Why Stone Singing Is Good For Your Soul
My very first paid singing job was for the Washington National Cathedral in Washington, DC. I was not a trained singer, I was new as new can be.
How did it happen?
A member of the National Cathedral clergy found me singing in St. Joseph Chapel one day and stopped to listen.
“What are you singing?” she asked.
I said, “It’s not a song on paper, I’m making it up as I go.”
She paused. I didn’t know how to read her silence.
At last she said,“You should speak to someone around here about singing for us.”‘
She mentioned the person to contact. “Please use my name when you call her. In the meantime, I’ll put in a good word for you.”
After an informal audition, I was hired to sing Improvisational singing prayer for Ember Day, which is a day of silence or singing, no speaking.
They requested improvisational singing prayer based on the New Zealand Prayer book version of the Lord’s Prayer, which is really beautiful and quite different from the King James version. You could say it’s in the direction of the Aramaic interpretation.
On that Ember Day, the Cathedral was closed to the public. Those who signed up for the experience were allowed to explore the space freely, as well as attend singing events in the various downstairs chapels. We also ate a silent meal together.
The Experience of Stone Singing
For me, there is nothing more beautiful than experiencing improvisational singing prayer in the Washington National Cathedral. Surrounded by the support of stone walls, a little effort goes a long way, allowing a singer to enter a meditative zone that only stone can provide.
The natural reverb encourages (actually insists) that sounds made follow the way of stone, that sound movement be slow and steady, not clever and quick, which invites the heart to sing, not the head.
Improvisational singing prayer is, by nature, meditative.
In Washington, DC a couple weeks ago, I visited the Cathedral and returned to the chapels where I had practiced regularly and where I sang for Ember Day. I had not been back for many years.
Besides the chapels, there is a secret place by the choir room where I sang regularly, because I could close the very tall door (the kind you’d imagine a castle would have) and be invisible. When a walking tour came through, they could hear me, but not see me. On occasion, I could hear them commenting on my song, or inquiring where the sound of my song was coming from.
On this recent visit, I sang for my Mom in that secret place by the choir room. There are no chairs, so we made a pillow for her and she actually laid down on the stone floor to enjoy the sound fully with her eyes closed.
I lived in DC for a number of years when my daughter was young, and visited the Cathedral regularly to walk the lower chapels and sing.
One day, the Cathedral was especially empty, so I sang in a hallway alone for a long time before hearing footsteps from far away. I continued to sing as the person approached.
It turns out the footsteps belonged to someone with the title “The Very Reverend” who said, “I walked a long way down this hall to see where this beautiful sound was coming from. I hope you will always continue to sing this way. Please never stop.”
After he left, yes, I wept quietly, happily. If you know me, you’ll say, “Of course she did…”
I have always remembered his kind words.
I’ve walked the Cathedral and the surrounding property and sung in the Cathedral for more hours than I can count, which means I’ve been held by the peaceful presence of its stone walls for days or months, I’m not sure. What I know, though, from singing in the serenity of a stone chapel is that there is nothing like it.
Improvisational singing prayer in a resonant space is the most calming practice I know and I miss it. If I could, I would sing that way every day.
Oh, I sing at home, for sure, and sometimes in meditation I visit the National Cathedral. Because I know it so well, it’s easy to be there in my imagination. I’ve also sought out other resonant places, including Mission San Juan Capistrano (Dana Pt, California), Cathedrals in and around Paris and a certain hundred year old chapel in Italy near Perugia on a bed and breakfast property known as Locanda del Gallo.
But for me, nothing quite matches the feeling of being with the walls, tall ceilings, history and feel of the Washington National Cathedral. For some reason, the National Cathedral feels like home to me, even though I’m a Quaker who attended silent Meeting growing up — all silence, no singing and very little speaking.