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The Voice of the Sounding Bowl

Extracted from the book “Lonely Waters”, proceedings from the conference at Sobell House, Oxford, England. 1994

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I was first introduced to the Sounding Bowl when I began work at Sir Michael Sobell House. The music therapist who was acting as adviser to the setting up of the post, Rachel Verney, had met Tobias at a woodturning demonstration. She immediately recognised the therapeutic possibilities of using such instruments in music therapy. The hospice subsequently ordered a seven-string bowl just before my appointment. Since then, I have further acquired a I5-string bowl.

The Sounding Bowl does not resemble any formalised instrument. One of its main advantages is that people do not feel any sense of having to play it in an orthodox or proper manner. If I am meeting someone for the first time on the ward I will simply lay the bowl on the bed, often not mentioning its existence. Within a short time the client will normally reach out and begin either stroking the strings as they talk, or will focus on the bowl as the main theme for our opening verbal and/or musical dialogue. The Sounding Bowl can consequently become a subsidiary means to access the relationship or may become a central part of the therapeutic direction itself. I use the Sounding Bowl at many levels, from relaxation sessions through to delicately balanced work with people who are nearing death. I regard the Sounding Bowl as essential to my work in palliative care. Its sensitivities as an instrument, the beauty of its shape and texture of its surface all add to its personal qualities that are recognised and used to great effect by all people who play it.

The following paper describes the philosophical foundation to Tobias' work. It gives insight into the creative process of a wood craftsman struggling to find musical form. We are provided with a sense of the person behind such beautifully crafted and powerful instruments.

Dr. Colin Lee 1995


Not being a music therapist but a wood craftsman, I hope you will excuse me if my way of looking at music therapy differs from the usual. This paper describes my Sounding Bowls and why I make them. As a preface, I will start with something about my understanding of life.

Beginning with the premise that consciousness exists before birth and after death, one may infer that it is not dependent on physical manifestation. Some branches of biology view consciousness as a product of the body. I, however, view the body as a product of consciousness. Having created a body, consciousness embarks on a voyage of adventure and learning through isolation. Like any adventure this has inherent problems. At any point in the journey we may find ourselves unable or unsure of how to proceed. Reminders of the origins and the goal of our journey can provide us with clues to our next step. Where can we find such reminders, and how can we establish contact, however tenuous with our origins and goals?

Music is one of the languages of healing. It has the power to provide this contact, especially if the musician is aware of the needs she or he is serving. As an instrument maker, I make it my task to be aware of the needs my instruments will be serving. I do this in the first instance through the image of consciousness and isolation on our journey. Secondly, I consider a sense of the temporarily lost, as I have been, and to some extent always am. I wish my instruments to serve as a link between our goals and origins and the situation in which we find ourselves.

E.g. my instruments were born as an inspiration during one of the darker periods of my life. The making of each is still a juggling of these extremes of inspiration and despair. The forms of the bowls are for me an allegory of the human soul. For example the string tension stresses the wood. The stress increases the wood's resonant qualities. We do not reach our potential if we have not lived with stress.

The acoustic of the internal curve of the bowl arises from years of struggling to achieve forms that are visually harmonious. From the visual the audible comes forth. As a final step, I try to embody in each instrument my image of the person who will be using it, and the people they will be working with. Evidence that this consciousness also finds its embodiment comes from the number of users who have responded with enthusiasm to a particular bowl. Thus, step by step I prepare my bowls to work as bridges. For the client, this may be experienced as a bridge between a traumatised now and a clearer original consciousness or future resolution. For the therapist this may be experienced as the bowl assisting in developing a relationship with the client.

Two varieties of bowls have been developed. The wider type with its parallel stringing is enticingly easy to play and listen to. Its sound reaches out and embraces the player. This bowl can access deep levels, as all its users will testify. The deeper bowl with its fan shaped stringing is more intimate. It leads into inner depths, reflected and opened to the soul's eye. These statements come from personal experience, from observing others and from conversations with therapists. The deep bowls can lead to realisation that allows acceptance and growth. If a person is closed to these realms this bowl may pass them by where wider types may be more accessible.

