In the Spring of 1982, when I was 21 and a first-year music composition student at the Guildhall School of Music, I suddenly had a very surprising experience. I was dealing with acute anxiety, due to a sudden split-up from a boyfriend, when something in me suddenly, profoundly shifted. As the stress was building, I decided to go for a walk to try and steady myself. I got downstairs, left the building, and arrived on the pavement. There I asked myself a question: “where are you going??” I couldn’t answer the question. My mind went blank and in the next moment a super-charged, benign, high-energy column of white light, coming from what felt like the heavens, shot through the crown of my head and filled me up from tip to toe. I was immersed in a column of bliss, love, and complete oneness with everything. I remained fixed to the spot and blinded by this light for an indeterminate amount of time… After some time, my sight slowly returned again, and I could see the world around me. Everything looked brand new. I felt brand new. The stress was completely gone, and I felt a deep inner peace for the first time in my life.
It became clear, as time went on after this experience, that I was going to offer my services as a musician in a way that was open to, and curious about, the bigger questions. For example – ‘what is music?’ A question that was posed to the children at the start of every Gemini music workshop, run by composer Peter Wiegold, and in which I assisted as artist-leader, during the mid 1980’s. It is a question that travels with me still.
To jump about twenty years to the early 2000’s (as this article has word limits) I found myself drawn back towards Indian classical vocal music, first taught to me by Viram Jasani at the Guildhall in 1985, and, remembering my courses during the 1990’s with Chloe Goodchild and Gillet Petit, I wanted to learn more about the Raga, particularly the opening, non-rhythmic, alap, which, it seems to me, involves singing while in meditation. In contrast, the fiery-earthy fast gamak ornamentations also drew me. I participated in several rounds of study at the Asian Music Circuit Summer School learning the basics of the Khyal style North Indian Raga with pandits Rajan and Sajan Misra, between 1999 – 2005.
After so many years of freely improvised voice work with my clients (- the twenty years we can’t cover here) – while running Therapeutic Voicework sessions, I enjoyed – and probably needed, the discipline of study again, and to deepen my vocal skills.
The slow introductory Raga alap is a very detailed form of vocal mirroring of psyche. The singer meditates vocally on the poetic and mythical qualities of the rasa – the flavour of the pitches in the mode and its tuning. This microscopic enquiry into the scale, introducing each note, each slide, and tuning shruti interval, reveals the singer’s depth of devotion to the musical moment.
I was experimenting for some time with this kind of improvised singing, drawing on the Raga alap and also on other important influences, including the ‘Extended Vocal Technique’ of contemporary classical music, used by singers such as Cathy Berberian, and the Cante Hondo (deep song) of the Flamenco gypsies, with whom I had spent some time in the early nineties. I was also drawing on Tai Chi, which I had begun in the early 1980s.
As I vocalised – I moved. It is the most natural thing in the world. My Tai Chi movements were forming in harmony with the meditational vocal, improvised alap – and the movements were also improvised, not formal as in the Tai Chi sequence. The two things just came together, unconsciously, and in my own, improvisatory way.
As I was experimenting, a friend and Qi Gong instructor (similar to Tai Chi), Jazz Rasool, who was with me as I was practising said, “as you are singing the ‘chi’ (vital energy’ in Chinese medicine) is activating in my body and ‘moving’ me. It feels like a vocal form of Tai Chi”.
The title ‘Vocal Tai Chi’ was thus, born, with this comment from Jazz – in 2009. It was two years before I stepped out with it at the end of 2011. From then on it has been of interest to many people, who have wanted to discover their own chi-infused free-singing voice.
The most well-known part of the pure Tai Chi movement style, has slow, graceful and disciplined movements, which might suggest, on first glance, that Vocal Tai Chi was also a slow, graceful and similarly disciplined approach to voicework. There is indeed that that parallel, relative to the experience of each participant. However, Tai Chi is also dynamic and employs spontaneous and energetic processes as well. Masters of Tai Chi can activate, through their sage use of the chi vital energy, intense shaking releases in their students – trauma-release, if you will.
Vocal Tai Chi also moves across a wide spectrum, drawing particularly on a practice that identifies a different model of vocal timbres, expanding the usual SATB (soprano, alto, tenor, bass) divisions in the voice, in favour of a wider ranging, less classical, model. The voice itself now becomes a chi transmitter, as the canvas of the spontaneous song is none other than your own life, as it is arising. This can sometimes include trauma release – but more often includes an imaginative flow of body-mind-voice-play. However the voice is approached, it always includes the art of vocal improvisation, a flow-form that uses many skills that can be developed.
While Vocal Tai Chi is not a direct vocal mirroring of Tai Chi, as there is not a specific vocal phrase that for example, goes with the Tai Chi arm-expanding movement ‘white crane spreads it wings’ it is as if these two independent worlds, Tai Chi and free-singing, are each entering into the field of the other, dissolving lines of separation that divide these independent worlds into a third space, that draws on both paradigms, each supporting the other.
In September 2022 I announced the first Apprenticeship in Vocal Tai Chi to share over thirty years of experience of doing this kind of work. The twenty years missed out in this brief article were spent developing techniques to help people therapeutically, using the sounding-singing-moving voice and body, based on a practice called Therapeutic Voicework.
This article consists of some short and adapted extracts of text from the chapter “Beyond Music Workshops – A Composer and A Community” written by Jenni Roditi, to appear in the “Routledge Companion to Women’s Musical Leadership – The Nineteenth Century And Beyond” – forthcoming, November 2023.
Apprenticeship in Vocal Tai Chi runs April – July 2023, North London, UK. There is a taster workshop for the apprenticeship on January 8th 2023 in North London. Applications close – February 1st 2023.