Michael Cohen kirtan leader

Mike Cohen, Kirtan Leader and Kirtan Coach

Michael Cohen's kirtan CD Mike Cohen was a professional saxophonist until he heard kirtan. Today, he tours as a kirtan musician, and coaches students in the domains of musicianship, leadership, spirituality, energetics, chant writing and community building.  His students have gone on to create thriving kirtan communities throughout the U.S., and some have recorded CDs. 

He recently shared his thoughts about Kirtan Leadership with The Namaste Counsel.

In Kirtan There Is No Audience

Back in my teens and twenties I was a professional saxophonist. Those were incredible years, with many exciting and wonderful experiences. Although I was a professional musician, during that time I had experiences of being judged, compared and even shamed around my singing or musical ability. Partly this was a result of the time I spent inside an institution which held very high standards.

Kirtan taught me to relax the notions of performance and the role of performer. As a professional saxophonist, I was expected to show up as a ‘performer.’ Others showed up as the ‘audience.’ In kirtan there is no audience. Everyone participates. Everyone is in the band. Everyone shares their voice, and contributes to what is co-created.

Kirtan leader Mike Cohen

Kirtan leader Mike Cohen with Samuel Salsbury

Kirtan is deeply interactive. The call and response inherent in kirtan creates an energetic flow between leader/band and chant participants. One of the roles of the Kirtan Leader is to guide and support the interaction between leader, musicians, response singers and chant participants.

I like the notion of interacting as this points to the presence of mutual influence. And I wonder … just how far can we go with this interactivity, this inclusivity?

Leading Kirtan Is A Decathlon

Michael Cohen kirtan leaderThe only thing more amazing than chanting is actually leading a group in a chant experience. It’s like the difference between being a passenger in a car, and actually driving the car. It’s fun to be driven around. However, it’s so much fun to be the one doing the driving. Something incredible happens when we hear all the voices coming back to us. When we lead kirtan we integrate the performance/guidance/leadership aspect with the element of spiritual practice.

What people find is that leading kirtan is both astonishingly fun and rewarding, and… highly challenging. Leading kirtan is a practice in and of itself. And, it is quite demanding. As Kirtan Leaders we need to be proficient on the harmonium, confident with our singing, able to develop a repertoire of accessible and interesting chants. We need to build community, and get comfortable speaking publicly about kirtan – sometimes to people who are brand new to chanting. We may also need to write original chants, tour and play at festivals. To be honest, leading kirtan is more like a decathlon than a sprint.

The Yoga of Polarities

From my perspective, Yoga, which in Sanskrit means “yoke,” is fundamentally a process of integrating both sides of a polarity. Doing so gives rise to something greater than either individual side.

Based on guidance from my teachers and spiritual lineage, since 2008 I have been exploring a Dattatreya approach to Kirtan. Dattatreya illustrates the greatest polarities that we, as humans, are always experiencing, yet are often unaware. Like fish who don’t know they’re wet as they have lived their entire life in water… we “swim” in these polarities without knowing it.

The icon of Dattatreya has three heads, representing Brahma (force of Creation), Vishnu (force of Sustenance) and Shiva (force of Transformation) — three forces of Nature. Dattatreya also represents the integration of the polarity of Individual and the Collective (self and others). This deity is androgynous, representing the integration of the apparent polarities of masculine and feminine.

Michael Cohen's Kirtan leadership class

Kirtan leadership class in Boulder

From a Dattatreya Kirtan perspective, there are many polarities we seek to integrate through kirtan.

The practice of leading kirtan requires both guiding and surrendering. It’s simultaneously both a musical performance and a spiritual practice. In the role of Kirtan Leader we both offer leadership, and are impacted by the response. We are responsible for initiating the chant, and also for surrendering to the energy of the chant as it unfolds.

I see ways to practice leading kirtan that turn the practice into “playing with energy through music.” And, at the deepest level I believe there is the possibility to create collective spirituality.

I’m a very pragmatic person, and yet… there is obviously something beautifully mysterious about the practice of kirtan. Perhaps Pragmatism and Mysticism is yet another polarity to integrate through this extraordinary practice.

Michael Cohen, Krishna Das and Govindas at Bhakti Fest Midwest

Mike on stage at Bhakti Fest Midwest, flanked by Govindas (l) and Krishna Das (r)

Challenges for Kirtan Leaders

  1. They don’t have the musical expertise and training to go any further. Perhaps they don’t really understand chords, melody or rhythm. They may not be able to play with efficiency on the harmonium. Or, they may be self-conscious about their voice.
  2. They have learned and become proficient with a limited repertoire of songs, but don’t know how to expand their repertoire. Through the one-on-one coaching process they build their musical acumen (conceptual understanding, relationship, and embodiment on the harmonium).
  3. People come to me because they lack community. Kirtan is a social practice. To lead kirtan means that we have people in front of us we are guiding into the chant experience. Kirtan Leaders need to build community of chanters, venues, musicians and more, both in person and virtually. I help people identify and create the online and real-life communities they need to build the communities required to share kirtan.
  4. Many people who come to me feel shy, uncomfortable and anxious about sharing kirtan in front of others. Leading kirtan is like public speaking… times 20! Chanting as part of a kirtan audience feels very safe, as we are a part of a large group. Leading the group puts us in a very vulnerable position. Everyone’s eyes are on us. They expect us to offer clear guidance and generate an amazing musical experience. We need to step into action in light of our fears, excitement and bliss. To lead kirtan we need to manage our self (harmonium, voice) and our co-musicians (drummers, response singers, etc.) We are definitely on the hot seat, and this can be scary.
  5. More experienced Kirtan Leaders feel a longing to play a bigger game with kirtan leadership. Often they want to write their own compelling chants, but don’t know how. I help them write original chants that are an expression of their passion, history and unique voice. Often this leads them into an even bigger expression with kirtan, including things like stepping into an album project, touring and/or playing at festivals.
Kirtan leaders, Govindas, Neil Martin and Mike Cohen

Kirtan leaders, Govindas, Neil Martin (student of Mike’s) and Mike Cohen

When we are skilled and confident it is easier to surrender into the experience of leading kirtan. When this happens we are fully being ourself, and something bigger flows through. It’s important to both practice for the sake of becoming more skilled as a Kirtan Leader AND to practice surrendering into allowing something greater than ourself to arise through this practice of serving others.

The great Indian Saint Shirdi Sai Baba was renowned for telling his devotees shradda and saburi. Practice and patience.

I am in it for the long haul with students. Often we work together for years as students are guided into embodying ever deeper aspects of leading kirtan. As Krishna Das would say, “gradually, but inevitably” through practice and guidance, one’s ability to lead kirtan deepens.

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