While there are historical antecedents for these instruments, discovered some years after making began, experts have identified them as unique in the recorded history of musical instruments, not least because the strings resound from within the acoustic form as opposed to from above its top surface. For me this aspect is also allegorical. Through the emergence of individual consciousness in our age the human soul now strives to speak now out of its perception of itself and less out of its identification with family or occupation. Thus sounding from within rather than from without.

If there is a mythology for these bowls I would say the shallower bowl harks back to Apollo's tortoiseshell instrument in which the Earth speaks to the sky.

Whereas the deeper bowl echoes in it’s string pattern the Greek Lyre whose radiant strings each attach to one of the circling stars, bringing to the ancient Greeks the much sought experience of the “Music of the Spheres” through which the Gods speak to the Earth. Its form also refers to the scallop shell, symbol of the Pilgrim, journeying to find the birth of Venus, {i.e. the journey of self-discovery, to the fount of creative consciousness}.

Music therapy is, for me, an attempt to apply these arts of threshold-consciousness. That the soul that struggles, feeling out of its depth, may be thrown a rope, a line, that connects it again to its divine origins.

To the weaving of this rope I dedicate my efforts.

Form - Its Movement in Time and Space, Metamorphosis

You will be familiar with form in time, through music. The movement of a melody is form expressing itself in time. My work as a wood turner is to produce forms in space. When I first began turning wood I was delighted to find that the forms I made expressed a similar feeling as that which I had tried to express through poetry.

For me the wrestling of words into forms was the same effort as wrestling form into wood. The same forms, different mediums. On meeting a man with whom I had studied poetry, I took him to my workshop and showed him some bowls, and said, "Look Paul, poetry in form". He said, "Yes, very interesting - what are you doing for supper tonight? " As yet, others could not see the link.

Within a year of starting wood turning, I noticed that I had stopped playing the piano. I regretted this, as I had enjoyed playing. I couldn't seem to find the time or interest to practise. Some years later when we moved down to Devon, there was a month or two in which I didn't have a workshop - we were building it. I rushed out and bought a piano at an auction and started playing again. I was delighted to find that music was coming back into my life.

However, once the workshop was completed I stopped playing the piano. It was only later that I realised that music, like poetry, had been transformed into the curves of bowl walls. Indeed, I then reconnected with the fact that in my early years as a turner, I had sometimes lain in bed at night, transposing a phrase of a song into the swoop and lift of a bowl's wall curve.

About the time of moving to Devon, someone quoted to me words of the philosopher-craftsman Professor David Pye, “A form either sings where it stands or is forever silent”. I was immediately enthused. Yes, I thought, that's what I'm working for - a form that is so harmonious in its shape that it sings where it stands. That's what I work for - a form that has innate harmony, a harmony that is not loudly expressed but is richly implicit.

For years I worked on these themes. I chose woods that were particularly bland, so that my work hung or fell on its form. I let my customers judge with the cash whether I had achieved a beautiful shape or not (a bowl made from exotic wood will sell, however poorly shaped). I must admit that I finished this period with something of a sense of failure - none of the shapes I made were actually audible: one could put them on the table and they would sit still, they would not hum.

However, one piece, not vastly dissimilar from the rest, was sitting on the piano. Having been made from wet wood it was in the process of drying and it suddenly split. The noise it made was so harmonious that two rooms rang for an instant. This can be partly explained by the piano it was resting on, but not fully. I came through from the kitchen to see what had made the wonderful sound.

Shortly after this, a composer friend picked up the bowl and was tapping the side of it and listening to the sound, he said "This is a beautiful sound - can I borrow this to make some recordings?" Later he echoed my own thoughts, "You've got a natural acoustic in this space, you ought to do something to bring it out. " "Yes" I said, "but what?" "Well, perhaps put a drum skin across it". I had thought of that, but the idea of hiding the whole of the inside and at least one third of the outside I'd struggled to make harmonious, with an opaque skin, did not appeal.

