation didn’t just help me with folk singing, but with every single area of my life. As soon as I let go of the pressure to perform, incredible things start coming to me naturally. If you’re struggling with a similar pressure or tension, you might consider doing something utterly ridiculous – like crawling on the floor using no hands, or making goat sounds for 15 minutes. You won’t be able to feel so serious about yourself after that for too long.

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