A Sound Healer Shares His Journey to Spiritual Wholeness
Most people can’t trace their careers back to a single moment. Michael Brant DeMaria can trace his to a single note on the piano—a note he struck over and over again as a shy, sensitive child seeking solace from pain.
“My parents thought I was autistic,” DeMaria writes in his new book, Peace Within. “Years later people made fun of me, saying I was a new age musician before there was a new age. Looking back on it as a psychologist, I realize now that I was self-soothing and putting myself into a trance of sorts that was healing for me—and the sound literally took me to another world—or perhaps reminded me of the true, real world of silence and vibration infusing all we see.”
That first note would lead to a career DeMaria never imagined when he began using indigenous instruments to create meditation music for his intuitive therapy practice in Pensacola. He now has a wall full of industry awards, including one for appearing on a Grammy-winning album, and four Grammy nominations. On any given day, 150,000 people are listening to his music on Pandora.
But commercial success and critical acclaim are mere side products of DeMaria’s music, which is intended, above all, to heal.
And music is the vehicle for his life mission, which is to bring healing to others by forging the connection between heart and soul.
When DeMaria struck that first note, he was 7 years old and had just had his third surgery. He was in physical pain, with hundreds of stitches in his abdomen, and in emotional pain from the terrors he’d endured in the hospital. He’d had a near-death experience on the operating table, entering a subtle world of color and sound, a world so peaceful that returning to his body left him in a state of shock for weeks. That sense of disconnection, which had never entirely gone away, had become debilitating.
“Now I understand that I was suffering from post-traumatic stress,” he says. “I was having depersonalization, I felt like life wasn’t quite real, I was suffering physically and emotionally, but I didn’t have words for it.”
At some point in his anguish, he wandered over to the piano, struck a single note—and listened, eyes closed, as the dissipating sound carried him past nightmarish memories of a cold gurney, masked strangers, the cloying smell of ether and the vortex of unconsciousness, to a place of light and love and peace.
The sensation is so acute, even upon recollection, that DeMaria must pause for a moment when describing it. “It took me to that place that I remembered, where there was no pain,” he finally says. “It took me to the other side. And I would do that over and over again. Many times it was the same note; other times I would change to a note just above or below it. I didn’t realize for decades that I was self-healing, just intuitively.”
A New Source of Healing
From that point on, music was his refuge. His parents—conservative Catholics who had bought a house in the Connecticut wilderness to protect their three sons from radical 1960s culture—were appalled when their middle son, upon seeing his first live jazz performance, announced that he wanted to be a drummer. “They were horrified,” DeMaria recalls. “I was supposed to be a doctor.”
Despite their reservations, they got him a drum kit and some lessons, and he blossomed. (Earlier piano lessons had been a bust, he says, as his teachers had insisted that he learn to read music rather than compose his own. “I was a terrible piano student. For me, music was an intuitive, inner process, grounding me from the inside out. That’s why it meant so much to me.”)
As a freshman in college, DeMaria bought the first of dozens of synthesizers; he loved putting on headphones and creating cosmic sounds. As he forged his way through academia—earning dual degrees in philosophy and psychology by age 20, then a master’s in psychology and, at 25, a doctorate in clinical psychology—he found that a few hours at a piano or keyboard were natural stress relief.
But it wasn’t until he was 31, and well established as a Pensacola therapist, that he went on a vision quest with a Blackfoot teacher in Montana and discovered Native American flute, which “felt like an ancient friend. As much as I loved the piano and the drums, it slayed me. The heart opening that happened when I was in Glacier National Park, hearing the Native American flute for the first time, was one of the most powerful moments of my life.”
Indigenous instruments, originally created by hunter-gatherer cultures, typically have a five-note (pentatonic) scale in a minor key. The result, DeMaria says, is an earthy, bittersweet sound with a unique ability to tap into what he calls the “Great Loving”—the heart-centered energy connecting us to each other and to the whole world, seen and unseen.
“That’s what’s so strange about our culture,” he remarks. “It’s one of the very few where music is seen primarily as entertainment, and only practiced by professionals.”
DeMaria took to the Native American flute instinctively. It's evocative tones would become the centerpiece of his healing music.
