The power of the human voice
A participant in last year’s chanting workshop, presented by Susan Dedell.

The power of the human voice

‘Altered States’ offers a weekend exploration of chanting and how it can transform us

BRATTLEBORO — “I have been chanting every day for most of my life but I really don't fully understand it,” says Susan Dedell, who this weekend is bringing together a group of experts to explore what chant is all about.

In essence, chant is the rhythmic speaking or singing of words or sounds that becomes a heightened and stylized form of speech.

Sometimes chant is considered music.

Chant may range from a simple melody involving a limited set of notes to highly complex structures, often including a great deal of repetition of musical subphrases, such as in Gregorian chant. In the later Middle Ages some religious chant evolved into song.

Chanting is a commonly used spiritual practice, and diverse spiritual traditions consider chant a route to spiritual development.

“Whether it be spiritual or simply physiological, this practice of breathing and body alignment has proven over time to have many substantial benefits for the people who use it,” Dedell says.

Dedell, director of the Brattleboro Concert Choir, and music director at St. Michael's Episcopal Church in Brattleboro, is founder and director of Winged Productions, a nonprofit that presents a series of musical performances, theatrical productions, visual art, workshops, and lectures delving into fundamental questions of spirituality.

On Saturday, Nov. 14, and Sunday, Nov. 15, Winged Production presents “Altered States: A Weekend of Chanting” at St. Michael's. The schedule of events includes an introduction to chanting practices, explanations of various chanting traditions, and the consideration of the psychological benefits of this practice.

Altered States has invited several experienced teachers and practitioners to lead an experiential weekend of chant that past participants suggest can be mind-mending.

Three guests - Amer Latif, Shital Kinkhabwala, and Rebbe Moshe Waldoks - will join Dedell and area psychiatrist Lesley Fishelman to investigate the intersection of physical, mental, and spiritual health.

Experts lead the way

Organizers say the group will explore chanting practices that anyone can translate into his or her daily life.

Although each comes from a different tradition, all guests say they hope to demonstrate the similarities and differences among related Christian, Hindu, Jewish, and Muslim practices, both from experiential and scientific perspectives.

“Our guests are really wonderful teachers and personalities,” Dedell says. “Each is open-minded and curious about the world around them and is able to see how another's experience can be similar.”

Latif is professor of religious studies at Marlboro College and guest lecturer at Cambridge University and the University of London. An authority on the poet Rumi, Latif has studied Sufi chant extensively.

Dedell describes Latif's teaching style and “boundless curiosity” as “truly magnetic,” and notes his undergraduate degree in physics speaks to his scientific bent.

“His ability to think scientifically as well as philosophically and spiritually ties in really well with our program's interest in the broader questions about chanting practices,” Dedell says.

Two traditional Sufi musicians will accompany Latif this weekend:

Shital Kinkabwala, from India, grew up immersed in the daily prayers and mantras of the Hindu faith.

“Shital's warm style of communicating puts everyone at ease, and she has a gift for teaching in a simple, inviting manner,” Dedell explains. “She is a lovely person for whom chanting springs from a personal source. Interestingly, she insists that what she does is not religious, because she calls someone religious if they use rites.”

Kinkabwala will be accompanied by Indian musician Bada Raga.

Rabbi Moshe Waldoks brings many years of deep, eclectic experiences to his role as spiritual leader of Brookline, Mass.-based Temple Beth Zion. Educated in a Yiddish-speaking yeshiva and holding a doctorate in Jewish intellectual history, Waldoks has taught at Brandeis University and Hebrew and Wellesley colleges.

A hallmark of Waldoks' career is his devotion to building bridges across cultures and faiths. Participating in a groundbreaking encounter with Polish Catholicism in 1988 as a guest of Krakow's Cardinal Macharski, Waldoks and his colleagues confronted the age-old anti-Semitic teachings of the pre-Vatican II Polish Catholic Church.

To complement these teachers, Dedell has invited behavioral psychologist Dr. Lesley Fishelman to speak on the effect of chant on our bodies.

Fishelman, who served as chief of outpatient psychiatry at the Anna Marsh Behavioral Care Clinic at the Brattleboro Retreat, graduated from Yale University School of Medicine, where she also trained for psychiatry. She founded the first Stress and Holistic Pain Management program at the Harvard Community Health Plan in Boston and the Alternative Medicine program at its Kenmore center.

“Lesley has long studied the use of chant and meditation in several physiological traditions,” Dedell says. “She brings a scientific background to our understanding of the power of chant.”

Save the dates

Altered States begins at 9 a.m. on Saturday with a full day of workshops, presentations and discussion. The morning starts with two Sufi chant workshops led by Latif, complemented by an analysis of “Effects of Music on the Brain” by Fishelman. The afternoon includes two Hindu chant workshops led by Kinkhabwala, between which Fishelman will explore “The Neurobiology of Devotion.”

The day includes a Q&A featuring Latif and Kinkhabwala and culminates in a combined chant session.

Sunday's sessions begin at 1 p.m. and will feature two Jewish chant workshops led by Waldoks and a discussion of “sonic theology” by Fishelman. This is followed by Q&A with Waldoks and Fishelman. The afternoon culminates in a Taize chant service led by Dedell.

The event is open to all. Participants are encouraged to come the entire weekend but can join in on any parts of the presentations. On Saturday, a hearty and nourishing lunch, as well as morning and afternoon refreshments, are available.

Building on success

This is the second time Winded Production has hosted a chanting weekend, Dedell explains: “Last year was a big success. Even those who were self-proclaimed tone deaf were able to learn from the experience.”

Last year, the event was smaller.

“We had two people teaching and leading chants,” Dedell says. “Amer had joined us, as well as a really remarkable nun who led our group of 50 participants in Gregorian chant, which is often set to religious poetry. However powerful was that chanting, this year I wanted to move away from word-based chant to the more elemental use of chant with abstract sound.”

Dedell says she wants to get in touch with a source of chanting that was practiced perhaps even before language as we know it evolved.

“The first use of chant goes so far back in history that we cannot even trace its origins,” Dedell says.

She says she believes that chant is not necessarily something that should “mean” anything, but rather be something we should feel.

“Amer says the purpose of chanting is to connect with the resonant spot within oneself, with the people around you, and the people beyond us,” Dedell adds.

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