Learning to Sing Ananda's Music
May 20, 2011
When I moved to Ananda Village in 1976, I was offered a job at “Pubble,” the department where Swami Kriyananda’s books were published. Not long after I arrived, Swamiji invited the staff to his home to discuss some projects.
Swami’s house was on the other side of the ridge from the main part of the Village. I hiked over the hill with two other staff members, Asha and Seva, who were nuns and walked a little ahead.
I was very nervous, mentally biting my nails about meeting the great man for the first time. I thought, “Gosh, it’s like going to meet the Pope or something!”
When we arrived, we found Swamiji listening to a humorous song called “The Vatican Rag,” that was playing quite loudly, and laughing uproariously:
First you get down on your knees,
Fiddle with your rosaries,
Bow your head with great respect, and
Genuflect, genuflect, genuflect!
You can do what steps you want if
You have cleared them with the pontiff.
Everybody say his own kyrie eleison,
Doin’ the Vatican Rag!….
Between guffaws, he sang the refrain, “Genuflect, genuflect!”
My jaw was so far open, you could have driven the Starship Enterprise in my mouth and parked it.
Get in line in that processional,
Step into that small confessional,
There a guy who’s got religion’ll
Tell you if your sin’s original.
If it is, try playin’ it safer,
Drink the wine and chew the wafer.
Two, four, six, eight!
Time to transubstantiate!
Ave Maria, gee it’s good to see ya’!
Gettin’ ecstatic and sorta dramatic and
Doin’ the Vatican Rag!
When we finished with our business, Swamiji invited us to gather around the piano and sing a song that he had just composed. Most of those present were part of Ananda’s small performing group, which at the time was called the Gandharvas (“Celestial Singers”).
Swamiji invited me to join in, but I demurred, because I couldn’t read music and felt I would spoil the fun.
Over the years, I felt sad that I hadn’t taken up Swamiji’s invitation to sing. I knew he hadn’t wanted to include me only so I wouldn’t feel left out, but that he was offering me a way to serve that I would find deeply enjoyable and fulfilling. Also, I realized that he was offering me a wonderful chance to be part of Ananda.
In the fall of 2008, reflecting on the loving help he had given me over the years, I felt it was long past time to start giving back — not from a sense of guilt, but from a grateful heart. So, after service one Sunday, I walked on stage during a choir rehearsal and joined the tenor section. I didn’t know the music, but I felt I could learn it later; for now, I wanted to make a gesture.
As I write this, I’ve been singing the music for almost three years. I sing in the choir and two small ensembles, and it’s been a wonderful experience. It’s brought me great spiritual growth, and I feel closer to my Ananda family and to God and Guru.
Swami Kriyananda says that his music is more than an adornment to Ananda’s work, intended only to entertain people at Sunday service. He says it’s “central to everything we do at Ananda.” He wrote: “At Ananda, people have been drawn to join the community even more through our music than through our teachings. Books and teachings give them ideas, but the music has made them feel the importance of the teachings.” He says that every note he’s ever written was received by divine inspiration.
When I joined the choir, I was very conscious of these statements, and I resolved to do my best to make my service as good as possible.
Swami Kriyananda says that when he writes a song, he tries to make each part singable, so that it will be equally beautiful and inspiring for the sopranos, altos, tenors, and basses. I don’t read music, but I was able to start learning the music by listening to recordings of the tenor parts. As I listened and followed along with the sheet music, I gradually picked up the “melody” that Swamiji had written for the tenors, and in time I began to feel the inspiration behind the music.
Most of the practice recordings were sung by Chaitanya or Dambara, both of whom had been part of Ananda’s music ministry for more than 20 years. Swami Kriyananda praised the senior Ananda singers for singing “with understanding.” As I listened, I felt their wonderful attunement with the inspiration in the music, and their whole-hearted self-offering to the songs.
Those recordings were a rich resource. One that stands out is Chaitanya singing “The Christ Child’s Asleep.” I can’t listen to it without being moved.
In India, novice singers train by singing along with the teacher. At rehearsals, I found it enjoyable to stand near Chaitanya and Dambara and “latch onto” their attunement and understanding.