Besides, I'd seen drums made by other people that sounded good and didn’t have carefully shaped interiors. Thus I rejected this idea. I gave it some more thought over the next week, but couldn't come up with any means by which this interior acoustic could be made to speak.

Some time later I was sitting on my bed when the idea of stretching strings across a turned bowl suddenly came into my head. This was it, this was an idea which was visually exciting and had resonant potential. I made one bowl with strings and it sold quickly. My intention was to make something which was part way between a sculpture and an instrument. More than a sculpture yet not an instrument. I did not want 'non musical' people to dismiss this object from their world by classifying it as an instrument. Thus, when my composer friend came again and said "You could develop this. You could make these into more of an instrument", my reaction was not enthusiastic. I did collaborate with him, fitting eight metal strings rather than four gut ones. Later this experience was useful, but on my third Sounding Bowl I returned to three gut strings. Trying to create something which was audibly, as well as visually, harmonious - in other words a sounding sculpture.

The next dozen instruments explored the question of resonant acoustics. I made deep ones, wide ones, bowls with thick walls and thin walls, bowls with rims that overhung or dipped back down into the bowl - always looking for a formula by which I could produce harmonious sounding bowls. The only conclusive result was that if I concentrated on the sound, it would indeed sound good.

If I approached it in an experimental frame of mind, or attempted to copy something that had previously been successful, the sound was weak. This made me think, "How is it that the way I think and feel about the work has more influence on the sound than the obvious physical characteristics of the form? " It seems to me that this is another case of form in action. Let me explain. Our thinking flows on in our mind whether we listen to it or not. It is only when we take our thinking and shape it to our service that it performs a useful function in the world. In other words, it is only when we give form to our thinking that it has an effect.

This is similar to when you give form to sound, creating a piece of music, or form to a piece of wood, creating a bowl. It is the forms one experiences inwardly that determine how the forms one puts out (in wood or in music) can be used. The sound of music effects a person inwardly. The feeling the musician puts into playing effects the sound. The subtlest details of a bowl's curve effect the tone of the acoustic.

The feelings of the turner effect the subtlest details of a bowls curve. Further, one can see how the tone of the bowls affects a person inwardly; I believe there is a link between how the hearer feels as he listens or plays and how the turner feels as he creates the curve. The form in action is moving from the soul into matter and consequently can move from the matter into the soul.

There is a traceable line from player to listener or from instrument maker to those who hear the instrument, but there is a similar, subtler link. A link that goes through transformation between expressing itself in early life and in another way later on. Music becomes form becomes music.

At all points, the starting is within the thinking and feeling. That which lives within me has transformed its mode of expression. Practising and turning are both necessary if the performance is to be good. If I do not prepare myself before making a sounding bowl, the results will not be what I seek. The relationship I have with the person who commissions a Sounding Bowl influences the subtleties of tone. The relationship of commissioner to the finished piece is usually immediate and strong.

When making a bowl as a commission, I will take into consideration the person who is to use the bowl, the type of work it is for, and how they approach their work. Out of this comes a bowl which suits them and their needs. This seems to be a subtle instance of forms moving from person to person, to object and back.

There are some other aspects of this question which are more abstruse. When a bowl is first strung, the tone tends to be that of metal strings on wood, whereas over the first few weeks the bowl alters to take the stress of the strings. During this process the tone will mellow and become one, so that the instrument sings with one voice.

Note also, that timber grown under stress produces a better tonal quality than timber grown without stress. (Many trees experience stress in their growth, either by having to grow against wind, or a steep slope. All trees have stress in one part of their grain, for instance, close to the junction of a large branch). Thus, I use wood that has been stressed when making a bowl. I liken this again, to the human soul. A person who has learned to live with stress usually seems to have a greater depth and vibrancy than a person who has not.

