Ruthie attended a vocal improvisation workshop with Rhiannon

Ruthie attended a vocal improvisation workshop with Rhiannon

There is a chapter in the Singing Meditation book I co-authored with Liz Hill about ‘toning.’ In toning each person is encouraged let go of already written songs and just make random ‘tones’ of sound. Ideally each person would listen to the others in the group and adjust pitches accordingly. Any syllables could be used for toning, but open vowel sounds worked best.

When we did toning during Singing Meditation workshops participants always loved it. Many reported feeling powerful vibrations they believed were healing. As a facilitator I was always surprised how much people enjoyed toning.

I remember many times suggesting that people during a Singing Meditation session ‘morph’ from a repeated song into their own improvised, heart felt words and tones. As a group I don’t think we ever achieved this spirit of improvisation. But I have retained an interest in vocal improvisation ever since.

Last week I was truly blessed to have the opportunity to participate in an improvisation workshop led by the woman who I think is mistress of this art form. Her name is “Rhiannon” and is probably best known for her performances with Bobby McFerrin and “WeBe3.” She has a set of oversize cards available called “Vocal River.” Each card has a suggestion for an improvisation activity such as: Circle Singing, Murmuration or Traveling Trio.

I think improvisation is hard for many singers because they lack a) confidence and/or b) permission. Permission to make a mistake. More importantly, permission to make glorious sounds! I’m pleased to say that Rhiannon is just as good at teaching improv as she is at doing it. I learned at least one new technique that I hadn’t seen done before and I think will be useful.

If you are interested in vocal improv for Singing Meditation — or other — venues and are unfamiliar with Rhiannon I suggest you check out her website http://www.Rhiannonmusic.com Her calendar of workshops for 2016 is already posted.

Rhiannon teaching November 2015.

Rhiannon teaching November 2015.











Think of ‘pilgrimage’ and the palm-lined beaches of Kauai, Hawaii do not usually spring to mind! I have been here a week and DSC03912I find that the natural beauty surrounding me everywhere I look evokes a strong desire to respond to that beauty with a song — of joy! of gratitude! of praise! I have been singing “Namaste” (written by British bard Nickomo) to the dawn each morning. I have been singing the Taize song, “Confitemini Domino” to the trees and flowers. At the Lawai International Center I sang songs of peace at several of the Buddhist shrines. I have been singing softly in all cases in hope of not disturbing anyone else who might be within earshot. I knew there were others at the Lawai temple, but the song welling up inside myself could not be denied, so I sang softly in front of a lovely painting of a lotus flower. As I left, the attendant asked if I had been singing and I said yes, but I hoped I hadn’t broken any rules. She hastened to reassure me that she had enjoyed it! I only say this to encourage others who feel similarly moved to sing — to go ahead and sing! Don’t bottle the song within yourself, but sing (at least softly) and add your musical vibrations to the Universe that has called forth that song from your soul and heart!

For many centuries Buddhists (mostly practitioners of Shingon Buddhism) have been making pilgrimages to 88 temples on the Japanese island of Shikoku. The well-worn pilgrimage route is approximately 800 miles long. At each of these temples the pilgrims (who all wear conical hats to show they are on pilgrimage) first wash, then offer coins, incense and ‘name strips.’ Then they chant — first the Heart Sutra and then the Mantra of Light. One version of the Heart Sutra is included in the Singing Meditation songbook as “Gate Gate.” This sutra is apparently impossible to translate from the Sanskirt into English with any precision but overall it means something like — gone, gone, gone beyond.

In the early 1900s, Japanese immigrants to Hawaii wanted to emulate this pilgrimage route in Shikoku by creating 88 shrines,

Temple at Lawaii International Center

Temple at Lawaii International Center

each containing a sculpture of Buddha. This mini-pilgrimage route was on the side of a hill on a steep zig-zag path with a glorious view of the ocean. It is believed that this site was previously used for religious purposes by the ancient Hawaiians. The Lawai pilgrimage route fell into disuse by about 1960. The area quickly became overgrown. A dedicated group of volunteers sought to reclaim the area with chainsaws and fundraisers. They also built a small Buddhist temple using ancient building techniques that required chiseling each piece of wood with such precision that no nails were used to hold the structure together.

