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Singing Bowls, a Guide to Healing through Sound

8. Buying a Singing Bowl

All the sounds of the earth are like music.
Oscar Hammerstein


After having seen and heard the singing bowls, you may want to buy one. It is important to know how to select a good bowl, you do not want to later regret that you spent your money on a poor quality bowl. Here are a few tips to take into account when you have decided to invest into a unique healing instrument.
First, find out who is importing singing bowls. If you just go to a shop to buy one, the best bowls have most likely already disappeared. Contact the importer, express your interest in the singing bowls, and leave your telephone number so he can call you back as soon as a new shipment has arrived. In Belgium I knew of four people who imported singing bowls, and only one was a shopkeeper. By leaving my telephone number with all of them I was always one of the first to look through a new shipment.
Take your time. Depending on how big the shipment is, it can take a lot of time to find the bowl you really like. Once I spent more than an hour going through a room full of well selected bowls. The choice was difficult, and I ended up with two of them. Most importers are very patient and understand the need to thoroughly check the goods. After all a singing bowl, especially a bigger one, is expensive. If you have your own strikers, take them with you. You will want to hear how a bowl sounds with both hard and soft strikers, and often shops will only have the harder kind. At least take a small piece of felt or wool to wrap around the hard striker at the shop. If you have a soft drum mallet, take it along.
What do you need to look for? First, it is important to find a bowl you really like. The sound of it has to please you. Not just a little bit, you need to feel connected to its fundamental and the different partials. If you do not find a bowl that fits you, wait for another shipment. Singing bowls are a serious investment, and you do not want to end up with a bowl that has little effect on you. Remember that you are buying it for meditation and/or healing.
Going through dozens of bowls one by one, exploring their intricate sounds and vibrations, will enhance your ability to judge the quality of the bowls. Not only will you be able to distinguish the partials more and more, but you will also find out that the sound of one bowl is more sustained than another. Strike the bowl and see how long the sound lasts. Some bowls die out almost immediately, but the best ones last a long time. Sounds can be clear and defined or dull and flat. A bowl may have a good high sound, but the lower sounds do not correspond. In a good bowl all the sounds are well balanced and go together. Hold the bowl up and look at the rim, if it is extremely uneven with high and low spots the sound is likely to be irregular and unclear. Look at the overall surface quality, again overly uneven surfaces result in bowls with inferior sound. Look for any small cracks in the surface. A cracked bowl still makes a sound, but not a good one. Tap the bottom to see how thin or thick it is. An overly thin bowl may be good sounding but too vulnerable to breakage. The timbre of the bowl is most important. In musical terms timbre is governed by number, relative intensity, and distribution of the partials. Good timbre consists of a uniform series of sound waves. Some bowls just make noise and the worst bowls do not even ring. Worse yet, they may have very high price tags and are being sold as antiques.
In every shipment I have found bowls who have a disturbing "RRRRR" when struck. It depends upon how you strike them, and it can be faint. It happens because air bubbles were trapped in the metal during the cooling process. We know that with the making of musical bells, the metal alloys must be heated to the right temperature and allowed to cool under carefully controlled conditions. Cooling too rapidly can adversely affect the tone, trap some air bubbles, and make the bell prone to crack. Occasionally there are bowls with areas of almost pure copper, due to an incomplete mixing of the metals. Their quality is usually but not always, less than average.
Not all bowls are good or even acceptable. Bad bowls are a natural byproduct of the bowl making process. A craftsman may have had a request from a client for a bowl with specific characteristics. A series of similar bowls were made from which the client could choose, to find one that suited him the best. This was done because the bowl making process is not totally predictable. The remaining poor quality or unsatisfactory bowls were used for other purposes, such as offering bowls in temples. At the present time both good and bad bowls are often sold together, unfortunately not all merchants bother to discriminate between them.
When you finally go home with your well chosen bowl, it is time to find out how it produces its sound and sound effects. It takes practice and time, but anyone can learn. The first thing to do is to get or make a series of wooden strikers of different diameters. There is no fixed rule about what works, experimentation is the key. If you tap the bowl gently with bare wood it will enhance the higher partials. Wrapping cloth around the striker will bring out the lower partials and the fundamental. The more layers of cloth, the lower the sound. Try both thinner cottons and thicker woolens or felt. Hardwood often generates harsh sounds when used to strike the bowl, so look for softer woods. Larger bowls require a thicker, heavier striker with more layers of cloth, leather, or felt. Soft drum mallets come in different sizes and are worth having. If you can find one, a base drum pedal beater with a big felt top produces beautiful sounds when used with big bowls.
Softer woods are best for strikers, but hardwoods, such as found in commercially made jazz sticks, are best for rubbing around the rim of the bowl. Press the stick firmly against the bowl to prevent a rattling sound. Think of it as riding a wave as you slowly drag and press the striker around the bowl in circles. Rubbing brings out the singing effect, hence the name singing bowls. Not all bowls lend themselves to rubbing. The thicker the metal of the bowl, especially the rim, the nicer the sound. Do not expect to get immediate results. It is a skill that has to be developed. With patience and the proper hardwood stick, rubbing thick middle size and small size bowls produces penetrating, clear partials. All other tones are subdued or will disappear. In general, rubbing thin bowls will not give nice sounds. I have only one very large thin bowl that produces a nice low humming sound when rubbed with a big oak stick.
