The Reed God Plays On: A Conversation with Elizabeth Tomboulian & Joan Forest Mage

by | May 08, 2014 | Articles, Interviews, Musicians

reedbedOn May 7, 2014, LFA Executive Director Joan Forest Mage and Singer/Sound Healer Elizabeth Tomboulian had a conversation about the many parallels in their respective artistic careers, including dance, somatics, overtone singing, the importance of non-judgment about oneself as an artist, and how it all relates to spiritual experience.

Elizabeth Tomboulian: In addition to a more traditional music career, which includes everything from singing in jazz clubs to church music ministry, I do many kinds of healing. For example, I use a method called Body Mapping to help musicians find proper posture (ergonomics) to avoid injury and increase their performance abilities. If a musician juts her chin out to read music, it can put pressure on cervical spine; if she is caving in her chest across the sternum while playing her instrument, it creates kyphosis, a rounding of the upper spine that causes problems with lungs, heart, nerves and other organs.
Playing instruments is like dancing with the instrument. But many musicians are so into the mental process of playing music they’re not even aware of their bodies. I help them realize they can maintain awareness of the body while going into the spiritual realm.
Joan Forest Mage: It reminds me of the work I did for 20 years, as an adjunct to my dance career, which was teaching fitness. I taught aerobics, water aerobics, toning classes and yoga. I am also a Certified Movement Analyst with the Laban Institute, Rudolf Laban’s work in somatics, the study of the mind-body connection. It’s similar to Feldenkrais and Alexander technique.
Anyway, in teaching fitness classes, I would be instructing the students how to move, saying things like, “Feel this muscle as you do this movement.” Many time people would come up to me after class and ask, “You mean you’re supposed to think when you dance?”

I would laugh and say, “No, it’s like the movie Flashdance, where she gets a bucket of water poured over her head and starts whirling around and loses all consciousness!”
Elizabeth: You don’t want to get too cerebral, but there’s also abandoning your self-awareness needlessly, to the point that you can be injured.

Joan: You have to have body awareness for self-preservation. But it also improves your art. You find more possibilities of how to play your instrument, how to do a dance movement.

Elizabeth: The mobility of the spine is important as a catalyst for the creative part of anyone, whether that person is a doctor, singer, plumber, or parent: any way that a human being is creative. The coccyx connects to the earth. If we have a mobile spine, we can follow wherever the creative force that is behind all of life is leading us.
Joan: It reminds me of a quote from Anna Pavlova. She said, “You have to master technique, and then forget all about it and just dance.”
Elizabeth: Get out of the way of the Divine. You have to have enough technical skill and awareness in the moment to protect yourself; it’s being prepared enough to have fun.
Joan: The dancer Gabrielle Roth asked, “Do you have the discipline to be a free spirit?”
Elizabeth: That’s a good quote!


Joan: Why is it important for people to be creative? And, how can the arts help them?
Elizabeth: The true heart’s desire of the human being is the creative purpose that is placed in our lives by the force that brought us into being. If we can understand what we as creative beings are called to do, and open ourselves to it, to be as fearless as possible about doing that, then the power that brought us here will assist us in creating. The heart’s desire is all about creativity. It’s not about making museum quality art, it’s whatever you do with love.
It’s important to release any judgment; not discernment, but judgment. To avoid comparing our creative work with that of others.
When I was in church music ministry in Texas a lot of the service programming was my own music. One of the congregants said “Your music really touched me.”
I said, “You should have heard me when I practiced yesterday, it was much better.”
His answer startled me, “I’m tired of your fucking bullshit!” [Laughter]

This was from a man who was elderly and always polite. He said, “God does not need you to be perfect in order for God to speak to my heart perfectly through you.”
Joan: Like the Rumi poem that says, I’m paraphrasing here: “I am the reed God plays on.” The actual poem is:

“God picks up the reed-flute world and blows.
Each note is a need coming through one of us,
a passion, a longing pain.
Remember the lips
where the wind-breath originated,
and let your note be clear.
Don’t try to end it.
Be your note.”


