Leading Kirtan From the Heart

 October 19, 2015

Published: August 2015
Written By: The Namaste Counsel

Mike Cohen was a professional saxophonist in his teens and 20s. Then, he crossed over from the “performance” side to the heart-driven bhakti (devotion) of kirtan.

“Although I was a professional musician, during that time — and growing up — I had experiences of being judged, compared and even shamed around my singing or musical ability,” says Cohen. “Partly this was a result of the time I spent at the Eastman School of Music, with incredibly talented musicians and singers. Like many, my inherent shyness, family history, and experiences with other musicians led me to feel I was just not cut out to sing. When I discovered kirtan in 2000 I began to drop this interpretation and was able to heal from a number of difficult experiences around voice and expression.”

Cohen, for whom public speaking caused panic attacks, now leads kirtan for large audiences across the country. Through his Kirtan Leadership Institute he helps others to let go, access love and build community. Several of his students are stepping into recording projects and three joined Cohen on stage at Bhakti Fest Midwest. Two long term students recently released full length CD’s of original chants.

“Kirtan taught me to relax the notions of performance and the role of performer,” Cohen shares. “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.”

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