How to play Tibetan Singing Bowls

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Playing Singing Bowls

[ Stroking the side of a bowl with a large felt-covered stick ] Various bowl wands and beaters Playing a bowl involves either striking it with a soft mallet or hand to produce an extremely long ring tone (some last for a few minutes!), or stroking a beater around the edge like a finger around a wine glass. Using a wooden beater will bring out higher harmonics but creates more surface noise; leather or felt-covered beaters enable the lower hum tone to be heard more easily, and make less rubbing noise. Various harmonics can also be brought out by stroking higher up near to the rim, and at different angles. The larger bowls (which require larger beaters) tend to emit lower frequencies, but other factors such as thickness and chemical composition of metals also determine the pitch. The bowls are made of a sacred mixture which can include gold, silver, mercury, copper, iron, tin, lead (representing the Sun, Moon and five of the then-known planets), and sometimes also zinc, nickel and even meteorite. This alloy is then fire-welded, cast, and carefully beaten into the round shape.

[ Bowls in stealth formation ] The best way to play a bowl is with it placed on one outstretched palm, which may possibly be resting on a knee if the bowl is heavy; it is important that the bowl is supported firmly, else the pressure of the stroking hand will move it. Caressing the side of the bowl quite powerfully will give rise to a humming tone as the bowl begins to vibrate. This humming rapidly increases, so once it reaches this threshold one should slow the rate of rotation considerably to prevent the vibration getting out of control, keeping enough pressure to sustain the sound. Smoothness is the key, as any slight knock will produce a harsh rasping sound. One should always, of course, stroke in a clockwise direction, as anticlockwise motion is considered diabolical (try driving around the M25 from Watford to Heathrow in the morning rush hour to see Old Nick at work...)

Upside down bowls

[ Playing the bowls upside down yields completely different sounds ] Antique bowls on top of each other | Playing the bowls upside down with soft mallets gives quite different sounds, quite like bells, although strangely, the pitch of an upside down bowl bears no relation to its hum or ring tones when played normally. Hence some large bowls make higher-pitched sounds when struck upside down than some smaller bowls. Three of mine form perfect octave and fifth intervals when played the right way up, but these pitch relationships are totally different when upside down. Note the antique patina on the largest bowl, which is very old and made by an ancient traditional process.

Fountain bowls and water bowls

[ Bowls in diamond formation ] There are many other techniques of playing the bowls, such as bowing the edge with a well-rosined violin or cello bow (double bass bows may be stronger), as featured on my album "Tone Control". Two of my bowls are so-called 'water bowls' which create patterns of ripples on the surface if the right amount of water (about 1/3 full) is poured in prior to stroking. One even causes an amazing fountain of water droplets which is quite remarkable to watch (you get wet playing it!). Striking and then tilting some flat-bottomed bowls with a small amount of water covering the base produces unearthly sounds like ethereal voices moaning and wailing. I utilised these effects in performance and on film. Some bowls will also 'sing' if you put your lips near to the edge and change the shape of your mouth cavity, thus amplifying and filtering the sounds. It is no wonder people believe these objects possess magical powers.


[ Finger cymbals suspended above bowls ] [ Finger cymbals growing from a tree ]These finger cymbals (called 'tingshaw') produce a bright, piercing tone when struck together. Their western orchestral equivalent would be the crotales or antique cymbals. I have three pairs pitched as part of a descending scale; hopefully they will mate soon and produce offspring (Yep :-) Each pair are tuned very slightly differently, so as to cause beat frequencies when they sound together. This effect can be accentuated by waving them around in the air as they ring, changing their distance from walls and listeners' ears and creating phasing and chorusing effects.

© copyright Malcolm Smith 2003-06-05 - last updated 2007-06-11 - links verified 2003-06-05