Jan Coe brings mindfulness through sound therapy

Harold DuckettOur Town Arts

Almost everyone knows the power of music. Even people with little to no hearing include music as an important component in their lives. There are parts of music, notably the low bass beats, that people with profound hearing loss “feel” in their bodies. The great Scottish percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie (who has performed with the Knoxville Symphony) has been deaf since the age of 12, but has an international performing career, including winning Grammy awards. She performs barefooted, feeling the music in her feet.

Ludwig van Beethoven lost his hearing well before he wrote many of his magnificent works, considered among the greatest music ever written. The first deaf rock ’n’ roll band, Beethoven’s Nightmare, was formed by deaf musicians at Gallaudet University in 1971.

The value of music to non-hearing people had a profound impact on me when I attended a basketball game at Tennessee School for the Deaf, years ago, when my friend, the late Dick Hancock (who paddled the entire Mississippi River by himself), was their coach. The “singing” of the National Anthem, with deaf students signing it, is one of the indelible experiences of my life.

Music therapy is now a recognized medical profession with degreed programs at many universities. There are currently eight AMTA-approved Ph.D. programs in music therapy.

Gregorian chants were important to medieval monks’ worship practices. Today, Buddhist chants are important to the overall practice of the discipline.

But what about just sound itself, without the other aspects of music: melody, rhythm, tempo and lyrics? The American musician and composer Pauline Oliveros, who performed at Big Ears, was an important figure in the development of post-war electronic music. She created a program called Deep Listening, in which she played single notes on her accordion that she might hold for 10-15 minutes or more before making a slight change. Her concerts at Big Ears were packed.

The longest music composition ever written is John Cage’s 1987 composition for organ “ORGAN2/ASLSP (As SLow aS Possible).” It is currently being performed at the St. Burchardi Church in Halberstadt, Germany. The performance began on Sept. 5, 2001. It is expected to continue for 639 years, until 2640.  A single note change is a cause for celebration, with listeners eagerly packing the church in anticipation of the one note changing to another.

Jan Coe, at Whole Notes Harmony, is using combinations of many of these ideas in her sound therapy, which she is quick to point out is not a licensed music-therapy practice. Her clients come to learn meditation techniques to incorporate into different aspects of their lives.

“One of my clients came because he was having road-rage issues. He wanted to learn how to control his emotions while driving. It only took a few sessions before he felt he had control of it,” Coe told me.

Coe’s original goal was to be a concert pianist. She began college with the idea of double majors in both piano performance and environmental science. She soon gave up the music path because it wasn’t satisfying to her. She worked for years in environmental science at the National Lab in Oak Ridge.

Then Coe had a career change and started a home-healthcare business, which she operated for some 15 years. Over the years, she saw increasing numbers of people with Alzheimer’s disease. The healthcare business was wearing her down, but her connection to music never left her.

When I asked what got her started in sound therapy, she quickly answered, “I decided I was going to try to cure Alzheimer’s with music.

“I first looked at a neuro-wisdom program to look at the effects of mindfulness on the brain,” she said. “I came across Dr. Mitch Gaynor, an oncologist in New York who used singing bowls in his oncology practice to help his patients’ development of mindfulness as part of their therapy. Jonathan Goldman’s book “Sounds, The Power of Harmonics” had an important effect on me.”

Coe set out to assemble the bowls, gongs, bells, chimes and other instruments, more than 20 of them, that are now the tools of her trade. Her meditation sessions with her clients may include all of the instruments or only a few, depending on the issues she and her client decide are important to address.

She also presents monthly meditation concerts, in which she uses her instruments to achieve levels of mindfulness in those attending. People are invited to find a comfortable seat, or simply lie on the floor. After an initial discussion of the process, the rest of the concert takes place in the dark.

“Take a deep breath. Breathe in love. Breathe out tension. Peace in. Frustration out,” she calmly, quietly began. “Be entirely present. Let go of the wastes outside the room. Feel yourself connected to the Earth. Feel the light from the cosmos enter your body and into your heart,” she continued. “Now three more slow, deep breaths.”

Then a soft gong sound filled the room. Then, slowly, more soft tones from metal bowls. The pitches moved very slowly up and down. The tones overlapped. The metal bowls were struck with a soft mallet. The glass singing bowls were rubbed around the edge until they developed a sustained pitch with rich overtones that hung in the air. There were gorgeous harmonics and occasional dissonances as the sounds vibrated against each other. It wasn’t long before I lost the awareness of everything but the sense of floating in sound.

Her double-sided string instrument, called a “Katamo” on one side and a “Monochord” on the other, has the quality of a harp, combined with a Japanese goto, or Chinese guzheng. Its sounds were mesmerizing, especially when Coe hummed, in harmony, along with it.

I’ve been to two of these sessions, including last night’s concert at her studio. I found them magical, enlightening, relaxing, totally captivating experiences that I will keep doing.

Although some practitioners use specifically tuned bowls, the bowls and gongs Coe uses are not tuned to Western equal temperament, the way notes on a piano are. She chose each bowl because of how its sound integrated into the other bowls and instruments. Personally, I found that the sounds of her bowls, occurring in the space between recognizable pitches, was an important component in letting their sound fill the room without anticipating what the next sound might be, the way one tends to do with notated music.

The concerts last approximately an hour. A donation of $15 gets one a place and a magical hour in which both the mind and body will luxuriate.

Whole Notes Harmony is at 141 N. Martinwood Road in West Knoxville. Coe’s next concert will be at 6:30 p.m. on March 14. For more information call 865-207-1778, or check the website, or on Facebook at Whole Notes Harmony.

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