What Is Virtual Chant Circle ?!?!?

We’re all connected. We might seem like separate individual creatures – and, ok, on one level, we are – but on another level, we are all part of one beingness, one planetary entity, one shared consciousness. And there’s a strength and a power in this connection that has barely begun to be tapped into.

Virtual Chant Circle is an experiment in using song to feel into this connectedness that we share.

This certainly not an original concept; scientists and mystics alike have drawn on the physical properties of musical harmonics to describe the actual WAYS in which we are interconnected with all of existence. I just thought, Hey, let’s use the practice of singing and the medium of the internet to see if we can perceive ourselves as being connected, heart to heart, mind to mind, soul to soul, essence to essence.

So I started Friday Morning Virtual Chant Circle the day after Thanksgiving, 2018. The concept is super simple: I go on Facebook Live and share one easy to learn, uplifting song, and I encourage people to sing along from wherever and whenever they might be tuning in – and I also encourage folks, as they’re doing this practice, to imagine they’re connected to every other person who’s participating via a network of light.

The whole thing takes between 5 and 10 minutes, and people can join in “live” or do it whenever it’s convenient for them. But there are a lot of benefits that I’m at least hoping to tap into with this experiment:

  1. Like I mentioned, the original impulse was and is to offer an opportunity for people to experience their interconnectedness across distance and time.
  2. Since the chants are easy to sing and uplifting in message, this practice can give participants a nice little energy boost for their Friday – when a lot of us may be flagging!
  3. Why are chant circles almost always at night? Oh yeah, ’cause that’s when we’re off work. But not everyone is an evening person, and many who would enjoy chanting just aren’t that keen on going to evening activities on work or school nights. So this is my chant outreach to morning people 😉
  4. It’s also designed to be accessible and non-intimidating for people who do NOT see themselves ever going to a chant circle “IRL” – whether because of shyness around singing in public, or discomfort with the spiritual aspects of many chant circles, or simply lack of desire to invest hours in an activity they haven’t tried before and don’t know if they will like. This is a “toe in the water” type of practice.
  5. I’m a big believer in putting out into the world what we want more of in the world – and especially of using our media platforms to spread positive messages and help awaken the awareness of oneness. And the more people add their energy to such messages, the more impact they can have.

Because of the diversity of backgrounds among people joining in, I try to choose chants that are really easy to pick up quickly. In introducing them, I try to ground each one in a relatable context, such as seasonal changes, major events or holidays, or – especially – connecting to our own inner wisdom, our own inner spark of the divine. I encourage people to express themselves with harmonies, alternative melodies, drumming, moving, resting – whatever feels right and good in your body and heart.

Do these chants mention God? Yes. Sometimes. Different chants from different traditions use different names for the Divine. However, the primary purpose of the practice isn’t to worship any particular deity (though of course you can if you want to); it’s more about using phrases that have been held sacred by various groups throughout history to feel our connection to the Divine in ourselves and in each other. The rest, as they say, is icing.

Where do the chants come from? All over. I have spent many years studying multiple chant traditions and collecting melodies (and maybe composing a few of my own). I draw on bits and pieces of songs from womyn’s circles, Neo-Pagan circles, contemporary Christian praise songs, gospel hymns, kirtan, Buddhist mantra, Sufi zikr, Jewish songs, children’s songs, and songs from the Dances of Universal Peace… and whatever melodies cross my path that inspire me to share.

Want to join in? Yay!!!

The exact time varies as I’m sometimes traveling or have other schedule bumps (like not being a morning person myself, lol) but it’s usually about 8:30 am Mountain Time. If you want to join in “live live,” friend me or follow me on Facebook and you should get a notification when a live video is starting. (Warning, if you do this, you’ll see other posts about social justice sometimes, but I guess you know this if you read my blog.) Or, subscribe to my YouTube channel, and you’ll get an email when I add a new video, or you can just go there and find the Virtual Chant Circle playlist. (You’ll also see an archive of all the previous chant videos here!)

