How I De-Stress with Monochord
A Self-Practice for Difficult Times
By: Feeltone Trainer Joule L'Adara
Like so many of us, I began January saying "2020 is going to be my year!" I was hitting the gym 5 days a week, doing my meditation/visualization/sounding practices, and making a commitment to my personal growth as an artist. I was showing up for friends, attending social events, making travel plans, and having positive thoughts about the near future. In early February I went to Miami to swim in the ocean for my birthday, then later that month was on top of a Mountain in Colorado skilling with my brother, feeling literally on top of the world. Then March came, and with it the news of community spread of the Coronavirus in my Upper Manhattan neighborhood. Because I've suffered from lung inflammation issues in the past, I was taking no chances. I went inside my apartment on March 6th and from then to the time of this writing over two months later, I have not been outside except to take my garbage to the side of my building a couple days a week (plus squeeze out the window onto my fire escape to get a little sun on my face now and then!) Though I could go out into the vast park nearby, I've yet to feel that it's safe to do so, knowing that many in my neighborhood are not complying with the directive to wear face masks, and there are a lot of families with small children in my area who will be playing and running about freely as children do. Some friends are aghast when they hear about me spending so many days in isolation. But while I do greatly look forward to the moment I can be in nature, travel to see my family, and resume a life of full healthy social engagement, I must say this time period has brought a different sort of set of gifts.
For one thing, I came to realize that though many aspects of my life are now diminished, many of my senses have been greatly enhanced. The ritual of eating has taken on new delights, as the preparing and enjoying of a sumptuous meal can feel as important these days as a great life event! My listening is deeper: I'm hearing the nuances between the various bird sounds floating to me from the tree outside my window. I'm much more in touch with my body and what it needs to feel well each day. And my inner life has become exponentially expanded: I'm full of creative ideas, go on visionary journeys inside my imagination, and am dreaming wildly at night!
Also, my daily PRACTICES have become an absolute priority. No longer simple commitments that I know will make me feel better - they have become my life preservers: what I MUST do when I feel like I'm about to go out of my mind. In the worst days in NYC back in April, when the city I live in was being shown on the nightly news as the "Global Epicenter" of the Pandemic, the experience was disorienting and incredibly noisy. Even while quarantined in a quiet apartment, I could hear the non-stop wailing of the sirens bringing the ill to hospitals, read the frightening news headlines about the healthcare workers under siege, hear the strain and pain in the voices of friends and family on the phone, and most vividly FEEL the energy of the city as it swirled in a kind of collective howl. There were times of collective grieving - such as the day it was announced a beloved former coworker had passed away due to Covid-19, and moments of joy through tears such as the first time I heard the communal banging on pots & pans, honking of horns together with cries and cheers for the 7pm "Clap": a city-wide sound ritual to thank the health and essential workers. I have since stood in my window to participate every night in this for the past 65 days without fail.
But all the noise was getting to my nervous system. I could feel the fear, grief, anger, guilt, shame, and sense of powerlessness coming from myself and amplified by others. The only way for me to get through the toughest days was through my practices incorporating: movement, sound, and voice. Yoga helped a lot, as did the purchasing of a mini trampoline so that I could bounce up and down without disturbing the downstairs neighbors too much. But as for meditation... well, though there were so many who quickly rushed to offer a huge variety of mindfulness sessions online through Instagram, Facebook, Zoom, and Youtube... I found a lot of these well-intentioned practices couldn't provide me with what I truly needed, and I understood why. Yes, the body's immune response is greatly repressed when the body is experiencing stress hormones. But the "flight-or-flight" response of the sympathetic nervous system is there so that we may be alerted and energized in times of danger. In contemporary life, often this heightened response is activated unnecessarily and repeatedly, to the point that we're kept in an endless loop of stress, even as deadlines and irritations of the modern workplace or home are NOT life-and-death situations. But with a global pandemic, there actually IS danger that our body is trying to warn us about! It's saying: ALERT! Be vigilant! Do what you need to do to stay safe and survive!
I believe when we get messages from the body of REAL danger, we need to not just go into meditation to try to quiet them down, we need to ask the body what it's trying to tell us. Does my body need me to stock up on food & have emergency supplies to feel safe? Are there contingency plans to put in place that I'd never paid attention to before? Are there people in my community who may be suffering right now who I can help? Am I dealing with my own guilt and shame of being able to stay inside while essential workers risk their lives for me? Or am I taking care of everyone else before myself to the point I'm completely being drained to exhaustion? Listening to and taking action on these impulses is necessary for the body to feel comforted instead of merely covering up the alarm by trying to "love and light" the problems away. So much of how we have all lived our lives up to this point is unsustainable. We knew it, but ignored what we knew as we went about our days pursuing pleasure, achievements, or sometimes just survival. Really taking this time to delve into our own deeper truths is so important right now, even if the messages and realizations are painful.
