Instrument of healing

Sunday, May 2, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 9:18 a.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

In a small Columbia College conference room, they came inside, expectant and hopeful. Some sat on folding chairs, and others took the floor. These 15 women were seeking healing, therapy, answers. They weren’t expecting to receive medicine or any traditional treatments for their ailments. Instead, they were looking to Margaret Waddell to use sound for healing.

Waddell is a woman of all trades. In addition to her work with sound healing, she’s also an early-childhood music educator at Children’s House Montessori and offers classes at the Whole Health Wellness Center in Columbia. She coaches parents of infants as young as 4 weeks old in the value of singing to children. As a performer, Waddell sings sacred chants of Hildegard von Bingen, a 12th-century abbess and mystic. Waddell tries to educate people on how to tap into the power to heal themselves.

Sound healing breakthroughs

Waddell’s sound healing workshops are for “anyone who wants to explore the healing aspects of music,” she said. Although Waddell works predominantly in Columbia, the practice is widespread across the nation. Certification programs are springing up, and even stars like Leonardo DiCaprio are shelling out more than $100 for one healing session.

What draws people into sound healing is its personalized approach, which is different than the sterilized emergency room and doctors who simply look at a list of symptoms and draw textbook assumptions from those. Sound

therapy, on the other hand, affects each patient individually. Its practice is specific to the patient.

“I actually had a very spiritual and life-changing thing happen to me,” said Cynthia Lauer, a nurse at Boone Hospital and a member of one of Waddell’s workshops. “It’s very difficult to explain. I’m not real sure myself, but it was amazing.”

Lauer heard about sound healing and enrolled in Waddell’s workshop more out of curiosity than anything else. She’d heard Waddell sing at church and thought she had a beautiful, “almost mesmerizing” voice. Waddell’s name kept coming up in conversation, so Lauer wanted to find out more about her.

At the healing workshop Lauer attended, each member sat in a circle and, one at a time, went to the middle where everyone focused healing sound toward that person. Waddell chanted and played a drum rhythm. Another woman played a didgeridoo, an instrument from Australian aboriginal cultures. The rest of the group also chanted.

Lauer, somewhat skeptical at first, was the last person to enter the middle of the circle.

She told herself to be open and began to enter a meditative state. In the middle of the therapy, she started to have a vision of an American Indian village, and American Indians who were happily staring at her. As a child, Lauer said, she always felt very connected to American Indian culture. The vision of the village was like a “reunion.”

The moment the didgeridoo stopped, a woman picked up the drum and began singing an American Indian chant. Lauer started crying and couldn’t believe the connection.

“I realized before that I always had this huge longing to be with the Indians,” Lauer said. “I feel like I’ve met my family and connected with them and I feel good about that. I don’t have that inner feeling of not understanding and feeling lost. So it was healing. Not physically, but something in me that felt lost, almost abandoned, was found. Before, I always thought ‘this is not me.’

“It was a pretty overwhelming experience,” she said. “I didn’t know what the meaning of any of that stuff meant. I was raised Southern Baptist, and we didn’t do things like that.”

Since then, Lauer has tried to catch Waddell’s performances whenever her busy life affords her the chance. She’s also a member of a lunch club that meets about once a month to talk about spiritual interests. Waddell, she said, is the only connector between the people in the group.

“She’s just so centered, so together,” Lauer said. “She’s always thinking of others and how to help people.”

Waddell is working to expand her services to reach even more people. She wants to create personalized recordings of healing songs for each of her clients. She has the technology, but little spare time.

At Children’s House Montessori, Waddell is able to reach a much younger group of students. There, she instructs an early childhood developmental method that focuses on voice and movement. She teaches traditional European lullabies to parents, who attend the class with their infants and toddlers. Each song has actions attached to it. Parents learn the song and then help their children develop voice and movement skills.

“The voice is the most important thing to develop when they’re really young,” Waddell said. Right now, her most popular age group is the 15- to 20-month range, but she works with children up to preschool age. She’s trying to expand the class to include newborns and would like to add a prenatal section. “Parents always say they want to wait until their babies are older to enjoy it more and get more out of it,” Waddell said. “But the earlier, the better. The children will learn better if they start singing earlier.”

Because her participants are so young, Waddell said, she caters mostly to parents.

“The life of the child is happening,” Waddell said. “You have to be spontaneous, and we do our best.”

Sometimes the kids cry, she said, so the parents will go home and practice the song and its actions in a more “teachable” moment.

“I’m creating a special bonding time,” she said.

Waddell has taught early childhood music for more than nine years, but this is the first year she has focused on very young children and infants. She announced a new class in January, and immediately filled two sections.

“The response of the community was great,” Waddell said. “There is a great need for something like this.”

Music is, and always has been, an intrinsic part of Waddell’s life. In second grade, she announced to her classmates and parents that she wanted to grow up to be a hummingbird. She was focused from early on, if not realistic.

How about a librarian? Her parents asked. A dental assistant? She would have none of it.

“I always knew I was a teacher,” Waddell said. “I was a teacher as a child. If I couldn’t get any real-life people to take my classes, I lined up my stuffed animals on the patio and made mass worksheets for them.” Waddell also took to singing with vacuums, the clothing dryer and heating vents. On one family vacation, she was able to sing in a wine cellar.

“I always found acoustic spaces and sang in them or with them,” Waddell said.

Throughout her life, her love of music and desire to teach it to others grew stronger. But she didn’t want to abandon her nurturing small-town upbringing to move to a big city for a music education.

“My high school guidance counselor asked me if I wanted to be the very best,” Waddell said. “I told him no, I didn’t want to be the very best because I didn’t want to go away from home. I knew I needed more experiences.”

For Waddell, every interest she has becomes an intellectual pursuit she throws herself into wholeheartedly. While earning her master’s degree, she decided to study photography, which turned into a three-year passion. In turn, those skills translated into creating the handouts and fliers for her performances and classes.

To keep herself inspired, she always has a project or two in the wings. She plans to build a sound chamber in Columbia, and she’s thinking about learning how to make stained glass to decorate it. She also continues to perform and recently sang at Easter services in St. Louis.

“I do a lot of outreach in different communities because I don’t want to wear Columbia out,” Waddell said. In addition to working in St. Louis, Waddell has performed in Michigan, at Ball State University in Indiana and held workshops in the Rolla area and in Arkansas.

She is also working on a Hildegard von Bingen demo recording. Von Bingen wrote nine books on theology, medicine, science, physiology, natural history, music and women in the 12th century. Von Bingen also composed 77 chants, plus a play called Ordo Virtutum (Order of the Virtues) that consists of 87 chants. It’s the earliest known Western opera to date.

“Hildegard was 42 years old when she started acting out more in the community and telling people what she had seen and heard,” Waddell said. “It’s interesting because I’m 41 right now, and I’m starting to realize that women have a cycle where their energy is placed. Now that my daughter is older, I have more time to focus on career things. I have been doing more. I want to go out and meet new people and reach out.”

Waddell feels fortunate that her passions for music and people have given her a career that makes work fun. She also has the energy and ingenuity to constantly undertake new projects.

“The things I do for a living do not seem like work to me,” she said. “I’m following my interests. I get bored easily. I just could not do the same thing too much. I can’t pick just one thing and do it full time. No way.”

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