Singing Bowls: A wordless call to worship

So much of the Western culture is based on words and speech, and sometimes we saturate our liturgies with words thinking that verbal explanation and direction are more effective than sound, color, and gesture. Yet imagine these two scenarios. Both take place at a Sunday morning Mass in Lent. Both Masses are packed, many are children. People are gathering in the church, many greet each other catching up on the week’s events, some spend time in quiet prayer, parents settle into the pews with their children, the choir finishes up the last moments of rehearsal. The cantor begins to rehearse the psalm with the assembly, half of whom are still trying to find a seat. Most aren’t paying much attention to the rehearsal. From all this activity, the Mass must begin.

A tale of two assemblies
Now, in one scenario, the cantor instructs the assembly to stand, repeating the instruction a few times before the whole assembly hears the direction. People flip through the hymnal searching for the opening song. The music begins, the singing is weak, the procession is hurried, and hearts and minds have not yet begun to gather.

In the second scenario, the cantor steps away from the mic and stands quietly for a full minute. Then she moves slowly but confidently to the front of the assembly where all can see her. She is joined by another music minister who stands next to her holding a small golden bowl. They wait again there, slowly making eye contact with as many people in the assembly as they can. Then without a word, they both raise their arms in a giant sweep beginning from the side of their legs and slightly forward to just above their shoulders, all the while maintaining eye contact and a gentle smile. The assembly stands. The cantor lowers her arms while the music minister raises the golden bowl higher for the whole assembly to see. In his other hand he holds a short wooden stick. After another thirty seconds of silence, he brings the stick to rest at the side of the bowl in preparation to strike it. He waits another thirty seconds before he strikes the bowl. A pure clean piercing bell tone sounds throughout the room. After a few heart beats, he strikes it again and finally a third time. He slowly lowers the stick as he lets the bowl resonate and the sound drift away. When the tone is almost inaudible, the cantor begins a cappella, “Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom.” The assembly easily picks up the song on the second phrase since it has been their gathering song for all the Sundays of Lent for the last couple years. The choir adds harmonies while a Celtic drum gives a steady downbeat. Every other refrain the golden bowl is struck again on the first down beat, offering its own unique voice to the choir.

Gathering well
Diana using a singing bowlIn both scenarios, the assembly was called to worship, but in which did the assembly feel gathered together? While the first relied on verbal direction and visual cues from the hymnal to gather the assembly, the second used silence, sound, gesture, eye contact, and memory to unite people’s hearts and minds.

The second also used an instrument called a “singing bowl”, traditionally employed in Buddhist prayer and healing services. Singing bowls come in a variety of sizes, from as small as two to three inches in diameter to large flowerpot sizes. In Tibetan tradition, they are usually made of seven different metals corresponding to the heavenly bodies: gold for the Sun, silver for the Moon, mercury for the planet Mercury, copper for Venus, iron for Mars, tin for Jupiter, and lead for Saturn. Today’s bowls are typically made of brass. The sounds they make are used to purify spaces (the larger ones are even used to purify whole villages), to heal the body, and to calm and center a person for meditation.

East versus West?
Some Western communities might be hesitant to use this Eastern instrument, thinking perhaps its Buddhist origins might be contradictory to use in a Catholic setting. However, using a bell-sound is not foreign to our Catholic sensibilities. Think of the sound of the carillon or bell tower of a church calling the town to gather for prayer; or the sound of altar bells signaling the consecration during the Mass. Even today, in many Vietnamese Catholic communities in the United States, you will see a large singing bowl next to the altar. Instead of the typically, jangly bells historically meant to jar the passive assembly back to attention at the consecration, these Asian Catholic communities use the singing bowl at this most reverent time. Its unique, meditative sound fits well with the heightened solemnity of this part of the Mass.

Also, one way the singing bowl is used in Buddhist prayer is similar to the way we use incense. As Buddhist monks pray, they strike a singing bowl, gong, or chime. They believe that the sound of these instruments carry their prayers up, in the same way we believe the rising of incense carries our prayers to heaven.

How to make a singing bowl sing
There are two ways to play a singing bowl. In both methods, the bowl must be free from anything that would unnecessarily dampen its vibration. So the bowl would rest in the palm of your hand or on a small cushion. If in your palm, do not cup the bowl, but hold your palm flat, or use just your fingertips to balance the bowl.

In the first method of playing, the bowl is struck on its side with a wooden stick. The tone produced is clear and piercing. But every bowl will have its own unique sound, based on size, shape, age, and quality. Also, the type of stick you use will affect the sound. Some sticks are wrapped in leather, wool, or felt, producing a more gentle sound. Finally, the tone will change dramatically depending on the force used and the location on the bowl of the strike, for example on the rim or just below the rim.

