Many of us may be unaware that during the past year of living through the Covid-19 pandemic we have all been employing sound therapy to keep us sane and healthy.
When you call a friend or family member, you’re using sound therapy, says sound therapist Julie Chase, president of Wind Willow Consortium.
“When you talk or hum and put your hand on your upper chest or diaphragm, you feel the vibration and naturally relax,” Chase explains. “Tuning-fork vibration uses a calibrated frequency that also brings about stress relief in a much deeper way, but what people don’t realize is that their voice, like tuning forks, can elicit a relaxation response to stress-compromised individuals, even over the phone. Their voice becomes the instrument. That’s why virtual sound therapy works.”
While many people are aware of the positive impacts of music therapy, sound therapy is a newer practice in this country. Using instruments like Tibetan singing bowls, medical-grade tuning forks, gongs and RAV Vast drums, a sound therapist plays tones with the intention of slowing down a client’s brainwaves to create calm in the mind, encourage stress reduction and facilitate healing within the body.
Chase, who teaches sound therapy and certifies sound therapists, founded Wind Willow Consortium with five of her former students in late 2018. The purpose of the nonprofit organization is to create opportunities for sound therapists to spread the word about their practices through workshops, events and other educational happenings.
From curiosity to career
Chase first began learning about sound therapy when she retired from teaching American Sign Language at Kalamazoo Valley Community College in 2012. Her son, who lived in California at the time, mailed her a Tibetan bowl as a retirement gift, sparking Chase’s curiosity.
That curiosity led Chase to learn from certified Tibetan bowl sound therapist and teacher Diáne Mandle at her Tibetan Bowl Sound Healing School, in Encinitas, California. Chase’s sound journey then took her to the East Coast, where she learned more about the science behind sound healing and tuning forks from Dr. John Beaulieu in upstate New York.
“I just felt like I needed to get as much education under my belt as possible,” Chase says.
After educating herself through workshops and classes spanning two years, Chase began practicing in earnest and teaching students. With her background as an ASL instructor and guidance from both Mandle and Beaulieu, Chase created a course consisting of six levels — which she has since expanded to nine — that certifies students in sound therapy.
“I hold a high standard,” Chase says of her curriculum. “There’s a 200-hour minimum requirement for students to graduate from my course.”
In-person classes cost $230 per level and include a textbook and nine hours of instruction. Chase has been offering virtual classes for free during the pandemic.
“Primarily, the way that I teach it (sound therapy) is as stress-reduction therapy, as helping the body to do what the body knows how to do,” Chase says. “In other words, we’re not in there trying to push something on a person. We’re not trying to heal them. We are not healers. We are practitioners. The body’s the healer.”
Wind Willow Consortium had just been getting into a groove when Covid-19 hit, disrupting planned events and requiring WWC’s founders to roll with the punches and adapt, as many businesses and organizations have had to do. But beyond that, sound therapy has faced unique challenges in Kalamazoo that it hasn’t on the East and West coasts, say Chase and WWC Secretary Judy Huxmann.
They say because the practice is relatively new to Western medicine, many people are skeptical of its validity. Scientists have only begun to delve into the impact of sound and music on healing. And sound therapy’s ties to traditional Eastern medicines can be alienating to many potential clients in the Midwest, a situation that WWC actively works to correct and address.
“The consortium is this outgrowth of Julie’s school and our combined interest in making this a very high-integrity practice,” says Huxmann, who worked as a massage therapist from 2001 to 2017, before becoming a sound therapist. “We’re taking the ‘woo-woo’ out of it, but yet there’s still magic in what these instruments do to our bodies. We’re facilitating a space for people’s bodies to find their own way of healing.”
“It’s important for people to understand that there really is some science behind this,” Chase adds.
Some scientific studies have linked sound therapy and sound meditation — sometimes called sound baths — to a reduction in pain, tension and anxiety in fibromyalgia patients, a disorder characterized by intense, widespread pain. And Beaulieu has produced studies on the positive effects tuning forks have on brainwaves.
“Science is still catching up to understanding how sound heals, but the current research is promising,” Dr. Marlynn Wei wrote in a Psychology Today article from July 2019.
Because it’s so new, there is no government-regulated licensing agency for sound therapy, but that is part of why Chase and her organization adhere to strict practices based in integrity, she says.
Treating with sound
A typical session of sound therapy begins with an intake survey, as in any other reputable medical or therapeutic practice. Clients are asked about their history with anxiety and depression, arthritis, and other conditions. The client is then guided to a table in a separate room, as in massage therapy practices, and asked to lie down. The sound therapist then spends 90 minutes playing tones on about 20 different bowls and instruments and, depending on the client’s needs, placing singing bowls and tuning forks strategically on the client’s body to amplify the sound vibrations, facilitating healing within the body.
“Using tuning forks, using these different instruments, actually helps the body to produce nitric oxide,” Chase explains. “We need that to stay healthy.”
Nitric oxide — not to be confused with nitrous oxide, which is more commonly known as laughing gas — is essential to the body’s functioning, since it is responsible for the dilation of blood vessels, which helps regulate blood pressure and circulation.
Sometimes clients will disclose that they’ve recently suffered a traumatic loss of a family member, which is taken into consideration by the sound therapist. “If somebody comes in to me and says, ‘My mother just died,’ I am not going to bring out a gong necessarily for that person, unless I already know (from a previous session) that that might be a beneficial vibration for them,” Chase explains.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, Chase and Huxmann have been able to help clients virtually, but the impact isn’t the same, they say. Although the sound is still beneficial, the intensity of the vibration is lost through the wires of a client’s headphones or phone.
It is not uncommon for clients to fall asleep at the beginning of the practice, emitting a purr-like snore, something that both Huxmann and Chase say they look forward to hearing again when the pandemic subsides.
“I call it ‘divine purring,’” Chase says, laughing. “That’s just the best sound in the world. To know that you’ve helped someone step out of their stressful life and achieve a state of deep relaxation. It doesn’t get better than that.”