Tours are now offered the second and last Sundays of each month at 10am, noon and 2pm. They prefer it if you call ahead for a reservation. You can call 808-639-4300 or find more info on their website at lawaicenter. org When you arrive at the Lawai Center you will be greeted by a volunteer offering you a warm cup of jasmine tea and a small Japanese sweet bun. You begin by listening to a short introductory lecture about the site. Then you are encouraged to explore the site on your own. Incense sticks are available in front of a statue of Buddha and you are welcome to light one. Then you can enter the temple (after removing your shoes) to meditate and/or examine the architecture.

I started with meditation in the temple (and, as noted before, some singing softly). Then I made the trek to visit the miniature shrines. Each of these 88 shrines contains carvings and/or other small objects such as shells, stones, feathers, leaves, origami, or other objects meant to have spiritual significance.

The Lawai International Center is located not far from Koloa, in the lush Lawai valley of Kauai, at 3381 Wawae Road, Lawaii. There is no charge to attend. The pilgrimage trail is quite steep and narrow and has steps in several places.

Lawai pilgrimage to 88 shrines

Lawai pilgrimage to 88 shrines


I was asked to present Singing Meditation as part of an Interfaith lecture series at Grateful Steps bookstore in Asheville last night. I knew there wouldn’t be a piano. I had no idea who would show up IMG_3578and if any of them would be confident singers. But I set up an altar first — as I always do for Singing Meditation. I always thought I had done it to help the participants. But I found tonight that it had a calming and centering effect on ME. First, because the colors were soothing and pleasing to my eye. Second, dressing the table reminded me of the approach I had taken to Singing Meditation in the past when I had fretted about how many people might attend. My job is to ‘set the table’ — it is up to The Divine who shows up!

Unlike a typical Singing Meditation session, I started with some lecture about Singing Meditation — which I interspersed with teaching of songs. This way at the end of the lecture we already knew some songs in common and we could flow into an abbreviated Singing Meditation session. I brought a small toy piano I have in order to get some pitches, my voice was strong enough to teach a melody line, and I stomped my feet or shook a rattle to keep a beat as wanted.

Although we were a smaller group than I am accustomed to — I made a deliberate choice not to dwell on the fact we weren’t singing in rounds or in harmony. Instead I focused on the beauty of the melodies. And I found the silence between songs to be sweet. When I drew an angel card for a word of inspiration I chose ‘courage.’ It felt like a benediction.

I share this experience with the hope it might enourage you to offer a singing meditation session even if you don’t know who will show up and/or you have other factors that are less than ideal.  Even a small group can result in delicious silence where your heart and soul can be refreshed! May joy fill your heart this day!

Peter Yarrow is a man on a mission and that mission is to stop children from bullying other children. Says Yarrow, “Singing is the antidote to bullying.” He sadly noted the effect of current television shows on our society and decried the spate of television shows that are ‘reality’ based but seem to have the effect of moving us towards meanspiritedness towards others.

Peter Yarrow at the Swannanoa Gathering, July 2014.

Peter Yarrow at Swannanoa Gathering

He wanted to explore why elementary school kids (and older) hesitate and resist singing. It seems obvious that singing lightens our hearts and singing with others forges important social bonds that will keep kids feeling better about themselves – and others. So he asked people from the audience to stand up and offer their thoughts on this thorny problem. Reasons offered for school children not wanting to sing included:

  • Nowadays kids listen to ‘electronically enhanced’ singing and then ‘normal’ singing just doesn’t sound ‘good enough.’
  • Teachers themselves don’t think they can sing and that attitude rubs off on the kids.
  • Music has been left out of the school curriculum due to budgets.
  • Singing puts you in a vulnerable place.


Although Yarrow agreed with all the theories, he was most interested in the fourth one, saying it ‘hit the nail on the head.’ His conclusion is that we don’t just need a willingness to sing, we need a willingness to open our hearts to vulnerability. By singing and opening our hearts we will stop the mean spiritedness that leads to bullying.


To this end he has started a foundation called “Operation Respect” that goes to schools everywhere in the world (it is in 400 schools in Ukraine and in nearly every elementary school in Israel). See the website www.operationrespect.org for more information.

The song, “Don’t Laugh At Me,” has become a theme song for this effort. The song was written by Allen Shamblin and Steve Seskin, but as Yarrow sings, it is clear how deeply he believes in it. Here are the words:

++ Lyrics ++

I’m a little boy with glasses, the one they call a geek

A little girl who never smiles cuz I’ve got braces on my teeth

And I know how it feels to cry myself to sleep.