Your anecdote reminds me of one I had many years ago. It was also in a spiritual organization context, doing a culture festival with the SGI Buddhist organization. I kicked my leg up in second position, and was disappointed in myself that it was not perfectly turned out. Suddenly the thought flashed into my mind, “Almost no one in the audience will know what the correct technique is; and the one person who does will say, ‘You know, she wasn’t technically perfect, but I don’t mind at all because she gave such a wonderful, exciting performance. She took me somewhere, she shifted the energy for me.’”
I realized that technique is not for the audience, it’s for the artist him or herself. Technique is so that when you as an artist go out on stage, you have the ability to respond to the creative flow in the moment. So you can have fun with it!
Elizabeth: Paul Selig channels the Ascended Masters. He says that the hardest place to eliminate judgment is towards oneself. When we are judging someone, it’s based in the thought, “You remind me of myself and what I don’t accept about myself.”
Being self-conscious takes you into fear and out of love. It stops the flow of the energy. Yet, you don’t want to be ashamed of having fear. We’re human. The key is loving all that is.
Joan: I know you work a lot with overtone singing, also called throat singing. I did a little research and found it fascinating. The normal sound of the human voice is produced by the vocal cords, or vocal folds, which are mucous membranes that move towards each other over the trachea while one is exhaling. But one of the ways that overtone singing is produced is with a different set of vocal folds, called the false vocal folds. Most people never use the false vocal folds, except for overtone singers. I know there is more to overtone singing…
Elizabeth: One way overtones are produced is by holding the tongue to the palette above and beyond the teeth. Making a chamber in this way above the tongue is where some of the sounds are made. However, it’s quite complex. For example, when I’m doing the very low sounds they are not coming from holding the tongue to the palette.
Joan: I have heard that humans have the greatest number of sounds of any animal, because of the shape of the mouth, type of vocal cords and other factors.
Elizabeth: When I first became a parent, my first pediatrician was in her 80’s. She encouraged me to speak intelligently to my daughter because babies can understand language before they can speak it, just like a person learning a foreign language can understand the language before they are able to speak it.
There was a morning dove nest outside a window in our home, and my daughter would imitate the cooing of the doves. She did this before she could speak English!
Joan: Can she still make the cooing sounds?

Elizabeth: I’ll ask her. [Laughter]
Joan: You have said that overtone signing has a spiritual sound. Why is that?

Elizabeth: Just in an experiential way for me, I feel it connects us to other dimensions that we invite in that we don’t usually have awareness of.

I do know that overtone singing works in distance healing, which is one indication that it is a spiritual or energetic practice. An example is the experience I had when a woman I know was terribly distraught about her 30 year old son dying. I wanted to do some toning for her, but I was traveling and I couldn’t make sounds late at night because they would disturb the people I was staying with.
I decided to tone above the range of hearing. I thought of very high tones and engaged my physiology – vocal cords, mouth – just as if I was making the sounds out loud. I was also setting intention mentally, praying for her son and her.

The next day the woman’s sister called me and said, “Whatever you did last night worked; she really shifted. She could barely walk, now she can walk upright.”
I called the woman and said, “As you move, lead with the heart.”
“My father told me to guard my heart,” she replied.
I convinced her to try leading with her heart, overcoming the message she had received in her childhood. She was able to lead with her heart, and she said she felt unbelievable peace.

I feel very blessed to have been given the instrument I have. I want to mention, even though I have been singing all my life, I gained a lot of my higher voice studying with Patrice Michaels after I was fifty years old.  Usually one loses vocal capacity as one ages, but I gained more. We humans have so much potential, it’s incredible.


But it’s not just humans we can heal with sound. My teacher Judith Kahealani Lynne ( reminds us that the energy grid of the planet, the leylines, are reinforced by healing sounds. There is so much damage going on with the planet, but we can heal it with sound.  Through my work, I encourage people to use their voices for healing Nature. Just start singing with that intention; sing to all of Nature, to bring healing love and light. The Earth is in need of loving.

Elizabeth Tomboulian ( spent her early career in Texas as a singer/songwriter, and then began her foray into jazz in Houston, as featured singer at the Shell Club. Her career then took her to New Orleans, where she performed with the Charles Neville House Band at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. From there she moved to Colorado, where she was a regular solo act at the Blue Note in Boulder, opening for Charlie Musselwhite, Tom Scott and L.A. Express, and Richie Cole, who invited her to perform his encore as a duo with her. Seven years in Nashville as a studio musician and band leader for Whatever It Takes, a 10-piece horn band playing her compositions, led to her eventual return to her home state, Arkansas.

She met her husband Lee in Little Rock and formed Circo Verde, a Latin Jazz group that morphed to Circo when they moved to North Texas, with Uruguayan percussionist Ricardo Bozas. They moved to Appleton, Wisconsin in 2005, when Lee took a position at Lawrence University Conservatory of Music teaching jazz piano and improvisation. Elizabeth has been active in church music ministry since the 1990s in Methodist, Church of God in Christ (COGIC), Presbyterian (PCUSA), and Lutheran congregations. She’s been teaching voice in Appleton High Schools and her home studio. In 2008 she graduated as a Quantum Energetics Structured Therapist.

Joan Forest Mage ( is a shamanic healer, teacher and performing artist. She has studied shamanism and healing ritual with numerous teachers, and is the founder and director of Life Force Arts Foundation. First awakened to energy work through her life-long profession of music and dance, Joan began doing shamanic healing in 1995 and created an extensive Shamanic Training program. She received a Master of Arts degree from School for New Learning, De Paul University, Chicago, with the focus area “Creating Healing Ritual Through the Arts.

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