LONG TONES

from .The Musical Life. by W.A. Mathieu, published by Shambhala Books

Nature is restless. It loves change. Long, unwavering tones are hard to come by in the wild. Sometimes the wind.s whistle might find a certain note it was searching for or a coyote.s howl rise to a plateau before it inevitably falls. Though there are other exceptions- - ringing in the ears being the most pernicious-- the tones of nature generally teeter and totter planlessly as a tightrope walker.s balance pole.

Nature avoids straight lines, also. If you were a wild hare who escapes predators by zigzagging, would you trust the rails that slice the prairie? Straight could mean dead. If you were cumulus, wouldn.t jet trails give you the creeps? An unwavering line or tone must be shaped by a discriminating mind, and seems to be the intentional mark of human beings. A straight road through a forest is all business.

We ring bells in order to broadcast a human message. If you have ever been alone in the country and heard a church bell from a distance you know the glow that comes with the sound of your own kind. The complex harmonies remind us that we can refine metal and cast it in geometric shapes and release that purity as vibrating air over miles of buildings and trees. The sound hangs in the atmosphere, metal suspended in air: human magic.

Early on, as a twelve-year-old trumpet player, the practice of .long tones. was a despised constraint. I resented those breaths of rigid pitch-making and the weekly homilies of my trumpet teachers: .You.ll never get anywhere if you don.t practice long tones.. When I tried, my lips would tire and my mind would wander. By the third note I would already by miles off in the wood or down the hall.

At first it does not seem natural to play an unwavering tone on a blown or bowed instrument, or to sing one. To fight entropy, you must engage your mind and your will moment by moment, be critical and aware and centered on the inner world of sound. If you are a violinist, unwavering means steady bow pressure and a relaxed arm stroke. If you are a flutist it means breath control and the perfect placement of your breath stream. Your whole body is involved in a balance of tension and relaxation, and your ear is making a continuous comparison to a standard of nonfluctuating pitch projected in your mind. A long tone is not a single boring event, but a stream of perfect moments. You must be determined to straighten nature, and nature will test you without remorse: .Why not run zigzag like the hare? Save yourself!.

Now, after forty years of learning to sing long tones, singing them defines my life. They tell me I have a brain that works, ears that hear my voice, and -somewhere-an ideal of perfection. Now I am addicted to this habit of singing a breath.s worth of a deep note. I sing .Baum. or .Om. in private, rounding the corner between the hallway and the kitchen, or softly at the grocery checkout line. I sing a low, low .Baah. or .Chaow. to remember that I am myself, and more than myself. I love the way I can monitor the line between wild and human. Maybe I need this practice to prevent my psychological annihilation, to keep my person from flying apart and disappearing entirely.

To discover this sound mirror for yourself, you can first try humming or singing a long tone that isn.t unwavering, that falls with gravity. Then you can make the tone rise and fall like the wind on Halloween. Then finally you can venture a tone that holds steady against nature. The fluctuations of a pitch are as easy to recognize as the wiggles of a line. When you do hear yourself singing in an unwavering pitch you can hear your own intention reflected in it.

It is comfortable to begin with a hummed nnn and then open to aaahh. The more open the vowel, the more strength and concentration it takes to straighten the wiggles. Notice how the intimate nnnn, which resonates in the chest. You can keep the closed sound a secret, sitting calmly at a committee meeting while others about you are losing their minds. With aaahh, however, you are an extravert, exposing your flank, opening the tube of your body to the surrounding air and the world beyond it. There is a time for nnnn and a time for aaahh. However you sing them, long tones are seeds sown in the space you move through. The musical life germinates from spaces like these and grows leafy.