As for meditation itself, I knew I needed to calm my nervous system, but so many of those meditation offerings were not "meeting me where I was at." Meaning: they were asking me to take too great a leap from where I was to where I needed to be, and my body/mind/sprit couldn't make that jump. There's an important concept in Music Therapy known as the "Iso Principle." When a trained therapist works with a client using this method, they endeavor to first match the speed, cadence, and rhythm of the client they're working with as they are, to then slowly and almost imperceptibly move them to a different way of being over time. This allows the receiver to feel met, seen, and understood with whatever they are dealing with psychologically, and be facilitated through an organic transformational process. For example, a person might come in speaking very fast and gesturing wildly after a long stressful day at work. The music or sound therapist would use instruments to match that intensity and speed, and over a period of minutes adjust their playing so that the rhythms of the client's breath, heart, and brain would slowly entrain to a more relaxed state. This principal can also be applied to our approach to working with ourselves through self care.
During the worst days of the Coronavirus outbreak when around 1000 people per day were perishing of Covid-19 in the small geographic area around me in NYC, I needed a practice I could use that would meet me in the heightened state of that moment. I needed to shake, wail, moan, make crazy sounds, run around my apartment, roll on the ground, cry, howl. Only if I did that for a good 5 minutes at full intensitiy until I utterly exhausted myself, could I then start to make more soothing sounds to comfort my nervous system. Another five more minutes of sounding, I could finally handle sitting in a mediation in stillness. I'd expressed what I'd been collecting inside me since the last time I practiced. I'd emptied out. And now there was open space within to be with the stillness.
Later, I realized I could bring the monochord into this practice. In the Level 1 "Secrets of the Monochord" Training - we teach a meditational way of playing called the "Flying Carpet" technique. This playing method is likened to the steadiness of the shamanic drum played to create a very safe container that doesn't change or modulate, but that simultaneously dissolves boundaries through the ocean-like cascades of harmonics. It's gorgeous, hypnotic, and therapeutic. But during these "Covid Times" it's often not a place where I can start my playing from. In my daily self-care monochord practice, I first need to express my pent-up stuff on the instrument. I play it robustly! (She can handle it!) I make grand sweeping gestures up and down the strings, I bang across the surface with the palms of my hands, I use my thumbs, claw at the instrument with my fingernails, and make all kinds of crazy sounds with my voice and breath. It's super cathartic! It draws the excess energy I have from all the angst, fear, anger, trauma, and the unnamable emotions... transforming it into something epic, explosive, and even at moments: joyful.
After some minutes of this, I start to feel an opening in my mind and body. Something feels satisfied within me. I begin to be able to slow my pace, even out my strokes across the strings. I drop into steady, rhythmic playing, and my breath and heartbeat fall into a relaxed rhythm in sync. With more minutes of simplified playing, I'm able to find calm within myself as the harmonics of the instrument soothe my nervous system. I hum along and feel my own harmonics within. I'm finally able to reach a sense of relief and neutrality. I play evenly, meditatively. I'm peaceful in my playing and the playing in turn brings me peace.
After the last stroke of my hand releases, I listen to the sound of the reverberation tail with the harmonics ringing out, still twinkling in the air. Once the sound fades to silence, I am finally silent within. I sit still in meditation. I've been able to find my center. I'm able to be with myself and the ALL of what is happening right now. I am not hiding from the horror. I have faced and reckoned with it through my playing. It's because I have acknowledged the alarm that I'm finally able to release into this place of being with all that IS.
A Short Monochord Practice for Stress Release: 15 Minutes
1) The First 5 Minutes: Play your monochord wildly, passionately, and allow all your feelings to be expressed: horror, grief, anger, fear, anxiety, celebration, anything that comes though you. Play using all five fingers in either direction, bang on the strings like a drum, release with your breath and voice, make some NOISE and allow ALL of what you're feeling to be emptied out and expressed.
2) The next 5 minutes: slowly transition into the "flying carpet" method: playing in a steady repetitious rhythm down the monochord face with one finger, as one hand comes down first, with the next hand beginning before the previous hand ends so that the sound is infinite. Relax into your breath and allow your playing speed to match your inner rhythms as your heart rate and respiration come into a place of calm.
3) Final 5 minutes: Release your last strum and listen to the sound reverberation decay. Sit in silent mediation allowing the feeling of the sound continuing to reverberate inside you.
Practice this daily for best results during times of difficulty.
Since 2009, Sound Therapy Practitioner and Experimental Vocalist Joule L'Adara, MFA, has been leading trainings, retreats, and online courses reconnecting people to the power of sound through their voice. Joule has been a certified feeltone Trainer since 2015 and teaches the Secrets of the Monochord Training in NYC and personalized training sessions online for We Play Well Together customers. All feeltone Monochords purchased through We Play Well Together come with a complimentary 30-minute one-on-one training with Joule. (These sessions never expire so book your personal online training whenever you'd like to have it.) For those who have already redeemed their complimentary session, additional personal training can be purchased for 30 or one-hour online sessions. Visit the Sounding Circles calendar to book a training session: