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Neil Martin gets serious

 September 4, 2016


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It was January 2014, when Neil Martin (one of the funniest people I know), in a rare moment of seriousness, called me and said, “Mike, I want to get real about leading Kirtan – will you help me?”

Neil had just completed his teacher training at Bhakti Yoga Shala, a hub for Kirtan in LA. He longed for a way to share his devotion to his spiritual lineage, generating communal experiences of Bhakti and Shakti. Neil wanted to be a part of the Bhakti movement. And more than anything, Neil wanted a way to merge his deep commitment to his spiritual lineage with his history as a performer, actor, comedy writer and singer.

Fast Friends in India

Neil and I met in the Bangalore airport, in 2010,  We had both traveled across the world to participate in a program being held at the ashram of our Guru, Swami Kaleshwar. Our flights arrived around midnight, and the next bus to the ashram in Penukanda – a remote town several hours from the airport – wasn’t until 8am. So Neil and I had several hours, in the middle of the night, to get to know each other.

We chatted a bit… checking each other out. After a few minutes I gave him a sideways glance and asked if he wanted to hear my Kirtan album. A struggling musician trying to get my work out in the world, I recognized Neil as my perfect audience and wanted him to give it a listen. He listened and commented that he liked the “earthy authority” of my voice on top of music that was “techno and funky.” So, of course I immediately liked him! We chatted some more, sharing where we grew up, where we currently lived, and our journey to this lineage. Neil and I were fast friends. Later that morning, upon arriving at the ashram, much to our surprise (and delight) we discovered we were roommates – India, as usual, was offering her magic in the form of unanticipated synchronicity’s.

Neil’s Path(s) to Kirtan Leadership

Neil was a successful child actor, and loved being the center of attention. Tall, lanky and gregarious, he was elected class president in high school. Very much in his element on stage, Neil had been the lead singer for a rock band at Stanford University, and  was not shy in letting you know his idol was Bruce Springsteen. His comedic sense was honed during a stint as a writer on a popular Comedy Central show. His strong background as an actor as well as a singer brought both gifts and challenges as Neil worked to build skill in leading Kirtan and allow his history to inform his approach to the genre.

Upon completing his yoga teacher training at Bhakti Yoga Shala in 2013, Neil began teaching yoga and hosting double and triple bill Kirtan events. Neil’s stage presence and deep spiritual background offered something sturdy to lean on as he found his footing as a Kirtan Leader. And, he heard  criticisms about his over emphasis on performing and rock star mannerisms. Neil also experienced breakdowns due to his lack of comfort in playing chords on the harmonium and guitar and his inability to communicate clearly with his band.

Doing the Work

So, we began to work, meeting twice per month via Skype. This, along with quarterly Kirtan events at Bhakti Yoga Shala, and adding Kirtan to weekly yoga classes, created a structure inside which Neil could build his skills as a Kirtan Leader.

Neil reflected on his experiences and I offered guidance and support. He expanded his repertoire through chants I provided for him, and by stretching himself to write original chants. Neil built community and organized events. We created lead sheets for his original chants and Neil worked hard to learn how to cue a drummer and lead a band. Along the way Neil gained valuable experience through his events and by singing in my bands at Bhakti Fest West and Midwest, as well as in Detroit, Denver and LA.


Key transformation points for Neil included:

  • Spending time building skill playing guitar and the harmonium, particularly with the iTabla (for keeping time).
  • Learning to write original chants
  • Getting good at communicating clearly with musicians
  • Learning to cue his drummer and lead his band
  • Creating clear lead sheets to share with his band
  • Moving from “performing” the chants to simply singing to the Divine and for the chant participants

This final point was a huge breakthrough. I vividly recall the Skype session in the spring of 2016 where the coaching I offered helped Neil surrender a way of approaching music that had been with him for decades and was no longer serving. Doing so allowed a new way of relating to the chants to emerge. I was delighted as I heard him toggling back and forth between the old and new way of relating to music, self-correcting, and finally beginning to embody a more “Kirtan appropriate” way of approaching the chant.