And if you do decide to join in, and if you like it, it’s lovely if you share the videos so that more people can join the circle and we can create an even bigger energetic impact!

So, to make a long story short, here’s the original announcement:

VIRTUAL CHANT CIRCLE!!! Friday mornings, Facebook Live, one simple and uplifting song that we can sing together from anywhere in the world. Sharing a song connects our hearts across the distances, strengthens our spirits for the work that each of us is here to do, and fills the spaces between us with light. We don’t even have to be chanting at the same time (though it’s fun when we’re there together and can “see” each other in the comments!). You can listen ANY time throughout the day and add the energy of your voice to what I visualize as a beautiful sparkling spiderweb made of light, reaching around the world. (And chanting feels so good, too…) Maybe you join in? 🙂

New Song: Lean On Love

I’m so happy to share this video of my new song, “Lean On Love,” with all of you… I hope you’ll find it nourishing!

If this song touched you, I’d be honored if you would consider sharing it. And if you want to stream just the audio, get the lyrics, or purchase the mp3, you can do that here!

Also, if you haven’t heard, I’m having a joint CD release concert on Dec. 14th in Boulder along with my friend Carly Cohen-Fox. You can find all the details here! Oh, and hey, this song is NOT on my new EP, Turn the Key, because I wrote it after that project was done. It’s just a special bonus that I wanted to share with you all. 🙂

heart drawn with red ink and gray pencil

Sound-maker’s Prayer

Oh Great One
You Only know the highest potential of each heart
and You Only know what will call it forth,
but Oh
if you can tell us
just the word or sound
that will cause the first leaf
to unfurl from its seed-shell,
the sound that is like sunlight to each soul
and that whispers to each destiny
Awaken Now …
I do not need to know
what each soul’s mission will be;
I do not even need to know
the name of the town
at the end of these directions
that I blindly follow.
Just give me that tone
that will set each heart awakening,
and Beloved, I will sound it
with all my breath
till no seed remains
unshattered.

Unshaped Musics Hovering at the Edges of Songs

I.

A concert. This singer whose thing is profound prayerful words and ethereal melodies layered over subtle and complex looped harmonies laid down by herself – why are these people not shutting up and listening? I feel annoyed. The talking is preventing me from hearing the vocal nuances that my ears are straining towards. I project: is she frustrated with this unlistening crowd, is she efforting to get their attention? Does the container feel strong to her, does she feel embraced and safe to express her living soul? I try to pull my hearing back to the wide range. I’m looking out over a field of bobbing heads, a sea of human sounds, swelling, cresting, receding, growing again. Never still, but not, taken as a whole, jarring. I imagine the singer at the end of a long dock, casting her voice onto the waves, throwing it into the wind, so that it comes to the listener translated, transmuted, laden with other sounds from the seen and unseen realms. Maybe that is how she prefers it. I relax into the ocean and begin to float. 

II. 

A jazz trio – where the drummer is the leader. His coolness fills the room, then his controlled strokes to the shimmering cymbals cause the sun to rise. The concert is about the rhythm he hears, he feels, his heartbeat and the pulse of the cosmos. Between official notes, a competing beat emerges. I’m sitting in the back near the kitchen door and I can hear pots being dropped into a metal sink, rinsed plates slapped into steaming stacks and rattling as the dishwasher slides them down the line. I wonder if dishwashers in jazz clubs are so tuned to the sounds out in the room that their work becomes a form of groove and their motions consciously or unconsciously modulate to fit in with what’s being played onstage. It doesn’t bother me; I kind of like it. For backing vocals, a drunk woman at the next table unable to keep up with the Polite Hush dance that the rest of us are trying to do. I’m unaware until afterwards that dirty looks had been thrown. I’m absorbed in the polyrhythm of real world blues played against jazz, life and art at odds yet inseparable, as always. 

III. 

