Like Words Together Reflections from the deep end of Practice.


Chanting is not singing

Something that has settled into my mind the past few weeks around my Ino duties at the Zen center is that chanting is not singing. It surfaced a couple of days after HB told me I was doing better, still slow down, and to put spaces into the words, savor them.

I loved to sing along to the radio as a kid, to myself even if there was no radio. I was constantly told to be quiet, no one wanted to hear me, and I couldn't carry a tune in a bucket. Therefore there was never any support for me wanting to be in a choir or anything like that. At college I finally broke free of this and joined the college choir, the community masterworks choir, and took voice lessons in the music department.

And I learned how to sing, how to carry the sound as a constant through the words, flowing. Ways to end words that end with Ms, Ts, and Ds. How to sing in Latin, German, Italian, and Spanish as well as English. Despite prompting by my vocal teacher I never became comfortable with solos, only performing them when forced to by the requirements of the voice lessons.  I did love singing in the choir and have particularly lovely memories of performing Beethoven's 9th Symphony.

In approaching chanting service I've used the lessons about breathing and projection from singing.  I also used the way lyrics are vocalized, especially in the classical, Western approach.  However, chanting isn't singing Verdi, it is chanting.  The words flow in more of a rhythmic fashion, closer to percussion than the way a voice may be trained to move like a string instrument.  
I've been mindful of the feel of the words more than the meaning.  The feel is important in singing, the movement of a word.  In chanting sutras the importance is the meaning of the word, what the sutra is teaching us.  In chanting names, transferring the merit of our practice to the suffering and deceased, it is especially important to be mindful and hold each person in the heart as their name is recited.
I may still rush, I'm learning to be slower in chanting.  I feel like this realization will help.  There is such a distinct difference between the type vocalization I've done in the past and Zen chanting.  I'm still not used to the sound of my voice, loud in the quiet of the zendo.  It plays into my feeling like I couldn't yell, really make noise in the zendo during the women's retreat over the  New Year.  
I so deeply feel, in my bones the quiet of the zendo.  Something about chanting, being loud brings up old ghosts.  The obvious moments of having distinctly heard my Mother's voice telling me I couldn't carry a tune.  Ghosts of my grandmother admonishing us for being noisy, laughing during Mass and disturbing the quiet of the church.  Or any number of ghosts raining down disapproval for making too much noise.  Slowly I'm trying to replace those old voices with the new ones from my sangha telling me how much they appreciate, enjoy the sound of my voice ringing out in the stillness.
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