“We are doing our part ‘for the greater glory of this Creation,’ in a way, to symbolize what heaven on earth would be. Maybe it is just a dream we cannot wake up from, but we cannot stop feeling that our work here on earth is to make it like heaven. We have to sing our own songs, give of ourselves, make our own ‘joyful noise,’ not so that the Creator can hear us, but so that we can hear the Creator.”
~ David Hykes
The word sacred can be traced to roots in the Indo-European word sak which denotes power and also “to make holy.”
When we connect with the sacred, we not only feel powerful but we create power.
We feel sacredness or this higher kind of power when we are profoundly inspired; lost in the ecstasy of creativity where time becomes timeless. When we create from sacredness, our creations truly do “make holy” in the sense that they inspire a sense of wholeness and harmony, which is inherently healing.
In our present time, more and more artists are beginning to leave commercial motivations behind to seek a more sacred connection through their art. This is one of the great revolutions of our extraordinary times. The sacred musician endeavours to perform music as an expression of their deepest nature; to connect to the realm of soul where infinite creativity, ecstasy (intense feeling states), rapture and union abound.
We approach these deeper states of being anytime we’re so present in our experience that the mind becomes more receptive than active.
Children at play (and adults too!) exude this as they become completely engaged in their experience. The mind gets out of the way and can still be employed as a critical tool but it is more about letting the body become fully alive.
When this happens, our feelings expand as the relenting mind allows the energy it would normally covet to flow more expansively through the field of the body (and beyond the body into our bigger energetic self).
The sacred musician understands this, though it may take some work of reclaiming as so much of modern music making has been about refined performance, static recorded songs and achieving a kind of perfection that is admirable though not the whole picture.
This reclaiming need not be too difficult to achieve: one can simply recall their first experiences with music as a child when they were more apt to be receptive, less analytical and less self-conscious.
I recall deeply when I was a wee lad, fumbling simple melodies on my family’s piano for hours on end, in utter rapture as the harmonies flowed around and through me, buzzing as immense beauty within. All musicians who wish to deepen their art as a spiritual practice would do well to spend long periods of time reflecting on these memories.
In time, such memories will be so renewed that perhaps during performances that small child will constantly be alive in us again. This is wonderful work. Often when I perform a sacred kind of music, flashes of myself as child innocently engaging music come before me and I feel tender weeping within, beautifully so. It gladdens the soul (our deep self) greatly. In turn, this inspires a much more beautiful performance because we merge deeper with the music.
When music is performed in this way we are literally getting of the way to allow something deeper to come through us. This reminds us that music is inherently not performed by anyone. It is a receptive process by which music is channelled through us.
Any musician who writes songs knows this but perhaps hasn’t considered it deeply.
Think of anytime a song comes to us. Where does it really come from? For certain as songs develop in their composition there are technical additions of harmonic structures and textures that demands more of our active role as composer but the initial spontaneous moment of creativity is something inherently mysterious and should be honoured.
It is always available and ready to bring through more music anytime we feel so inspired. This is a great gift to be in awareness of and is our human birthright to be connected to an infinite creative reality that constantly innovates our culture and personal lives.
Many traditional, indigenous cultures know and honour this human capacity and many shaman healers make their music in this fashion.
Among the Kalahari Bush-people, the shaman “catches songs” from an ethereal realm which they open to through prayer and ritual. They say this realm is inhabited by the spirits of ancestors, along with many other powerful spiritual masters, angelic and otherworldly beings and creatures, who are constantly singing powerful healing songs.
It is these songs which the shaman catches and then brings through their own voice and instruments to be shared in community music experiences in which people join in, rousing them into powerful energetic states; into dance and robust singing that lifts the spirit and even the individual from states of illness.
Anyone who sings feels this, whether in the sanctuary of the shower, or before an audience in a great hall. A few minutes of singing can alter us completely. Try it the next time you feel down or in foul mood.
Singing is an anti-depressant par excellence.
The sacred musician is more comfortable with improvisation because they understand that they are immersed in a bigger realm where their songs are sourced that is constantly abundant with melodies.
This may take time to make a relationship with as our culture has not taught us about these realms and how to access them. The good news is it isn’t that hard! Children (and the children we were and always are) are great masters of connecting with these realms of infinite creativity and can teach us much. At the beginning (especially for a trained musician) it will take time to quiet the analytical musical voice that is attached to theories and technical proficiency. This voice is not adept in the freedom of improvised performance and may actually be resistant to it.
The key becomes willing the attention to surrender, cleaving to receptivity in a committed and even devoted fashion. The sacred musician also lets go of making mistakes as the transition to a more improvised artist may be clumsy at first with a veering between total delicious surrender and thinking about what to do next.
In time, there will be a skillful dance between the two and the musician can surrender in one moment to harmonies swaying their being and then come active and intentionally add harmonic elements with voice or instrumentation.
Here, opposites merge, yin and yang come together, engendering mastery.
Moreover, mistakes become honoured as part of the flow and can even bring in surprisingly useful musical elements and humour to bring a lighter mood which the audience will dip into, jocosely. As one builds more of a relationship with the deeper realm from which music comes, more and more harmony is brought through. We are literally giving expression to the great harmony of the cosmos which the mystics have always decried, receiving with the antennae of our being, and transmitting through our musical expression.
Sacred music does not connote improvisation all the time.
Improvisation can be invited within already composed songs or can be utilized in its fullness to bring through entirely uncomposed songs in the moment. Improvisation is one of the essential practices of the sacred musician because it teaches us to connect to the source of music, the mysterious mystical realms beyond, but it need not be the sole expression, merely a profound tool.
What I have discovered in my own art is that sometimes songs that are completely improvised are of such genius that I could never hope to create a song structurally that way.