Painting is my hobby and I like to experiment with paint, media and subjects. It was inevitable... I began to paint symbolic designs in the center of my singing bowls. It seemed so logical. After many months of playing each one had shown itself to have a definite character, not only in its tones but also in the way it affected me. Each musical instrument has its characteristic timbre, a quality that distinguishes it from others it regardless of the pitch or intensity. There is no scientific scale to measure timbre, although it is primarily a function of the wave form. Likewise each singing bowl has its own particular timbre; a bowl can be soothing, vibrant, watery, and so on. According to the images that would arise in my mind as a result of the bowl’s particular character I gave my bowls names. For example my Fire bowl has a very strong and rapid sequence of sounds. My Earth bowl, the biggest I have, gives me the sense of a solid foundation and profound relaxation. The Butterfly bowl has airy, light, and quick moving sounds. When I bought a particular small singing bowl and rang it for the first time a strong image of a beautiful temple immediately arose in my mind. Hence its name: the Temple bowl.
I do not know of any another singing bowl practitioner who paints his bowls. It is enjoyable and it helps establish a relationship with the bowls. They are much more than metal bowls with peculiar sound effects. To me they are alive, and it is my personal belief that each bowl is connected to a sound spirit. At times I feel the singing bowls are teaching me how they want to be played. An example is my Deva bowl, a small clear ringing bowl that I use frequently in private sessions to suddenly raise the awareness of the client.
If you decide to paint inside your bowl make sure it is clean first. I like to use fine green clay with a wet cloth, rinsing it clean with water. When the bowl is dry, use acrylic paint. Do not dilute the paint with water, as water is repelled by metal. Some pigments adhere better to metal than others. You have to experiment a little. I only paint my bowls on the inner bottom part, except for one that has a face painted on the inner side. Of course, any part of the bowl can be painted. The outside is vulnerable because acrylic paint will erode or peel with the handling of the bowl. Painting the inside is difficult because of the position of the hand and brush. Steadiness and patience is important. The result can be quite astonishing, so what are you waiting for? The paint can be removed later if you wish.
Now that you have learned how to play your singing bowl, what can you do with it? Meditation is a natural choice. Sit in a quiet place and play the bowl gently, with attention and awareness. The purpose of all meditation is to become centered and still in body, soul and spirit. Bodily tensions relax and disappear, emotions are accepted and stilled, and the mind is kept from wandering. With practice, body, soul, and spirit will be clear enough to enter any kind of meditation you want to perform. The sound of the singing bowl helps you get there.
Those more advanced can meditate on the sound of the bowl itself, it is said it teaches the practitioner about the Voidness. A singing bowl, being empty by nature, teaches about Emptiness (the nature of all things). The sound of the singing bowl is the sound of the Void. For those who are open and willing to grow, or who are already spiritually advanced, singing bowls give teachings. Even if the person playing does not receive a teaching, the many beings on the spiritual plane around them will receive the teachings. The sounds of the singing bowls affect not only the practitioner himself, but also his entire surroundings. On the spiritual plane the sound of the bowls can be heard from a long distance away and will attract spiritual beings. It is said the sound of a bowl when struck goes all the way around the world and comes back again in an instant.
A singing bowl can be placed and played on the chest which acts as a natural resonating chamber. Lie down and place a piece of non slip material between yourself and the bowl. The thin rubber matting sold for kitchen use works well. Often after a stressful day half an hour of playing the bowl on my body will put me back in my center. Tensions are gone and I feel so much better. The bowls can be placed almost anywhere on the body. Most people like it on the chest, the belly and on the upper back.
You can use your singing bowl to charge up objects. Put a small pad under the object to prevent rattling. Since the base of the bowl is a nodal point placing an object there does not interfere with the sound. Try putting a glass of water in the bowl. As you gently strike the bowl the water is structured and organized by the vibrations. Look closely and you will see little ripples on the surface of the water. Crystals or jewelry can likewise be placed in the bowl to charge them up, at the same time they amplify the effects of the bowl. This was shown dramatically during a dowsing session. The placement of a piece of meteorite in a bowl caused the pendulum to swing wildly in big circles. Another thing to do is to place a photograph in the bowl. It can be a person, place or thing you to whom wish to direct peace and harmony. Your attitude and intentions will contribute to the results.
The bowls make a wonderful addition to a yoga routine. You may wish to begin your practice with a minute or more of ringing your bowl, chanting "om" along with it. Turn around and strike it in the four directions, sending harmony around the world. Hold it (carefully) directly above your head to clear the energy there. Use it in resting periods on your chest, playing it as you relax or catch your breath from active exercises. Play it during breath work when possible. Try it with alternate nostril breathing, holding the striker with the left hand, striking the bowl on the out breath. Strike the bowl before you bow down with your arms extended behind you. Hold the pose with your head above the bowl as long as it continues to ring.
Much more can be done with the singing bowls. Only the imagination is the limit. Be spontaneous and open, and you will be guided by the spirits of the singing bowls to use them in a way that corresponds with who you are and what you need. They were made to be played.

copyright 2001 by Dirk Gillabel