Mirror: Nico, you have been working with sound healing for some time now but you are also a professional drummer. Can you tell us a bit about your background as a musician?
Nico Lippolis: First of all I started teaching myself just by instinct. But then I realized that I wanted to deepen my knowledge and I started working with different teachers in Italy. One of them was a drummer from the Rai orchestra, who was into all this swing stuff because he was fairly old and had gone through the beginning of jazz in the 50s and 60s. He taught me this old school way of playing drums, which is the fundamental way that still, today, inspires a lot of drummers. Then I started to study more experimental music with another younger teacher called Marcello Magliocchi who is still very active in the improvised experimental music scene in Europe.
The musical education that I received from these teachers really opened up my mind and I didn’t focus on one genre in particular, but started to really experiment a lot in different fields. When I moved to Berlin in 1994 I discovered a huge scene of multimedia artists and started to work with video makers, with dancers, with theater people, with all kinds of productions that needed music. But of course I was also playing with jazz musicians, rock and roll musicians, punk rock bands, and so on, so I had a very wide sphere of musical experience. My newest project is called Ur, a progressive experimental duo with me on drums and my partner Jacopo Bertacco on baritone guitar and vocals (https://nft.urband.net).
Mirror: While you were living in Berlin you also connected with Chögyal Namkhai Norbu and Dzogchen teaching?
Nico: Yes, this came years later, in 2005. I discovered his name for the first time and was really curious and inspired by his forward to the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Then I discovered other books by Rinpoche published in Italian and every time I went to bookstores in Italy, I looked for his books on the shelves. I found some that had been written together with Adriano Clemente such as The Supreme Source and other texts related to the teachings and Tibetan culture in general and this really opened a world for me.
But then of course, theory is not enough so when I saw that Rinpoche was coming to Berlin in 2013 – there were big, big posters all over the place in Berlin – I thought I have to go, I have no doubt that I want to meet this person and really understand what the practice is.
The Mirror: You mentioned the connection between Rinpoche’s teaching and the experience of sound and vibration that you’re working with through music.
Nico: Yes, exactly. The first bell that rang in my mind was the translation of the Bardo Tödrol or liberation through hearing and I felt that this was related to what I was looking for in the essence of music while I was playing. I felt the connection with Rinpoche’s teaching through the experience of sound and vibration which are the principles that brought me to start working with sound healing and deepen the work on the essence of sound.
When I came to the practice the first time, sounding the seed syllables, feeling this resonance – the empirical practice of feeling the vibration inside your body and then observing what this vibration produces as a movement in your system, your body and the connection between the mind, the energy aspect and the body aspect – it was the experience of guruyoga that opened the door and the connection to deepening the sound aspect. And this also somehow changed my way of interpreting music and composing.
Mirror: How did you get involved in sound healing?
Nico: For me it was a natural evolution to go from the conventional way of playing music (it was never conventional actually …), to the discovering of ancestral instruments and traditions that used sound as a healing method, so I studied this topic and started working with Tibetan singing bowls, gongs and frame drums. As a percussionist it was known territory for me and it felt very natural to follow this path. Once I had tried the effect of these instruments on the body, I had no doubts about how effective sound can be for relaxation, meditation and balance.
Mirror: And how did you connect this to working with young people?
Nico: The Dzogchen tradition gives this very precise advice on what to do in order to feel this connection with sound, with light, and this is really an incredible treasure in the period right now in which there is a lot of confusion and destruction especially for the younger generation.
I have some experience of that because I’ve been working in schools teaching music through different projects such as drum circles, percussion, and so on so I knew a little bit what the teachers, the directors of the school, and the students themselves have been going through in this difficult time, especially teenagers.
In general, teenagers have a difficult time with problems of identity, hormones and many other factors. I wanted to find a method using music that would give some tools to young people to become less conflictual, less problematic, or at least recognize that, and then work with it in a creative way instead of being destructive or moving into depression or anxiety. I had already been doing some research in this field. Then the pandemic started and the schools everywhere were overwhelmed with rules and regulations that affected the scholastic programs and the whole school education system.
In the last two or three years especially, young people have suffered a lot from social distancing and all the rules related to it. It has also become increasingly difficult for teenagers to relate to this chaos of daily life which makes them feel disoriented and in the worst cases pushes them into depression or addictions. So, I decided to use the sound meditation in schools to give the students some tools to start looking inside themselves, to become more confident in recognizing the nature of mind.
Mirror: When you conduct a class with young people how do you organize it?
Nico: At the moment I’m working with this school in Berlin. Each class has a session of 90 minutes. I bring the instruments with me, Tibetan singing bowls, gongs, also frame drums, depending on the situation. At the school, I also have African percussion instruments. So the range goes from the meditative sound of the singing bowls but can also develop and become movement or dance. When I notice that the situation is a bit tense, I always use a short meditation before we start. It will often be the first time that these young people have started to experience an inner view of themselves.
We have yoga mats so they take their shoes off and sit down and I show them a meditation posture with crossed legs for those who are able and I also show them alternatives. That way they can start to observe the body and its limits. I explain that by working on their posture this can help the energy flow within the body. After that we start focusing on breathing and sometimes do some simple pranayama exercises.
Then I start playing the singing bowls and they focus on the sound. When the vibration comes in the room is filled with harmonic sounds because these instruments are made perfectly for these kinds of frequencies. When their focus gets deeper, I sometimes guide the students with visualization on inner points in the body, going slowly without getting into complicated meditation, but just trying to give a glimpse of what it is, and focusing the attention on the body. The sound always leads this meditation. After that, they lie down and relax and the sounds go everywhere creating a sound bath. When we finish they slowly come back and we talk a little about how the experience was and get some feedback.
In Berlin, I have to deal with students who can be quite tough at times because in the last five or six years a lot of people have been coming here from all over the world, especially from war torn countries, such as Syria, Yemen, and now Ukraine and we have a lot of new teenagers coming from different and difficult backgrounds at school. Music and sound are a really great method to start this non-verbal communication where you don’t need concepts, you don’t need words, you don’t need rules, just the sound and the music that goes everywhere so that the group really becomes one and there is this feeling of oneness.
The teachers are also present during the class, they can see this work and also experience it and it also gives them an opportunity to relax, too. In fact, last August the school director asked me to start the school year with two days of sound meditation for all the teachers. It went very well and the feedback was really nice although I was surprised because there were some very skeptical teachers participating.
Mirror: I understand that you are also starting to work with one of the high schools in your area.
Nico: Last September I moved from Berlin to Puglia in Italy and I was invited by a teacher who works with a local center that offers courses for creative development to give a course at a high school here in Cisternino. She organized a class and we did it in the main hall of the school with the first class of 25 students and then a month later we did another class. The school director was very inspired by this work and said he would like to introduce it on a regular basis into the school programs, starting from next year.
The same teacher told me something that I also knew, that many students at the school were depressed and have been facing some very difficult situations in the last couple of years and could really benefit from this kind of work.
Mirror: Do you have any suggestions for teachers and professionals working with young people today?
Nico: I really think that these kinds of methods could be used by schools at every level, starting from primary school up to university and possibly even in the workplace because this type of work really has the potential to change society in a positive way. This way of working with the awareness of body, sound, and breath, through an energetic inner view, is really very helpful and could be the source, the core of teaching in schools.
And so I think that schools should start to bring in this type of real change instead of only working with an overload of information. Schools should be developing more human beings, who are really able to have the tools to be more effective, to change the problems that we have to face now and in the near future.
Mirror: Thank you, Nico.
Nico Lippolis in performance with UR