I will never forget spontaneously singing a poem I wrote called “Awakening Woman” with crystal singing bowls and my friend Stephen on electric guitar. We recorded the ten minutes of music that came through and we’re blown away at what happened. When we went back to the song to attempt to transcribe it to play it again for others we were dumbfounded at how many parts, nuances and textures had occurred.
The sacred musician bows humbly in those moments, knowing that they could perhaps create such genius through pain-staking analytical effort but that the pure transmission that came through is of a much higher skill.
The sacred musician understands that they are part of an ancient tradition of music-makers that stretches to the beginning of our species.
They delve into study of how music has evolved, realizing quite quickly that music has primarily been a medicine to lift spirits in community, pray ecstatically and connect to divinity.
As St. Augustine said so beautifully, “To sing is to pray twice.”
When we perform music, the vibrations we make with instruments and voice has an immediate effect on our self and others. This effect can be made all the more powerful by the intention to which we make our music.
A sacred musician might take time before performing to go into prayer and meditation to connect to the divine realm to centre themselves, realizing that they are offering a great service to who they are performing for as people are intensely affected by music. It brings suppressed emotions to the surface to be worked toward resolution by the inspired order of harmony, create states of altered consciousness, transform moods instantly and inspire divinity.
Music has been considered a sacred art for aeons.
It has only been recently that it and many cultural expressions have been sabotaged by the profit motive which limits things to be more agreeable to “consumers.” This is a sad affair and yet a great opportunity for renewal.
It is often when we lose something, like the essence of music, that we find ourselves yearning and reclaiming it with even greater love and passion than before. Singing freely in a surrendered way used to be a traditional religious practice whereby people become utterly consumed by divine, ecstatic energy. However, many cultures the world over outlawed ecstatic singing practices as “sophisticated civilization” genocided much of the wildness of our innately indigenous nature (Shiva Rea does a great TED talk on this historical banning of wildness in the context of freedance and the immense scope of its historical context is shocking).
As we reclaim this ecstatic way of making music we are literally reconnecting with a long lineage of ancestral practices which will instantly inspire our lives and our art. So many musicians are currently disenchanted with modern practices of music and the business hovelling it in commercial prejudice.
The sacred musician sees a way through and it is the key to their joy. Hope burns eternal.
The very word music comes from Greek, meaning “art of the muses.”
The muses were seen to be ethereal creative spirits who would transmit their songs, stories and other art into artists to be brought into our world.
When we make music, in whatever capacity, the muses are present—it is the essence of the meaning of music to be connected to the divine. Many musicians and artists taking on the sacred work will realize it is this relationship to the muses, to divine inspiration or whatever we want to call the spontaneous and ecstatic source of our art as an (or even the) essential relationship to build and develop in our lives.
Many of our healing and wellness self-practices of yoga, meditation, diet and the like help to foster this relationship as they help us become more clear channels for connection and to have a greater capacity to embody the ecstatic states that are natural to higher realms of beingness.
It’s at this juncture that the path of the sacred artist truly becomes a life path as we become increasingly devoted to becoming better channels for sacredness. The more we channel the sacred the more we understand that this creative realm that we are inhabiting is infinite and composed of such harmony and beauty that awe will constantly become our prayer.
When we relate to reality in this way, our faith in the essential harmony, beauty and goodness of the universe is emboldened. We know it not from reading books but directly from the expression coming through us. We become conduits of the harmony of the universe and we transfer this to others who experience our art.
This can save and restore so much in our world that has become so bereft of sacred experience and so disconnected from the innate harmony of nature. Furthermore, this can transform all aspects of our lives and the world, aiming all that we do to a higher and consummate purpose that can nourish inspiration, beauty and truth for a lifetime and for lifetimes to come.
Notions of practice for a Sacred Musician:
Here’s a simple list of some ideas to which a musician can utilize to deepen their art into the sacred.
Prayer: before performing set time aside to deepen into yourself through conscious breath, awareness and meditation. Have sacred objects to help you ground into mystical terrain. Pray for divine inspiration to be with you and sing through you. Devote your performance to the upliftment and healing of self, others and the world.
Daily Song Prayers: take time to begin the day singing freely with long tones with or without simple musical accompaniment (droning instruments are ideal such as singing bowls or the Indian tanpura). This will literally tune one energetically for the day (and can also be done before sleep to inspire better restfulness). Sing good thoughts and prayer with the sound as symbolic representation. This gives more feeling to setting well intentioned thoughts and prayer, making them more powerful. One can also sing into illness states in the body to support healing. It is well documented that the voice activates the vitality of the body in excellent fashion.
Improvisation: take time to perform with no goal in mind aside from surrendering to the flow of music coming through. This is also simply called jamming. Try singing without words, using the voice as wordless, sound instrument. Let go. It can help to quiet the mind beforehand through meditation and stay connected to the body energetically by constantly returning to breath awareness during performance and between. If one is aware of the chakra centres, breathe into them before sounding notes and you will find elaborate harmonic textures arising.
Study the ancient tradition of sound as spiritual and healing practice: study the abundant literature on the ancient and spiritual power of music. Look into knowledge on sound healing of which there are many amazing modern innovations. Much of my own paradigm shifting began as I was studying Chinese Medicine and was encouraged to delve into studies on sound healing to integrate my musical practice. The realm of sound healing is a treasure-trove of inspiration to deepen the practice of music. As Edgar Cayce attests, “Sound is the medicine of the future.” That future is now.
Community music through free and communal chant: I always leave time in my performances to engage the audience in making spontaneous song or doing a simple healing chant around the sacred sound of OM for instance. In this way, we bridge the divide between performer and audience that has alienated us from the traditional practice of making music together. When we make simple music together we touch the universal language of sound and brought together in exciting and inspiring ways.
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Editor: Catherine Monkman