As I learned the music, I seemed to receive help from a higher source. In other projects that I’ve done for Ananda, I’ve also felt that “someone” was helping. A good example is my work as webmaster for Ananda’s Living Wisdom School in Palo Alto. I’m not a graphic designer, yet when I’ve had problems with the site, I’ve often found the answers coming with surprisingly little effort. It seems I only need to admit my need and the answer is there — “Divine Mother, help! I don’t have a clue!”
When Swami Kriyananda invited me to sing, I’m sure he knew it would be a service that I would love. But I don’t want to paint an overly rosy picture, because there’s a lot of behind-the-scenes work that goes into singing this beautiful music. In fact, serving in the music ministry can be quite demanding. It takes time to learn the music, to “smooth out the voice,” to explore the inspiration behind the music, and to give up the ego and offer ourselves as God’s instruments to help others.
Beyond learning the notes, it takes preparing ourselves. Swami Kriyananda urges us to be impersonal when we sing, setting aside personal emotions so that God can use us to waft His inspiration over the audience where they can latch onto it and be inspired.
It’s hardly ever effortless to get ourselves out of the way. I find there are endless challenges, particularly before performances. What if you ate something that disagreed with you? What if someone hurt your feelings? Will you be able to “sing out with joy”?
I find it’s essential not to try to “fix” the problems by myself, but to offer them to God. If I try to overcome them by my own power, I invariably end up just feeling tense and frustrated. But if I bring God into the picture, I find that He is very willing to come to my aid. “Divine Mother, I ate something last night that’s making me feel like a demented person wandering the streets of downtown Chicago late at night with a tummy ache. I can’t remember the words or notes, much less ‘get out of the way.’ I want to help you serve others, but I need Your help!”
Trying to “rise above it” by our own power can be hopeless, especially when our minds and hearts are compromised.
I remember the first time Swami Kriyananda performed with us when I was part of the choir. He was scheduled to give a talk at our temple, and I looked forward eagerly to singing, because I felt it would be wonderful for him to know that I had finally taken up his invitation.
But on the night of the event, I absolutely could not remember the music! I had eaten something that absolutely killed my energy. Sitting in the audience waiting to go on, I tried my best to get energized and focused, but without much success. At one point in his talk, Swami looked at me with a slightly bemused expression, and I had an image of myself as this empty-headed dodo-bumpkin sitting in the audience. I thought, “Well, isn’t this weird?” But less than a minute before we went up, the words and music suddenly came back. Whew, that was a narrow escape!
We walked on stage, and I was happy to stand half-hidden behind Chaitanya, who’s a big man, because I wasn’t sure I would be able to remember the music all the way through. But then David, who was standing on the highest platform, whispered, “Hey, Rambhakta! You can’t hide behind Chaitanya. Get up here!” So there I was, feeling extremely shaky about the music, and standing with David in the most visible position of the choir. It was quite a joke! The lesson I took from it is that Divine Mother doesn’t care about our problems at all; what touches her heart is our willingness. As Master said, “All you can do is the best you know how!” I managed to rattle through the song somehow.
I often wonder if Divine Mother doesn’t deliberately arrange it so that we aren’t able to behave perfectly, for the simple reason that it forces us to open our hearts and call on Her. In the process, we realize that all our power to succeed comes from Her. And also, it creates a relationship with Her, far more effectively than if we could always be flawlessly balanced and inspired.
On the other hand, Divine Mother doesn’t reward poor preparation or scattered attention. The more conscientiously I prepare, the more easily I find it to “get out of the way” when we perform. Knowing the music well is a huge part of getting out of the way, because it frees us to concentrate self-giving and the spirit of the music instead of fretting over the notes. It gives God an instrument that’s ready to uplift and inspire others.
I find that if I practice conscientiously and never miss rehearsals, and meditate and pray before we sing, I’ve basically done my job. Having prepared, I can walk on stage and say silently, “Master, I give you my heart. Sing through me.”
After I’d been singing for a year, I received an email from Nayaswami David Praver, who was with Swami Kriyananda in India. He told me that Nayaswami Asha had mentioned to Swamiji that I was singing the music.
Now, I’m sure that Swamiji would have been perfectly justified in saying, “Well, it’s about time!” But he said, “That’s wonderful! It would be so good for him.”
That’s Swami Kriyananda in a nutshell — never placing the needs of the organization over those of the individual; always ready to encourage and help.