It started with Ahh. A long, rolling round of Ahhs to open our throats and wake up our vocal chords.
That was the first thing we did on the first full day of Sean Johnson and The Wild Lotus Band’s 8-Day BHAKTImmersion, and every morning thereafter. Open your mouth and sing Aaaaaahhhhh. Stretch your face, stick out your tongue, make like a lion, and sing it again. Keep singing it. Breathe.
That was the appetizer. Now it was time for sargam.
No, it’s not some New Agey breakfast food. More like breakfast for the soul, a daily tune-up, and we don’t mean just for the vocal chords.
Sargam is essentially scales, the Indian classical equivalent of Do Re Me Fa So La Te Do. Except it goes: Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Dha Ni. Sean Johnson learned it from Russill Paul, a renowned Carnatic and Indian classical vocalist (coming to Omega Spring Chant for the first time this year). Now he does it every day, at his altar, as part of his devotional practice. “To tune my body to the universe for that day,” he said.
Each of the individual notes in the sargam scale carries different feelings, he said, as if charged with a different energy. Each note is also associated with a particular chakra, or energy center in the body. A descending series of notes can ground you; an ascending sound can make you feel high. Put a particular sequence of ascending and descending notes together and you’ve got a raga, each one of which is constructed to create a particular mood, or bhav.
“It’s like opening the sonic medicine cabinet,” Johnson said. “If you’re feeling a little sluggish, lazy, bored, an E sound can help.” He sang a long perfect E note to demonstrate. We all bathed in it, taking it in, inhaling the note deeply.
“Wanna’ another hit, man?” he said afterward, with a Big Lebowsky grin. Yes please.
Leading us through a series of sargam exercises, he invited us to “explore how music opens your heart and creates a certain mood.” We repeated the Carnatic notes in various sequences, first slowly, then a little faster, then faster, forward, backward, call and response…you can see how the mood changes over the course of the practice in the video from Day Three (below). Each round was an achievement, punctuated with little hoots and woots from the Immersionites.
It was a mantra practice wrapped inside a vocal tune-up, or a vocal tune-up inside a mantra practice. Either way, it was potent.
“Sound is powerful medicine,” Johnson said. “It’s like medicinal surgery for a broken heart. It can break down energy forms held in our body. It can be used to change states of consciousness.”
Um, yeah. After an hour of sargam, I was high. But not in a Big Lebowsky way; more like energized, exhilarated, recharged like a battery. Definitely buzzed.
Don’t get me wrong. Sargam was torture and ecstacy rolled into one. Torture to a tone-challenged nonmusician with a very antagonistic relationship with her voice. Ecstatic because of the sheer beauty of the other harmonized voices in the room (from “real” musicians who actually seemed to know a C note from a G flat) .
I panicked a little on the second morning we did sargam, when I realized this was going to be a daily thing and not something I just had to suffer through once. A few minutes into it, I was so bombarded by voices in my head that I had to write them down: When will this end?? I can’t sing in tune! They all sound so celestial, so beautiful. I should just listen. It sounds so much better when I shut up! Maybe I’ll get some video. Yeah, yeah, get some video.
This little “vocal exercise” called sargam was bringing up all sorts of stuff, at least for this tone-challenged nonmusician…
I know I wasn’t the only one who found this practice memorable. For one young Immersionite, Molly (who came with her mom Cynthia from California), Sa Re Ga Ma Ma Ga Ni Sa was running through her mind when she woke up, even after a night out soaking up the music along Nola’s famous Frenchman Street. Someone else noted that “suddenly, singing loud and out of key feels right.” That struck a chord.
I eventually made my peace with sargam practice – and to a far lesser degree with my voice, warts and all. By Day Four I was actually looking forward to it, and by the end of the week I was in love with this little daily tune-up. I even kind of miss it…
That’s why this is really good to have: