Discovering the Male Tone of a Singing Bowl

It was Fall of 2000, and the 2nd International Conference on Buddhism, fittingly, was off to a quiet start. Rain and I had driven from Los Angeles through the Southwest and the Rockies, and had arrived late at night our first visit to the YMCA Conference Center in Estes Park.  We pulled up in front of the administration building to check in, and parked in spaces overlooking the soccer field.  I got out of the truck and reveled at the sweetness of the mountain air and the explosion of stars above the black, vaulting Rockies rising around us.

On the wind, I heard a strange clacking sound.  The first image my mind conjured was a couple of martial artists stick fighting in the field, but that was silly, I thought.  It’s 11:00 at night. I stared hard into the darkness.  Slowly, the forms of two young bull elk began to emerge, playing at combat, locking their young antlers together, trying to wrestle the other into submission, breaking free, and charging again. Strange creatures, males, I thought.

Estes Park YMCA

Estes Park YMCA

We set our booth up in the Chapel, and we were the first booth inside the entrance.  There were only about 20 other vendors, mostly with Traditional Himalayan handicrafts, Nepali statues, Thangkas, jewelry and some clothing.  There were Western artists reproducing traditional Buddhists subjects, as well as vendors of books, CDs, and zafus.  We clearly had the largest selection of singing bowls. Only problem was, the Buddhists Conference was only attended by about 200 meditators, and they weren’t buying.  So it was a long 3 days, sitting at the booth, playing bowls, waiting for the lectures to break.
One day, Nawang Kechog, an old friend of Rain’s and a future Grammy award winning Tibetan flutist, came by the booth to hang out.  He was relaxing on the bench on the back of the booth, and casually picked up a bowl to play it.  First thing I noticed was the lack of angle on this stick; it was not poised along the edge as we normally do to play the female overtone.  Next thing I noticed was, nothing was happening.

I’m from New York.  At least, that’s where I came of age as an adult, and presumably, where my energy got stuck on hyper.  I have the ability, which I have tried to curb with varying degrees of success over the years, to open my mouth and speak without thinking. So, in this particular situation, I brazenly suggested to the brilliant Tibetan musician “Nawang, if you angle your stick just a little bit on the outside of the lip, your tone will come up much faster.”

Tibetan musician Nawang Khechog

Tibetan musician Nawang Khechog

He smiled serenely, and continued rotating the stick straight against the outside wall of the bowl.  Soon, I began to feel a warm sensation, and then became aware that my inner ears were vibrating with a deep sound I had never heard, emitting from the bowl.  If was the male tone of the singing bowl, solo, without the female overtone that until that moment, had been the male tone’s constant companion!

“How are you doing that, Nawang?!” I blushed, realizing that only a minute earlier, I had been essentially giving him instructions how to play a singing bowl.  He demonstrated how to keep the stick straight, flush against the wall of the bowl, in contact with the “belly”, or the widest point of the wall.  The belly will be pronounced on some bowls, as in Lotus bowls and Highwalls, or straighter as in the medium size thadobatis we call Karma or Buddha bowls.

As we didn’t have leather covered mallets back then, he was isolating the fundamental with the wooden end of the mallet, which is harder to do because there is less traction of the hard surface of the mallet to grab the molecules in the bowl and get them moving.  Now that leather padded mallets either come with your bowl or can be requested for a second mallet at an additional cost, learning how to isolate the fundamental is much easier.

Remember to breathe!  In general, singing bowls require us to be fully oxygenated when we play them, or we do not have enough Chi to make them sing.  This is especially true with the Fundamental tone.

Also, the male tone of a singing bowl is shy, and needs to be coaxed out of the bowl, not pressured, like the female.  A light touch works best!  Although playing any singing bowl around the rim is a great exercise in concentration, the fundamental technique requires the mind to be very focused and quiet to begin with.  So practice isolating the fundamental after you’ve been playing the female overtone for a few minutes and the bowl is warmed up, and your mind is quieted down.

Isolating the Fundamental

Sit comfortably in a chair or on the floor, with your back straight, as you would for meditation. Breathe generously, but naturally, from your diaphragm.  Check in with your body.  Are you holding excess energy in your arms, shoulders, legs, your face?  Breathe into any tension, and let it go.

Hold your mallet in your dominant hand, with your bowl sitting on your receiving hand.  Important! Keep the hand holding the bowl very flat, with your fingers relaxed, but energized so that they do not unconsciously wrap around the base of the bowl while you are playing.  Even a slight touch will dampen the fundamental!  Hold your dominant arm away from your rib cage enough so that you do not have to bend your wrist in order to position the mallet against the wall of the bowl.

Massage the wall of the bowl with the leather end of the mallet.  You can use a light pressure on a thin walled bowl, slightly more pressure on a bowl with a thicker wall.  Start out briskly, but start to slow down as you feel the vibration beginning to come up.  Once it does, adjust your speed and pressure according to the volume of the bowl.  If the voice is very quiet, ramp up the speed or pressure just a bit.  If the voice of the bowl is edgy and the mallet is chattering, slow down.

If you are stirring your bowl for quite a while and not feeling any vibration, look at what you are doing and observe what you’re doing.  Here are the top 3 problems most people run into:

*Is your receiving hand clutching the bowl?
* Are you are breathing?
* Is your mallet flush against the wall of the bowl, rather than angled against the lip?  If you are just getting the mid tone or female tone, this may be the case.

Try to practice this on a medium size bowl before you try it on a cup bowl, as this technique is tricky on smaller bowls and does not work at all on very small, dense bowls with large, triangulated lips.

Because of my energetic edge, I tend to resonate to the lower tones of bowls.  The male tone is so healing for me, so I use it all the time. It’s much subtler than the female overtone; we feel it as much as hear it. I will always be grateful to Nawang for showing me how to access this tone.  Now you can do it, too!

For a demonstration, please visit my video “How to Play a Singing Bowl.  Enjoy your practice!