Neil leaned on the strengths of his background as a performer and also worked to transcend it’s limitations with a focus on musicianship and shift away from a “performance” orientation.

Demonstrating Readiness

Fast forward to September 2016 and Neil has vastly deepened his skill, confidence and comfort in leading Kirtan.  Last month he participated in the Level 4 Kirtan Leader group training program in Boulder and Denver, CO. At the Denver Kirtan event – in which he led a pair of his original chants – he led the first chant of the evening. Neil’s humor, stage presence and storytelling ability are always present and strong. However, this was the most challenging time slot of the evening, so the stakes were much higher than usual. Neil rose to the challenge, and his chant beautifully brought the audience from distraction to alignment, and then into coherence and flow. Neil dCome to the edgeisplayed comfort cueing his drummer and leading the band. I had chills seeing him “playing with energy through music” – a subtle, yet very powerful, way to be in the practice of leading Kirtan.

I was so proud of him! Basking in the afterglow of this event I found Neil and declared, “You are ready to fly.”

Indeed he is… this week Neil leads one of his original chants on stage at the grandest Kirtan/Yoga festival in North America – Bhakti Fest West.

Transcend and Include

Neil leaned on the strengths his history as a performer provided (inclusion). He also faced into his limitations and did the work to build the required skills to lead Kirtan with grace and ease. By surrendering aspects of his past that were limiting his ability to do so, Neil was able to transcended his “performer” orientation.

Five Paths to Kirtan Leadership

Neil’s journey as a Kirtan Leader helped me see how students typically arrive through one (or more) of 5 discrete paths. The personal histories of my students often include significant time spent on the paths of:

  1. Performer
  2. Singer
  3. Musician
  4. Spiritual devotee
  5. Yoga practitioner/teacher

I work with students at all levels – from total beginners, to those with grand ambitions like Neil and others who have gone on to write original chants, make albums play at festivals and go on tour. Some students arrive having experienced a single path during their life. Neil arrived having spent significant time in several.

Overview of the 5 Paths

Each of the 5 paths are unique, with their own strengths, challenges and keys to transformation. Here’s an overview:

1. PERFORMER – this includes those with musical theater backgrounds and a history as an entertainer, comedian, actor or street performer.

Typical strengths are an orientation toward rehearsal and strong stage presence. Performers often have familiarity and training around singing, chords and rhythm. They tend to be excellent storytellers with a strong sense of humor and timing who know how to look good and play the part.

Frequent challenges for those who come to Kirtan via the performer path include: seeing music as something to rehearse (social), rather than to practice (solo), difficulty communicating with musicians and a harsh inner critic. Performers can be overly focused on public identity and try too hard to look good, which can get in the way of their learning. Performers sometimes view training programs and coaching sessions as opportunities to “be on stage,” rather than opportunities to practice, receive coaching and build the skills and capacity they need to lead Kirtan with skill and confidence.

The key to transformation for performers typically lies in building their musical skill, deepening their understanding of music, and improving their ability to communicate with musicians. As we saw in Neil’s case, performers often, ironically, need to surrender their embodied capacity for performing in order to become skillful Kirtan Leaders who embody devotion and service.

2. SINGER – this includes anyone who sang in choir or glee club, fronted a jazz or rock band, or even just took voice lessons.

Typical strengths are strong vocal presence, orientation toward performance and a keen awareness of social domain/public identity.

Frequent challenges for those who come to Kirtan via the singer path include: managing an active inner critic and trying to look good and avoid looking bad. Lack of understanding of chords, lead sheets and how to communicate with musicians. They can also have difficulty stepping away from their performance aspect a.k.a. mantra music, and focus on serving others through Kirtan (call and response chanting).

Similar to performers, the key to transformation for singers often lies in building their musical skill, understanding and ability to communicate with musicians. Singers often need to tame their inner critic and quiet their comparing mind. Singers are often served by surrendering their embodied capacity for performing, replacing it with an orientation to serve others through call and response chanting.

Bhakti Fest Midwest 2013 - MC, Joni, Samuel3. MUSICIAN – this includes those with background playing in rock and jazz bands, working in professional recording studios or even playing an instrument in band during middle or high school.

Typical strengths include strong practice orientation and a deep understanding of chords, melodies and rhythm. Musicians often possess high musical standards and are typically skilled at communicating with fellow musicians.

Frequent challenges for those who come to Kirtan via the musician path include: building real skill with singing, developing stage presence and managing an active inner critic. Musicians can have a tendency to make things too musically complicated (especially melodies and words). Musicians often lack experience in building community, establishing a strong public identity, being center stage, standing in their power as a charismatic leader and speaking impactfully about Kirtan.

The key to transformation for musicians often lies in managing their inner critic and quieting their comparing mind, stepping into leadership to build their brand, building community and speaking powerfully about Kirtan. Deepening skill and nuance with singing is critical, as is becoming a charismatic leader.

4. SPIRITUAL DEVOTEE – this includes those who discovered Kirtan in an ashram (in India or the US), led Kirtan (or played in a Kirtan band) in an ashram or have been part of a Kirtan group closely affiliated with a particular spiritual lineage, saint, guru or deity.

Typical strengths are the ability to hold Kirtan as a social/spiritual practice, and an orientation toward inner experiences, service, Bhakti and devotion.

As they shift of of the ashram setting and into the secular/multicultural context in which much Kirtan is now situated, frequent challenges for those who come to Kirtan via the devotee path include: lack of skill with playing chords and communicating with musicians, low musical standards, and lack of awareness around creating a public identity and being powerful in the social domain. Devotees often struggle around coordinating with musicians, acquiring technology and artifacts, and stepping into leadership.

The key to transformation for devotees often lies in building their musical skill, deeping their musical understanding and strengthening their ability to communicate with musicians. Devotees often must take on the role of charismatic leader, build their brand, grow their community and learn to speak powerfully about Kirtan.

5. YOGA TEACHER/PRACTITIONER – this includes those who discovered Kirtan within a particular school of yoga (i.e., Jivamukti, Anusara, etc.) that honored Kirtan and/or Bhakti Yoga as part of their path. Also includes those who discovered Kirtan through yoga classes, yoga/music festivals or through CD/streaming music.

Typical strengths are a deep rootedness in their personal practice (which could include mantra or chanting), and an orientation toward Bhakti and devotion. Yoga practitioners/teachers often possess a deep love of Kirtan and a longing to go deeper. Stepping into Kirtan Leadership shows up  as the logical next step.  They often possess strong connections with yoga studios, and show up with built in community.

Frequent challenges for those who come to Kirtan via the Yoga practitioner/teacher path include: a tendency to lean on their role as yoga instructor and thus over-speak, lack of practice in co-creating  musical experiences (i.e., leading a band) and limited experience with coordinating musicians. Unless they are a yoga studio owner, they may have limited experience building  community. Often they lack confidence around singing and musicianship and may be limited around playing chords, repertoire and rhythm.

The key to transformation for those who arrive via the Yoga practitioner/teacher path often lies in deepening their singing and musical skill, building musical understanding and growing their ability to communicate with musicians. Also key is the ability to step into the public identify of a singer and leader.

Ganesh w. harmoniumINQUIRY

For those of you who are already Kirtan Leaders, or aspire to be, I invite you to inventory your history through the lens of these 5 paths. Here are some good questions to explore:

  • Which of these paths have you spent time in during your life?
  • How does this shape how you approach Kirtan?
  • What strengths do you bring to your practice of leading Kirtan? Which might you need to develop?
  • What challenges or limitations are you now aware of as a result of entering through one or more of these particular paths?
  • What is your growth edge? What challenges/limitations do you need to overcome and what skill sets do you need to step fully into the Kirtan leader you long to be?

If you are interested in going deeper, please shoot me an email at [email protected] and I will send you an inventory that offers a way to understand your history and path to Kirtan in greater detail.

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