When Elissa Weinzeimmer agreed to host a Modern Micrographia devoted to sound, she told me she needed a quiet space: somewhere comfortable with pillows. After a small amount of sleuthing for other locations, I realized that hosting it in my apartment was the coziest place I knew. My pillow addiction is equal only to my blanket one, meaning I have a blanket rack and a pillow rack (otherwise known as a couch). So, on a Wednesday in February, I invited a small group into my house.
Elissa showed up first carrying a box and escorted by a friend. As she took off her purple hat, and unwrapped herself from her multicolored jacket, she asked for a blanket to sit her instrument on top of.
“It’s inside the box,” she explained.
As I found a fluffy white blanket and laid it at her feet, she settled on top of the small step in my apartment that leads to the outdoor patio. Then she lifted and laid her instrument on top of the fuzzy white blanket. The growing crowed settled in to the couch and the pillows around her. Everyone went quiet. Except for me.
“What is that?” I asked pointing at the instrument she was unfolding from the box.
“It might look ancient,” she said. “But it’s actually a more modern invention. It’s effectively an accordion on its side. It’s known as a harmonium.”
Some of the people around the room murmured. They had seen harmoniums played in yoga classes and other experiences that were focused on communal sound as a means of meditation.
“I’m going to use it to teach you about how sound works,” she explained. A voice coach who has spent the past decade teaching singers and performers to more holistically use their voices, Elissa was also now returning to her own singing career. “Does anyone here know how your vocal chords work?”
A few people nodded in acknowledgement but most of us shook our heads, as Elissa pulled out a model of the human throat. The human throat was an instrument she had become fascinated with at an early age and studied to understand biomechanically how vocal chords worked when they were producing sound. Effectively, they move not as muscles but in response to our breathing. So, the path to improving one’s vocal chords is not like learning to improve one’s abs, but rather requires one learn how breath works and improve the way that one breathes.
“That blows my mind,” I said, as other people laughed. But, that wasn’t the big lesson that I took away from the experience. That happened next.
“Now I want you take what you are learning, and we are going to try to manipulate sound together,” she said.
Her hands pressed on the harmonium. A full, melodic notes drifted towards us.
“Let’s try to make this sound together and then we are going to learn to make the sound bigger and then to shift the direction we push the sound.”
When we wanted to push the sound upward, we said “ah”. When we wanted to push the sound outward, we said “ooooo”; and, when we wanted to push the sound sideways, we said “eeee”. As we started to make the sounds in tandem, my living room began to feel like a different place. The sound bounced off the walls. It swelled into the ceiling. And it began to surround us.
“We are going to try something else now,” said Elissa. “We are all going to try to make am “oh” sound. Do you know that “ohhhmmmmm” is the sound of the universe?”
A few people nodded their heads. I looked around bewildered.
“The sound ‘ohm’” she explained “is the sound when we combine the “ah” and the “oo” and the “eee”. Ohm encompasses all sounds. And, it is the sound that most clearly represents the noise that the universe makes.”
I was.. skeptical, but I curious. So, I nodded my head and began to make the ohm sound with the others. Together we practiced pulling it higher and pushing the sound to the side and behind us. As we repeated the sound and the experience of making the sound in unison, my apartment began to feel less and less like the place where I cuddled on my pillows to watch the tv show du juor, and more and more like a sacred holy place.
The act of universally connecting and creating a sound made my apartment feel like a church.
“One of my mentors believes that if we could all sound together, we would have world peace,” she said. She’s smiling in a way where I’m not sure if she is joking or not, but for a moment I believe her. In singing together our voices connected and a space I know intimately, transformed.
Sound created in unison is transformative, and while engaged in making sound with others I felt meaningfully and deeply connected to the group. There is a little secret in that.