We - an assortment of stressed office workers and curious passers-by - are chanting, humming and groaning in the centre of London's Piccadilly, under the genial instruction of Chris James, a bald-headed bear of a man: an ex-monk, ex-bodyguard, musician and martial-arts expert.
James's flat, nasal, Australian tones, reminiscent of Dame Edna, seem purpose-built for satire, yet he is a vocal therapist who, according to the public-relations blurb, is spreading the healing power of "toning". Making tones of pure sound, he believes, can have a direct healing effecton feelings of unexpressed anger and grief, which become "locked" in the larynx. He teaches his followers how to use their voices to heal both themselves and others and how to discover their "natural voice and sing your stress away".
In the church we didn't reach the heights of healing auras with pure sound but, after an initial reserve, we swayed and sighed and produced high, resonating cooing notes and long, lowing "aaahing" ones. A sense of relaxation began to creep over us. Somehow we were expanding from the inside.
As we hummed and moved, it was like singing in a choir, only safer: no danger of being picked on for being out of tune or coming in at the wrong time. One moment it was as though we were monks, chanting long, flowing notes in a cloister; the next we were part of a sing-song round a campfire, with James leading us on the guitar for "Fools Rush In". There was little inhibition: each of us just let our stream of sound merge in the great sea of notes around us.
But James is aiming higher than the feelgood factor of a singalong. In fact, some of his claims seem, frankly,incredible. "When I sing a tone, listeners have a great sense of peace," he says. "Sometimes things they had cherished in their childhood but had forgotten come back to them. Sometimes they cry with the release. You can stop pain with sound. The pain of a burn just stops because someone says 'oooh' to it." He is not sure how this might work, but suggests that sound releases the body's natural painkillers, called endorphins.
James's grand claims for the powers of music wouldn't have surprised the ancient Greeks, who believed that every physical phenomenon could be explained in terms of musical laws, and that music could certainly be used for healing. Even today's more conventional science is beginning to look at why music affects us so deeply.
Research at Belfast University has shown that babies who regularly hear music in the womb recognise it after they are born. They respond to the music of the voice - its tone and pitch - long before they develop an understanding of language.
In fact, babies may hold the clue to why music can move us so. Dr Jaak Panksepp, a psychobiologist at Bowling Green State University, Ohio, in the US, believes that our response to music involves the same parts of the brain and biochemical systems that originally evolved to make mammals respond to the sounds of their offspring.
"The shiver that we experience especially intensely during sad and bittersweet songs," he says, "occurs because that type of music resonates with ancient emotional circuits."
Even James's claims that music can reduce pain are not altogether incredible. Research being carried out in Germany by Dr Ralph Spintge (sic) has shown that 15 minutes of soothing music before an operation can lull the patient into such a sense of wellbeing that the amount of anaesthetic and sedatives needed can be reduced by 50 per cent.
Back in the church, we have moved on from personal healing to healing the Earth. James asks us to pick a note that expresses our love for the planet.Afterwards we go out into the night to be greeted by the chaos of Piccadilly. The roar of traffic is overwhelming, but some of us are still humming.
Chris James is currently on a tour of Britain. Call 0171 352 1540 for details.Reuse content