“There aren’t many spiritual traditions that don’t have music,” says Jeff “Firewalker” Schmitt, a local musician and folk healer. “When people think of music in our culture, the first place they go is — ‘Well, I’ve got to learn chords, I’ve got to learn time signatures, I’ve got to memorize a song,’ but we’re suggesting a completely different approach. It’s an unlearning. It’s a completely different way to approach music.”
Schmitt, a practitioner of Peruvian shamanism, says he looks to indigenous spiritual traditions for an understanding of how music can serve in a healing capacity. “It’s said in tradition circles that for every moment, whether it’s a ceremony or a healing or an awakening, there is a song, there is a sound, there is a particular vibration that can be brought forth to be a catalyst in moving things forward,” he says.
Until three years ago, Schmitt was director of research for the Center for Integrative Medicine at Wake Forest School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, and he has used his experience and knowledge as a scientist to further his work with music and sound healing. “Some studies have shown that your DNA actually hums, and because it’s long and slender, it’s like a string,” says Schmitt. “So it’s believed that certain sacred songs used for healing and certain tones used for healing may actually activate things at the molecular level and create shifts that are reflected at the whole organism level.”
Schmitt currently collaborates with Caroline Padgett, a spiritual healer and massage therapist, and River Guerguerian, a local percussionist, studio musician and music director at the Odyssey Community School. Together they host sound-healing workshops titled “Music as Medicine: An Immersion in the Art and Craft of Playing Sacred Music.” The event is organized through Eagle Condor Council, a spiritual community in the Andean shamanic tradition. Originally scheduled for the weekend of Dec. 8, the workshop was rescheduled due to weather and will be held Friday-Sunday, March 2-4, at Laughing Waters Retreat in Gerton.
Schmitt, Padgett and Guerguerian share an interest in helping people in the community experience the healing power of sound and music. Through their work, they address a question they say is important when striving to use music as a spiritual or personal healing mechanism: How does one go about producing sound that will enhance or catalyze transformation?
“We like to assume that things are static in nature when we look at our scale of the universe,” Schmitt explains, “but when you pull down into things microscopically, everything is moving unless you bring it to absolute zero, which is quite hard to do; everything has a particular resonant frequency. You know when you run your finger around the rim of a crystal glass ring? That’s a resonant frequency. Molecules in the body also have resonant frequencies.”
Guerguerian expands on this notion: “When you have an external stimulus, like say, a sound wave, it goes through you from your head to your toes. It could last a millisecond; it could last 10 seconds; it could last a few minutes. You have to find the keys that help people open up, and the instrument is a barometer. The initial reason I got into sound was the power of it, the transformative power of it, or the healing power of it, you could say.” He suggests that, instead of focusing on technique, one could instead view the instrument as an extension of self and an avenue for spiritual connection and renewal.
In their Music as Medicine workshops, Guerguerian, Schmitt and Padgett teach people to do just that. “Understanding that if you are going to use an instrument — whether it’s your voice, or a singing bowl, or a drum, or gong or anything — you have to know it as an extension of your physical body and an extension of the deeper level of your soul or spirit,” says Guerguerian.
Schmitt explains that if people teach sacred music or implement it with clients or patients, it is important to utilize sacred music-making in their own lives as well. “For us to honor the traditions that we represent, it has to start with personal healing and personal accountability, and that’s what we teach,” says Schmitt. He explains that sound healing can be a vital tool for those in the healing and meditative arts such as acupuncture, massage therapy, qi gong and yoga.
“We’re just trying to create a really coherent framework that’s very high-quality that people can step into and participate in,” says Schmitt. Each sound-healing workshop concludes with a sacred music ceremony. “I like to bring people together, throw them into a room and see what happens.”
Participants do not need to have a specific religious orientation to benefit from sound healing practices, says Padgett: “You don’t have to believe anything specifically to tap into your own heart and your own song.” She explains that there is a meditative and spiritual aspect to sound healing, which involves a “deep listening to what is arising.”
Padgett stresses that whether you’re using an instrument such as a Tibetan singing bowl or your own voice, it’s important to experience release and connection without focusing on the music being “good” or “right.” She explains that music can be used as an avenue first to confront and then let go of anxieties and fears or other buried feelings that may be ready to be released.
Padgett, who has worked with the healing arts for almost 20 years, says she has noticed that the demand for sacred musical expression is growing.
“What I’ve been watching is the waves in the collective across the board. Sound has been there clearly for all of time, but now so many people are adding sound to whatever they are doing,” says Padgett. “It feels like something that the collective energy is really ready for.”
WHAT: Music as Medicine, sacred music-making retreat
WHERE: Laughing Waters Retreat Center, 3963 Gerton Highway, Gerton
WHEN: Friday, March 2, 6-10 p.m.
Saturday, March 3, all day starting at 9 a.m.
Sunday, March 4, all day starting at 9 a.m.
COST: $45-$300 depending on sessions attended