How to play a Singing Bowl
Antique Singing Bowls are first and foremost musical instruments. We know this by their bell-like form, the type of resonant bronze alloy typically used in their construction, by their apparent tuning to specific frequencies, and the purity of the sounds they make. We believe they were made to accompany sacred and ceremonial occasions conducted by Himalayan spiritual leaders, healers and shamans. Little is known about their early ritual use, or whether they were played individually, sequentially or together in instrumental groups.
Just as some antique bowls sound better than others, some are more responsive and sing more readily. One bowl will sing at the slightest stroke of the ringer, while another is slow to wake up and will need gentle coaxing. A bowl is more likely to sing well if purchased from a reputable singing bowl specialist, as they will have carefully checked its sound quality before adding it to their inventory. Unfortunately, in today’s world, the difference between a good singing bowl and a GREAT singing bowl is often its price! The best sounding singing bowls are among the easiest to play, but they are hard to come by and collectors are willing to pay a premium to acquire them. However, most antique bowls will sing very well with a little practice.
Striking and Ringing
There are two main ways to make your antique bowl sing…by striking it like a gong, and by playing it around the rim with a ringer. Large bowls are more often struck, while medium and small bowls tend to be played around the rim. How you play your singing bowl will depend to some extent on its size and weight, as much as your intended purpose and audience.
Small Singing Bowls
Small singing bowls are almost invariably held in the palm of one hand and played around the rim with a ringer in the other. However, really small or light bowls, especially those with rounded bottoms, may be prone to spinning or rotating with the motion of the ringer, in which case they should be played balanced on the fingertips, or gently struck with a mallet. The portability of a small bowl may be advantageous to some.
Medium Singing Bowls
Most singing bowls will fall within the medium size range and may be struck with a mallet or played around the rim with a ringer. In most cases they are held in one hand hand and played around the rim with the other to produce a continuous sound. However, some medium size bowls like the Thadobati or Mani can be very heavy, 4 pounds or more, and whilst they fit easily in the palm they may prove tiresome to hold and play for an extended period. The weight of a bowl should be taken into account when deciding on a purchase.
Large Singing Bowls
Some large bowls, like the Jambati and Ultabati, are so big that they may be too cumbersome to hold, and one has little choice but to place them on a mat or bowl cushion to play them. Their size prevents them from being easily transported around a room, or a hall full of people for example. Fortunately their size will most likely produce a sound that would fill the space anyway.
Large bowls are commonly played by striking the outer wall with a padded mallet (and very occasionally with the little finger side of a clenched fist). This will bring out the fundamental note and produce a long sustain. However, it is usually necessary to play them around the rim with a heavy ringer to bring out the more sonorous low notes and their harmonics, or to keep the bowl constantly singing. This is easily achieved with the bowl on a cushion as the weight of the bowl holds it steady while you sweep the rim. Bowls weighing 1.5 kilos (3.3 pounds) or less may be played at rest or comfortably held in the hand and played around the rim with a ringer.
Singing Bowl Playing Technique – Striking
Every type and size of bowl can be struck like a gong with a beater or mallet, although care should be taken to use one of an appropriate size and weight. There are quite a few musical mallets, ringers and padded drumsticks on the market and it’s worth acquiring several, as each will elicit a slightly different sound from your bowl. My personal preference is a felt-padded mallet as the harder wooden ones tend to produces a louder and harsher sound.
The technique is simple. Place your singing bowl on the flat of your hand, or securely on a mat or in the centre of a bowl cushion, and strike a clean upward-sweeping blow at the midpoint, or just below the rim, of the outer wall. Adjust the force of your blow to maximize the volume of the ensuing note, without dislodging the bowl from its position. It’s a little harder than you think! Striking the bowl like this will sound its fundamental note, or first harmonic, but other more subtle overtones will also be present. It is this multi-harmonic capability that differentiates an antique singing bowl from all the other musical instruments. A good bowl will produce a wonderfully sonorous sound with a long sustain…a superb bowl will simply enthrall. Singing bowls may also be struck when balanced on the hand…but care should be taken not to grip it, as the fingers will dampen the sound. All antique singing bowls have multiple overtones, but these are more easily heard when playing around the rim with a ringer.
Singing Bowl Playing Technique – Ringing
Ringing, or rubbing, is the way to make a singing bowl really sing…and sing continuously (well…not indefinitely, but until you stop the ringing motion). All the bowls available on this website are supplied with a free ringer, but there are a variety of ringing sticks on the market and you should certainly experiment, as each will affect the sound of your bowl differently. Some bowls respond better to a suede or wool-wrapped ringer rather than a hard wooden one. And some ringers are better at isolating low notes or teasing out a bowl’s more subtle harmonics.
Balance your bowl on the flattened palm of your hand, taking care not to grip it with your fingers or they will dampen the sound when you play it. If it’s a very small or light bowl balance it on your fingertips. Hold the ringer in your other hand and place it against the outside rim of the bowl at about a 45-degree angle. Apply a little pressure to the rim and ensure that the ringer remains in contact with your bowl at all times and then, in a clockwise direction, slowly sweep the ringer around the rim of your bowl…around and around, gradually increasing the speed until it begins to sing. Slowly increase the pressure of the ringer against the edge of the bowl as the sound builds. This will prevent vibration from bouncing it off the rim, and allow your bowl to realize its full glorious potential. Soon it will reach maximum volume you will be able to reduce the speed of rotation a little without any loss of tonality. Your bowl should now be singing sweetly and harmonically.
A useful tip!
Sometimes a gentle tap or two on the rim of the bowl with the ringer just before you begin ringing ‘seeds’ the singing process and ‘awakens’ the bowl…making it more responsive to the ringer.
There is an art, or knack, to using a ringer and making a bowl sing well. Some people are naturals and just ‘get it’ while others struggle a bit, and may need to practice before they are able to bring the best out of their bowl and obtain a consistently beautiful sound. If your bowl refuses to sing, or is slow to sing or too quiet, or if it makes unpleasant scraping or screeching noises when you attempt to play it…don’t blame it on the bowl (especially if you purchased it here)…you simply need to practice more to improve your technique, or change your ringer!
Note: Some rare forms of singing bowl, as well as some esoteric and therapeutic practices, may require more specialized playing techniques.