Modern dance with classical accompaniment, a highbrow performance in a fancy downtown theater. This time the disturbance is inside me. I’m late to the venue and have to wait outside for the first ten minutes. I react crabbily and promptly fill with shame. When the usher lets me in I skulk to my seat, imagining everyone’s judging eyes on me. Taking off my coat I think a skinny person, a more graceful person, would make this gesture less disruptively. My breath is shallow and my pulse is not regular and I’m sure everyone in the vicinity wishes I hadn’t come. As I shift in my seat, the squeaks it makes sound like yells. I notice my knee is pressing the back of the chair in front of me and I hope I haven’t irritated that person, too. I feel like I’m clashing with everything. But I am here, and there’s no leaving now. I try to breathe in the notes coming from the grand piano – far away down there, but the most powerful energetic presence in the place. I force my attention out of my self-critical mind and into my ears. Gradually, I begin to calm down. The music itself twists the tuning pegs inside me until the waves I’m making fall into quiet harmony with my environment. 

… i keep trying to hear how it all goes together … sometimes it’s clear and sometimes it’s not … but i remain convinced that all of these sounds are here for a reason …

Mbira & Magic

Mbira & Magic

I just got to be part of the coolest musical event. My friend Mary Ellen is having a landmark birthday – you know, one of those big round numbers with a zero after it where everyone says you need to have a party and invite all your friends from different areas of life. But Mary Ellen had a better idea. She’s a multi-instrumentalist and singer who’s part of numerous music communities around the Front Range (and around the world!) and so instead of the usual awkward unstructured birthday mingle, she decided to have a concert/recital in which she performed a variety of songs with “musical colleagues” from all of her different spheres. This would bring together people who didn’t know each other and give them something in common, and it would raise money for several charities that work in Africa and the Middle East – where (just a few of) the musical traditions she practices in originate. 

Imagine what a delight and honor it was for me that this lovely being thinks of me as a “musical colleague”! 

I got to accompany her on guitar for a few songs, assist with leading rounds for the whole group to sing, and be part of some a cappella pieces. Some of the people I sang with were old friends and some were people I had just met, but the shared purpose of celebrating Mary Ellen’s rich life and uplifting those who were gathered for the concert created a powerful heart attunement. 

(Side note: The effects of community singing on the people doing it have been very much on my mind lately, which may be the topic of a future post, once I sort out my thoughts about it a little more. In the meantime suffice it to say, this was that.) 

Anyway. She divided the program into sections by type of music. Once the parts I was involved in were complete, I got to sit back and enjoy a whole different style. This friend is a very accomplished teacher of marimba, and she plays with several marimba ensembles – which all came together to perform for this event, creating an incredibly joyful sound. And as she was introducing the marimba groups, she also mentioned that a lot of the music that is today played by marimba groups was actually composed for a different and very old traditional African instrument: the mbira. 

As she explained what the mbira is and how it’s played, I was reminded of something I learned from her years ago – a seemingly small thing, but something that had a profound impact on the way I think about playing music. It’s this:
The mbira is an instrument that’s made up of a number of metal tongues attached to a board. You play the metal pieces with your thumbs, and each one is a different note. The sound is clear, melodious and rippling – it reminds me of a flowing stream. 

Traditionally, this part of the instruments would be placed inside a large gourd with a big opening cut out for the player’s hands to reach in. The gourd was a natural amplifier. 

But there’s more to it than just volume. The gourd would also have shells and (more recently) bottle caps loosely attached to it, so that they would rattle and buzz when the mbira was played inside the gourd. 

This is part of the instrument in its classic form.  

The idea, as Mary Ellen explained it to me, is that the other sounds in the environment in which the music is played are PART OF the music. 

The light buzz of shells and bottle caps stand in for ALL the other sounds. 

The wind.
The river.
Bugs.
Kids.
Dogs barking.
Doors closing.
People talking nearby.
Cars passing in the road.
Planes overhead.
Your heartbeat pounding in your ears.
Your own breath.

These sounds are all part of the music that’s present when the instrument is being played or the voice is singing or the radio is on. 

