The session starts gently, like a boat drifting away from the dock: recorded nature sounds, birds and falling water, the bright bell-like dings and swelling
The session starts gently, like a boat drifting away from the dock: recorded nature sounds, birds and falling water, the bright bell-like dings and swelling hum of singing bowls, joined and supported by human voices singing vowels, and finally, the throaty burbling and purring of a didgeridoo. Jon Englund, of Westminster, lies on a table in the center of the room well appointed with plants and candles, and wood panels, as father and son Jim and Paul Thomas, and Pitz Quattrone make music around him.
This is a sound healing session at Samara Healing Center, located on a quiet and uniquely manicured lot next to a farm outside Taneytown. The property is graced by a tree house, a pyramid and a sweat lodge, a nod to the Thomases' connection to non-Western healing practices. But the healing sessions take place in a small wooden loft with red trim, the practice room equipped with a sound system unlike any you may have heard before — a vibroacoustic table that transduces music into physical vibrations.
"Since the table brings low frequencies into your experience, you are not just listening to the sounds, but feeling them in your body. I think it brings a new component to the experience," Jim Thomas said in an interview after Englund's session. "This is so direct, it's almost like an invitation to step into a different space."
At first it was more a curiosity, but once you get accustomed to what's going on, you can just relax into the whole experience," Englund said. He's been coming to a monthly session for a little over two years. "Sometimes it takes you deep, to other places. … It's very powerful."
That was evident as Englund's session came to a gentle end, the boat just kissing the dock, and his taking a while to open his eyes and reconnect with the reality of a room full of people.
"Oh, hello everyone," he said. The bone pain in his leg he hoped to address? "It's virtually gone right now."
Jim Thomas has long been a practicing acupuncturist, but when his son graduated from college four years ago, the two began working together to incorporate music and sound into their practice. They didn't just want to accompany a healing practice with sound: They aimed to heal with sound.
"It's really centered around music moving and touching people deeply," Paul Thomas said. "Music certainly can accompany yoga and massage, but it's really the focal point in our work in a much more powerful and direct way."
There are many decades of research into how sound — and especially, music — can affect a person's health, from improving recover from strokes, to alleviating depression and mitigating epilepsy. A new multidisciplinary research group at Johns Hopkins University, the Center for Music & Medicine, is exploring this very relationship.
But Jim and Paul Thomas take a holistic approach in that while they are happy to use sound to, say, mitigate someone's migraines, they are also interested, for those who are interested, in helping people explore their emotions and even spirituality.
"Indigenous systems of healing look at the mind and body as being connected, so this is an avenue just to explore deeper aspects of yourself with music, with vibration, as the window," Jim Thomas said. "You can have that end of the spectrum, and then you can have someone with chronic low back pain."
This is where Quattrone can add an additional element to the mix. A didgeridoo player, maker and instructor since the 1990s, Quattrone operates his own sound-healing clinics at his home in Vermont. He's been coming down to Maryland around four times a year to perform healing clinics with the Thomases, and to play larger, concert-like shows, ever since they all met at Common Ground on the Hill at McDaniel College four years ago.
The didgeridoo, a long hollow tube of wood, bamboo, or nowadays, even PVC pipe, is played by blowing into the top aperture while flapping your flips like a toddler making a motorcycle sound. Expert players such as Quattrone perform "circular breathing," using their mouths to maintain a continuous flow of air into the instrument and steady sound coming out while taking inhalations.
There is some research that shows that playing the didgeridoo might offer health benefits, most notably as a treatment for sleep apnea.
"In a nutshell, there are muscles in the bottom of your throat, and when they get flabby, they get loose, they are usually the culprits in sleep apnea. They block the airway because they are saggy," Quattrone said. "Playing the didj, and also the oboe, gives those lower throat muscles a workout — it gets them back into shape."
But the didgeridoo can also be used to shower another person in vibration and sound, a practice with a long history among the Australian Aborigines who invented the instrument Quattrone said. Sound healing is nothing new, but the marriage of the didgeridoo with modern technology is, and it all came about because of a Maryland snowstorm.
"A couple of winters ago, we had that big snowstorm and I was down there. We did two shows, it snowed 2 feet and we're finished," Quattrone said. "We were trapped in Jim's place and everything got canceled."
He had already been joining the Thomases to add his didgeridoo to the mix of sounds in their healing sessions, and the three were performing together for larger groups as Sounds of Spirit. "People come and lay down on their cushions, and we play for two hours continuous and take them on a serious journey," Quattrone said. But he was simply using a saxophone mix to amplify the didgeridoo through a speaker.
The morning the snowstorm canceled everything, they tried an experiment: running the didgeridoo through the vibroacoustic table.
"Jim was lying on the table, and I played for maybe two seconds and he almost jumped up and was like: 'Oh my God, Paul you have to feel this. It's like this boat wave rocking back and forth, but it's gentle!'" Quattrone said. "The light went off right there."
Now when Quattrone isn't in Maryland, he's using his didgeridoo and a vibroacoustic table of his own in Vermont. Even when he is not performing with a specific intent to heal some ailment, he said, the ability to really soothe someone into truly relaxing has a value to it that is hard to quantify.
"We need a break — 30 minutes, 50 minutes, whatever — from this crazy world we live in," he said. "What I do is give people a time out, and I give their body a chance to recharge and heal itself like it was designed to do."
That is certainly what drew Rose Englund, John Englund's wife, to the sound healing sessions at Samara.
"Having been diagnosed with a neurological issue seven years ago, I found that sound therapy helped my brain feel rested, so there was a quietness to my brain after a sound healing session," she said. "I can't imagine not having the regular sound-healing sessions once a month. They become part of our lives."
For John Englund, they helped him rediscover his life. His wife had been urging him to meet with Jim Thomas for some time, but it was only two and a half years ago, after Englund made some major life changes, that he was open to the experience.
"I spent 20 years in the corporate world and had kind of lost track of who I was as a person," he said. "I had decided to go to the Amazon jungle, and I spent three weeks there with the shamans doing various plant medicines, using various plant medicines. It brought me back to who I knew that I was."
When Englund returned, he wanted a safe and legal way to continue on that journey.
"There's no magic bullet: There isn't anything you can just say, 'I've done that, so I'm well,' I think it's a continuing process that we go through," he said. "I was looking for something that would aid me in continuing that work, and I met Jim and have been involved with Jim both as a friend and as a practitioner ever since."
None of that is to say that anyone interested in a sound healing session or coming to a Sounds of Spirit performance needs to have any predilection for mysticism or holistic philosophies of any kind, Jim Thomas said. That is his and his son's orientation, but they are also happy to simply provide a way to help people relax and relieve their stress headaches. Whatever the reason, he believes they offer a unique approach.
"I can't think of a person off the top of my head that's said they don't connect with music. I think everybody has music in their lives," Thomas said. "To add the feeling of the music through your body, people are delighted, and say, 'I want to stay here. Do I have to get up now?'"