Thus, in different ways, you have the coming forth of beauty out of stress. Stressed grain is visually more beautiful than straight grain. Stressed grain yields a richer tone than straight grain. The bowl's form, stressed and bent by the strings' pull enriches the tone. The stressed human soul deepens and enriches its nature. Is there a link between the balance of stress in the musical bowls and their therapeutic use?

I am not the first person to consider form. Rupert Sheldrake'sl scientific works on morphogenesis (the birth of form), give examples of the birth of forms in thinking, in feeling and in biology. He has been influential on my thinking. Sheldrake discusses how form that is new in the world is difficult to create. When a chemist creates a new salt he finds it difficult to obtain crystallisation.

He is likely to persevere however because the shape of the crystal is part of the definition of a new salt. It has been found that once a salt has been crystallised, it begins to be easier to crystallise again, even if subsequent crystallisations are in other laboratories. The explanation is not known within the realms of established physics.

Sheldrake has come closest to giving a satisfactory answer when he explains that form for a new crystal does not yet exist. Once the salt has been persuaded to crystallise, then the form exists. Each time the salt is crystallised again, the form is strengthened, making it easier to bring form from the invisible to the visible world. The same thing has been noticed with inventions - almost the moment something is invented somebody else is inventing it somewhere else.

Sheldrake talks about how the more people come to hold an idea, the more other people will also hold it. Thus the faster it will catch on. At this point a woman in the audience asked if there was anyone else working on musical bowls. At the time I had not heard of anyone, but within a few days somebody told me that they had a friend in America, also working on the acoustic properties of turned form. He was, however, not experimenting with strings. He was turning wood from a musical background, pursuing visually harmonious forms and exploiting the acoustic properties they offered.

Another great influence has been Rudolf Steiner. Steiner talks extensively about the nature of form2. One example he gives is the formation of plants. Imagine a daffodil, the first thing you think of is the flower. If you think back from that point, you could imagine the bud - you could recognise a daffodil from its bud.

Think back further and you will see green leaves with no bud. Some people can recognise daffodil leaves as distinct from tulip leaves - a gardener certainly could. Think back further, to winter, imagine taking the bulb in your hand. You may see that the bulb can be distinguished from a tulip bulb. The differences are not as great as the differences between flowers. From this exercise you may draw two conclusions. One, the form of the flower is more explicit than the form of the bulb. Two, the life cycle of the plant is a form in time - the movement from bulb to leaf to flower and back can be seen in the mind but not in space. It’s existence as a time form is a reality that the mind can behold while the eye cannot.

This is an amazing example of a reality that is not sense-perceptible. Consider again. When a gardener holds a bulb in his hand, his mind is able to perceive the form of the flower. Where at that moment is the form of the flower? Now in your mind's eye again the bulb sprouts and the plant develops. The full form of the flowering plant is slowly appearing.

You are imagining a reality, the explicit form moving out of the invisible realm into the visible. At the point of perfection, the form of the daffodil flower perceptible to you now in your mind's eye, is in nature visible to the physical eye. As the flower fades and dies, the form slips out of the sense-perceptible world again. The form is still there, your mind can perceive it at any moment, implicit in the bulb but not explicit in space. Matter grows to fill the form each spring, then falls out again toward summer.

This is a clear example of form that is expressed in time and space. The theory of genes alone cannot explain this. The genes in a petal are identical to those in the stalk. Established science cannot explain why some cells form themselves into stalk or leaf and others into petal or root.

The life cycle of the daffodil is a form in time. The shape of the flower and the leaves at their fullest expression is a form in space. For me, the Sounding Bowls are an example of the same thing. The form in space is the completed bowl. Like the flowering plant, this is the fullest expression of a time-form. The time-form is the development from piano and poetry through wood turning to the Sounding Bowls and on through the music people make on them, and the experiences they gain. My ideal for these bowls is that, like the plants, they should serve their purpose as one of those aspects of life that offer us a route to reconnect with the origins and goals of our life’s journey.


I. Sheldrake R (I 985). A new science of life. Grafton Books, London.

2. Steiner R (I987). Occult Science. Rudolph Steiner Press, London.

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