I am the kid on every playground

I’m the one that’s chosen last

I’m a single teenage mother trying to overcome my past

You don’t have to be my friend,


But is it too much to ask –

Refrain: Don’t laugh at me

Don’t call me names

Don’t get your pleasure from my pain

In God’s eyes we’re all the same

Someday we’ll all have perfect wings

Don’t laugh at me.


If you want to facilitate a singing group you will have to develop a method for teaching a new song. This is something I have struggled with over the years.  I have attended far too many sing-a-longs where the song leader just

Ruthie leading a song

Ruthie leading a song

expects everyone in attendance to know every song and makes no attempt to teach it to those of us who don’t know it.  Now this laid back approach might work if the songs are very short and repetitive AND you have a critical mass of people who already know it to carry the song as newcomers pick it up.  I find this approach to song leading to be extremely annoying and frustrating.  On the other hand, when I have been the one leading the singing I hate to come across as ‘too bossy.’  I have tried to just play a recording of a song and have singers learn the song that way. But in my experience that technique doesn’t work either because invariably people will start trying to sing along with the recording, even if they aren’t singing it correctly. And that muddles the water for everyone.

When I have a piano present I have found it effective to play a line on the piano, sing that line myself (along with the piano) and then invite others to join me in singing. But, alas, pianos are not always available and further, not all aspiring song leaders know how to play the piano. What to do then? I was at the Swannanoa Gathering this week at Warren Wilson College in Swannanoa, North Carolina.  One of the classes I took was Matt Watroba’s “Community Singing” class and most of the class focused on teaching a song.

There are three basic techniques: 1) Sing a line — then have the group repeat the line back until everyone has learned it, 2) Have the song leader gesture with one hand to show whether the pitch is going up or down and, relatively speaking, how FAR up or down the pitch is going in the next note,  3) When people know the basic melody but are only lacking the words (think “Lavender Blue Dilly Dilly”) shout out the words to the next line while people are singing the previous line.  It goes without saying that the song leader must thoroughly know the song for this to be successful.

I chose to teach a song I have taught dozens of times — “Cauldron of Changes.”  Using the piano technique has worked for me in the past. But the last time before Swannanoa I had tried to teach the song it had fallen flat. I was teaching a group of people who were experienced singers and had gathered together for a reason other than engaging in singing meditation.  As a result I lacked confidence and was worried I might come across as ‘too bossy.’ So I just kind of sang a line once, had them repeat it back once, and when it came to dividing up into a round I just vaguely said something like, “This song can be sung as a round, so just come in at another time if you want to.” I didn’t even designate where the second part should start. So, as I say, it fell flat.

This time, I decided to take the bull by the horns. I wrote the words on the black board. I underlined the syllables that need to be emphasized. I circled and starred the word showing where the next part of the round comes in. Lacking a drum, I used a tambourine to emphasize the rhythm. (Lacking a tambourine I could have slapped my thigh.) I used an app on my iPad to get the correct starting pitch (I like to start on middle C).  I sang each line and had them repeat each line. I moved my hand up and down to give an idea of where the pitch was going. I’m happy to report the result was a success.

And I learned something very valuable in the process. If you are going to undertake to teach a song, you are NOT serving anyone by worrying about ‘being bossy.’ You need to be directive if you are going to teach a song, even if your group is one of accomplished singers. So if you are going to teach a song then don’t try to make yourself ‘small’ — take charge and teach that song!

If you would like to hear Cauldron of Changes, go to YouTube and search on “Ephemerata Singers” or go to this link.


Hello Singers! I had almost forgotten about the Singing Meditation songs we posted on YouTube back in 2010. I checked on “Cauldron of Changes” (sung by the Ephemerata Singers) and was delighted to see there have been 2,927 views! I’d love to see if go over 3,000. This is the link:

While you are on YouTube you might also want to watch the other two Singing Meditation songs on there: “The Earth, the Air, the Fire, the Water” and “Let Joy Fill Your Heart.” All sung by the Ephemerata Singers.

May you sing today if you haven’t already! And may joy fill your heart every day, Ruthie

Helen Gierke, co-editor of the Singing Meditation songbook and facilitator of Singing Meditation in Florida, wrote this beautiful round that honors the goals of peace, joy and love. In 2009 the Ephemerata Singers recorded this song in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. I finally fitted some images to the song and posted them to YouTube. Here is the link

I hope you will sing along!