Yes. The static when the radio station is far away: Is part of the music. 

See? It’s a small thing – the size of a Coke  bottle cap, the old metal kind. 

But it blew my freaking mind. 

This concept literally altered the way I look at music – especially community music, which is what I mostly do, but also things I compose for performance. 

When my guitar strings rattle – ok, that’s part of the music that’s here today. 

When someone’s coughing: part of it. 

When an ambulance goes by with siren wailing: those are also notes in the song. 

When someone looking for the bathroom accidentally walks through the room where we’re chanting: That’s part of the prayer. 

Sure, I’ve had those moments when the pure sound of a perfectly tuned choir or orchestra fills a silent concert hall and everyone’s holding their breath so as not to miss a second of this otherworldly beauty, and I’m in no way saying that’s not a gorgeous thing. We need that too! But even in those halls, and even when everyone is using their best concert etiquette and no one so much as shifts in a creaky chair – there are still other sounds present. 

Unplanned, uncontrollable sounds. 

Your own body is constantly making sounds, and they’re part of what you hear when you hear music.

From this perspective, all existence is a constant symphony, layered with infinite richness, sometimes harmonious and sometimes dissonant. Sometimes someone is playing music in an obvious way – sometimes it’s simply playing, the world singing, and humming and drumming and bowing and blowing and whistling and rattling like she always does, all the time. 

When I look at it this way, I can’t see ambient sounds – or missed notes – as ruining a song. It’s more like – a different song.

I remember that even when I’m up there playing on stage, there are so many elements, so many spirit beings, who may have something to contribute to the song of the moment, and who are utterly uncontrollable by me. I can resent and resist them, or I can see them as part of the magic. 

So – thanks for that, Mary Ellen. And happy birthday!

GALA, Ready or Not

 

Phoenix

Bad ass choir t-shirts

 
Ok. So, for anyone who has been like “Angie / Gayan / Verdana Leviathan Strong, WHY have you not replied to the email I sent you two months ago / done the thing you said you were going to do??? I’m WAITING!!!” I have a four letter word for you:

GALA. 

(Warning – that wasn’t one, but there are lots of f-bombs below.)

The GALA International Choral Festival that’s being held in Denver this weekend, where queer choirs (LGBTQetc) from around the world get together at the Performing Arts Complex and sing to each other for like 5 days. 

This time, I’m singing with Phoenix: Colorado’s Trans Community Choir

It’s a very new group founded by my partner Sam less than a year ago. We’ve been busting our asses to get our set ready since we found out in April that we could actually get on the program. 

Our rehearsal schedule has been steadily increasing in the fashion of a snowball rolling rapidly downhill. 

And our set, which is made up entirely of original pieces written by choir members, includes one of my songs, for which I wrote a choral version, with parts & everything. 

We’ll be performing right before a choir from Beijing, for an audience of a couple thousand people. 

I think it could safely be said that one of the unofficial themes of our set is Everybody Outside Their Comfort Zone (Together).

For some folks, this is about being in a choir at all … Singing with a group … Learning to blend and taking the risk that someone might hear their voice. For others, it’s about discovering a whole new vocal range after beginning the hormonal journey of transition, and the uncertainty of opening one’s mouth and not knowing what sound will come out. 

I’ve often said that one of the things I value about this group, and my personal experience in it, is that it’s an equal opportunity comfort zone challenger. I really mean that. Although I’m pretty at ease with group singing as a general concept and I’m not dealing with any big changes in my voice (or my gender presentation), I sometimes feel like I spend almost as much time resisting the process as I spend engaging with it willingly. (And yes, that’s my excuse for being slow to attend to other commitments, like that email I really do intend to reply to … )

For me, the stream of resistance looks like this:

– OMG what do you mean I’m the lead/only instrumentalist on this song? What if I fuck it up???

– OMG I’m fucking it up!!! It’s happening!!! In front of people!!! What do I do? How can I even continue living after this horrible fuck-up???

