COLORADO AVE — Music as a form of meditation is often associated with listening to soothing melodies or humming mantras during yoga.
Mollie Birney, a voice instructor at the Santa Monica Conservatory of Music, instead believes that the experience of choral singing is more where the meditation lies.
For the last four months, Birney, a Santa Monica native, has been hosting workshops once a month at the conservatory called Music as Meditation where participants use meditative and mindful vocal activities to not only gain a sense of grounding and of self, but to also engage in a choral experience.
“I believe in the creation of sound as a therapeutic and expressive medium,” Birney said.
The workshops run about an hour and a half with at least eight participants for a $25 suggested donation. Participants range from those with extensive experience in music or meditation to complete novices in both.
Josh Epstein, a friend of Birney with a life-long musical background, said he got a relaxing therapeutic experience out of the workshops he attended.
“I got this amazing sense of calm out of the first one,” Epstein said. “There was a real openness to my breathing, which I know I would get if I practiced meditation more, which I just don’t, which is foolish.”
Birney’s workshop offerings come at a time when 20 percent of Americans report extreme stress, according to the 2012 Stress in America national survey report from the American Psychological Association. While the same report indicates that national adult stress levels are decreasing over time, residents on the West Coast reported the second highest average stress level in the country with a 5.1 on a 10 point scale.
Diana Winston, director of mindfulness education at the UCLA Mindfulness Awareness Research Center, said that mindful meditation which pays attention to being in the now — much like that in Birney’s workshops — can be helpful in not only reducing stress but also in treating inflammatory diseases, depression and anxiety.
“Any practice that can reduce stress and create more self-awareness is beneficial,” Winston said.
Though Birney has had about five years of meditation experience herself, her background and passion lies in choral conducting and singing — a culture which has created an atmosphere of limitation for many.
“There’s a sense of exclusivity, that not everyone can sing or that choirs are for people who have this specific amount of training,” Birney said.
“One of the things that I seek to do in this workshop, toward the end of it, is that there is a sense of unison in singing and harmony, singing with awareness of the body and awareness of the meditative process that moved us there,” she added.
Workshops typically start with brief introductions and progress into meditative silence where attention is given to breathing, followed by standing meditation and simple vocal exercises that culminate into singing rounds with two and three part harmonies.
Intermittently, Birney asks participants how each activity made them feel. This is where the therapeutic element comes into full swing.
Birney recalled a woman during the first workshop sharing that she thought her voice had offended those present. When the others provided their own feedback on her voice, the woman realized how divorced her self-perception was from reality. Birney added that this harsh self-criticism recurs among her participants.
“It’s an unusual forum, not quite like group therapy, where people can express the fears and subconscious anxiety that we’re not always aware of and we’re certainly not going to talk about with people,” Birney said.
At another workshop, an adult and child, each with vocal training, performed in front of the group and both fell apart due to nerves. The child simply thought she had made a mistake but the adult felt that she made a mistake for failing the task. The workshop then evolved on its own to address the woman’s concerns as a group.
Birney hopes to start hosting rehearsals in August for a community choir that stems out of the workshops called Work in Progress. Membership is open to anyone, though participation in one of the workshops will be preferred.
While Birney has not yet worked out all the details, she hopes that the choir will be able to record a CD to add in a performative element without taking away from the community bonding that occurs among the participants.
The next workshop will be on July 20. Registration is accessible at musicasmeditation.com.