In the second method of playing a singing bowl, the wooden stick is rub around the rim of the bowl, in the same way a person would rub the rim of a wineglass. For this method, holding the bowl on the tips of your fingers may work best. Rub the stick around the outside rim of the bowl, keeping the stick slightly angled inward, and use a steady, even pressure toward the center of the bowl. It will take more pressure than you expect to get the bowl singing. As you do this you will feel the bowl begin to vibrate and the sound will start to come out. If the bowl begins to “chatter”, decrease the rate of the movement while keeping the pressure constant. The slower the pace, the louder the tone. If you have trouble getting the vibration started, gently tap the bowl with the stick, then begin to rub the stick on the rim of the bowl. This second method produces a deeper tone than striking the bowl. It also can accentuate the harmonics of your bowl, so that you may hear several pitches. Because of the deeper tone, it may be quieter and may need a microphone to fill an entire church.

Other ways to use a singing bowl
Many communities have begun to use these instruments to start their Masses and other liturgies. Using a singing bowl during faith-sharing gatherings and other group meetings is also an effective way to center a group, call them to attention, and begin prayer. The unique tone cuts through the noise of group conversation, calms the assembly, and focuses their attention on the meeting or prayer at hand. However, as we saw in the opening scenarios, other “non-verbal” elements can help to make the use of a singing bowl more effective.

Look at how you gather your assemblies. How do you give instructions? Do you say, “please stand” when a solid gesture would be enough? Do you creatively use percussion instruments, such as bells, gongs, singing bowls, and hand drums? Do you remember to poise yourself confidently, using eye contact and large strong movements to communicate? Do you rely too much on printed text and not enough on repetition, mantras, and ostinato chants learned from memory? Let’s take a non-verbal cue from other cultures and learn to speak without words.

What to look for in choosing a singing bowl
The best way to choose the right singing bowl for you is to try several of them out in person. Each bowl is unique in weight, feel in your hand, and sound. You can look for them at many music stores that sell ethnic instruments, yoga centers, and businesses that specialize in Asian or imported goods.
check out TeamRCIA's singing bowls
If you’re nowhere near a singing bowl vendor, check out the bowls we provide here in our TeamRCIA Resource Center. Each bowl is tested out and hand-picked by Diana, so you’ll know that you’re getting a great sounding bowl.

When choosing a singing bowl in person, here’s how you can test the quality of your bowl:

  • Hold your hand open and flat, and balance your bowl on your palm. Try not to let your fingers touch the sides of the bowl since this will deaden the sound.
  • Feel its weight. Bowls of thinner material usually sound more metalic and higher-pitched than thicker more solid-weighted bowls.
  • Using a wooden stick, strike the bowl’s side once just below the lip. Keep your stick parallel to the ground as you hit the bowl. To get a different, more gentle sound, use a mallet wrapped with felt, leather, or wool.
  • Start with a soft gentle strike. Then try a medium force. Then finally, give your bowl a good strong hit. Let the tone die down each time before hitting the bowl to test how long the bowl sounds with each type of strike.
  • Finally, make your bowl sing. Holding the bowl in your palm, gently strike the bowl with your stick. Then, as the bowl is ringing, hold the stick upside down at a 45 degree angle. Place the stick against the outside edge of the bowl’s rim, and rub the stick slowly around the circumference of the rim using even pressure all the way around. This motion is similar to rubbing your finger around the lip of a wine glass to make it vibrate. If you’re bowl starts to “chatter”, slow down your motion. You’ll probably need to practice this a bit. You can rub the bowl with the felt or the wooden part of the stick. Some bowls are harder to make sing than others. Each bowl will be different.
  • Tones will vary in pitch depending on the size of your bowl. Listen for a clarity in the bowl’s tone. Some bowls will have a “buzzing” sound; some will sound “tinny”; some bowls will make several “notes” simultaneously. This will sound discordant. (Don’t get this sound mixed up with the pleasant natural harmonics that occur with any tone.) Most likely you will want a bowl that makes a clear “pure” single tone that doesn’t fade too quickly. If you don’t get a clear sound, make sure you are not dampening the sound too much with your hand and that you are striking the bowl solidly just beneath the lip. If you still don’t get the quality of sound you want, find another bowl.

Before you make a final decision, think about how you plan to use your bowl. If you want to use it for liturgies in a large church, you will probably need a larger bowl to fill the space. Different kinds of mallets will also give you a different sound. A mallet with a crack will give you an imperfect sound. A mallet wrapped with felt gives a less harsh sound but might also be too quiet for your needs. You can often ask the vendor for a different mallet that goes better with your bowl. Also note that the small cushions that often accompany the bowls are not always necessary to use. Only bowls that you cannot hold comfortably in your hand will need a cushion.

A large-size, machine-made, new bowl (5-6 inches in diameter) of good quality can run you about $65 to $90. The stick is always included in the price. Cushions may or may not be included. Smaller bowls (3-4 inches) will be about $40 to $60. Hand-made bowls are usually more expensive; antique bowls (hundreds of years in age) can go up into the thousands of dollars! Very small bowls (sometimes called “cup” bowls), 3.5 inches and under are good only for personal use. Their sound will not carry in a large room. Stay away from crystal bowls. These are new-age interpretations of the ancient, religious tradition of the singing bowl.

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