– OMG. Sam wants us to perform this song that I wrote. How can I possibly make other people sing something I wrote? What if no one but Sam even WANTS to sing it? Maybe they think it’s dumb, or just not choral, and we’re only doing it because I’m Sam’s partner. How can I bear the shame of people hating my song and being forced to sing it?

– And – ok, if I DO agree to do it, I/we (really “I” because I’m too afraid to let go of control) have to come up with an Arrangement. And write it out. In notes. On a staff. Like a, you know, I think the technical term is real music person. That sounds HARD. And very time consuming. And intimidating. And I am bound to fuck it up. 

– And speaking of intimidating, how am I supposed to teach it? I don’t know how to teach a harmony. And don’t I also need to play it on the piano then? Like, 2 parts at the same time? Um, I can’t. I especially can’t in front of these, you know, real music people.

– Geez, and then there’s, what is my relationship to trans-ness, anyway? I have a transgender partner. A fair number of trans people in my life. I’m part of the “trans community.” When I am singing in a trans community choir, this aspect of my identity/life comes to the forefront for examination in a way it doesn’t usually. Are there certain things I should be doing? Fights I should be fighting? There’s an odd feeling of responsibility that comes with contemplating these things. A feeling that I should be … standing up more. 

And then there’s … gosh, GALA itself. 175 choruses. That sounds really fucking BIG. In case you haven’t noticed, this year I’ve been embracing my tendencies toward introversion. This is going to be thousands of people in a smallish area downtown, which is already full of humans. That’s a hell of a lot of small talk. And don’t get me started on the parking! Plus, I still have to work my day job. I’m going to be exhausted. 

SOOOOOOOOOOOOO that’s been my inner monologue over the past few months – I’m sorry you had to witness that.

But. 

It’s getting close to go time. 

In fact, it’s happening this weekend. 

And …

Ok, I’m excited. 

The resistance is still there, an underlying mutter. 

But there are these spikes of … This is going to be cool. 

The tide is shifting. The things I appreciate about GALA are coming more to the surface. The great concerts. The solidarity. Performing in this incredible space. When I think about it, how did I get so lucky?

Working and singing with the trans choir over the past year has been a really wonderful experience. This group is so vibrant. The energy of each rehearsal is uplifting and energizing. Every member is truly bringing their heart. And even though it seemed at first like Mission: Impossible, we have really pulled together on this set of brand new songs that didn’t even exist three months ago. And it’s sounding good. And they don’t hate my song. A lot of them seem to actually really enjoy it. Astonishing! In fact, when the choir joins me (in harmony) on these lines that felt so idiosyncratic and personal when I wrote them … It’s like … Man. An amazing feeling, actually. A wave of joy spreading through me like warm, gentle surf. 

I love singing with this group so much. I am really looking forward to our sharing this moment, well, this fifteen minutes, together. 

It is going to be fucking awesome. 

And after that … Sleep. And, yes, email. I promise. ❤

Angie - I Encompass All Pronouns - Colorado Trans Community Choir - Phoenix

Other side of our bad ass t-shirts

Post Camp – Piano Zikr 1

Post Camp – Piano Zikr 1

Sufi Camp. Here’s what it is in my experience: You pack up all your baggage, everything you’re struggling with, you wrestle it into your car and drive it across the country so you can keep working on it … in the presence of your beloveds, with their encouragement and energetic support. You do a bunch of practices that clear out your cells and rearrange your molecules into new prismatic patterns. You start to sense things shifting on one of the subtler levels, even though you know it may be weeks before you really understand what’s changed. You get a lot of good advice and a lot of good hugs, and hopefully you, too, pour your little dipper  of love into the cauldron for others to drink and be nourished. You come out the other side scrubbed fresh, and you turn around blinking, not quite sure where you are. But something inside you feels more at peace.

Well, that’s how it works for me anyway.

This time, my post-camp feelings came out in the form of a zikr, which I am calling Piano Zikr 1. You can hear it, if interested, below. I hope you’ll enjoy. 💗

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