Riding the Wave
By then DeMaria was spending much of his professional time guiding clients through meditation and relaxation sessions. When he couldn’t find accompanying music he liked, he decided to create his own. He set up a small recording studio in his house, bought digital software, and made meditation audios backed by calming blends of piano, synthesizer and indigenous instruments. “I was making New Age music before there was such a thing, at least in the marketplace,” he says.
He also played his flute at speaking engagements, and it wasn’t long before people began requesting CDs of his music without the voiceovers. The result, The River, came out in 2003. Created and marketed specifically for use in hospice, the album was inspired by the Native American belief that people do not die, but simply change form, like a river flowing into the ocean.
The River made back in sales what it cost DeMaria to manufacture it; he still thought of himself not as a professional musician, but as a sound healer. He began working on two projects simultaneously: Siyotanka, a play and accompanying soundtrack about the origins of the Native American flute; and, Ocean, a follow-up to The River.
Ocean turned into a five-year journey of healing, with DeMaria as the patient. It also made him a New Age phenomenon.
Ebb and Flow
He recorded the album in a makeshift studio in his office, where he was living with his family. The sound is raw, and not ambient noise he couldn’t edit out. It reflects an old wound reopened by a series of fresh traumas: the death of a friend, an unexpected legal entanglement, yet another surgery. Ivan was just the final blow.
DeMaria, who since childhood had keenly felt the omnipresence of death, was having suicidal thoughts. “There’s a feeling that doing it yourself gives you some control over it,” he says. “There were times when I literally carried my daughter’s picture with me so I wouldn’t kill myself…. And so, when I was working on this album, I was purely thinking of my own healing. I was that 6- or 7-year-old kid in abject pain.”
The music did what it was meant to do: when Ocean was finished, DeMaria was in a far better place. But he wasn’t sure the result was marketable. “I don’t think anybody’s going to get this album,” he told his publicist. “To be honest, I think it sucks.”
Then Ocean was released and the first reviews came back. “I just got on my knees and cried,” he recalls. “I couldn’t believe it was touching people at the same level it touched me.”
Ocean climbed to the top of the New Age charts and was nominated for a Grammy in the highly competitive New Age category, building on the momentum created by Siyotanka, which also topped the charts, won a Native American Music Award, and earned a Grammy nomination in the smaller Native American category.
It was the beginning of a long string of commercial and critical achievements, including four consecutive Grammy nominations, eight ZMR awards for New Age music, a contract with multimedia publisher Sounds True and a collaborative Grammy for a children’s album.
Then in 2013, DeMaria was notified that his latest album, The Maiden of Stonehenge, had been disqualified from Grammy consideration because of a technicality regarding its release date. When he got the call, he happened to be at the hospital with his mother, who had died in his arms before being revived.
“It’s funny how Spirit works,” he says.
There are more important things than the Grammies, he thought. He was, after all, an artist-healer—and having made or collaborated on 11 albums, his artist was well fed. “I completely disengaged from that for the next two years while I accompanied my mother on her death process,” he says.
And so he was back where he started with The River: bringing healing to the dying. If that concept seems incongruous, he says, it’s only because our culture creates a false sense of separation between the seen (life and light) and the unseen (death and dark). Quantum physics only reinforced what indigenous cultures have long known: that all these energies are interconnected.
“Healing comes from the same word as whole,” he explains. “For the soul to heal, sometimes the body must die; in fact, our ultimate healing is to become one with the soul, and the heart is the gateway to the soul. All spiritually advanced cultures—soul-centric cultures, as opposed to egocentric cultures, which ours is—understood this.”
This energetic shift—reflected in the desire to show gratitude and appreciation to others, to forgive and be forgiven—is required for us to die peacefully, he says.
DeMaria’s new book, Peace Within, complements his renewed focus on helping others on their healing journey, whatever their stage in life, integrating his work as a psychologist, yoga instructor, meditation teacher and sound healing artist.
Of course, his journey isn’t over either. As an artist-healer, DeMaria must perpetually balance the two roles, letting one inform the other without the distractions of fleeting fame.
“When all is said and done,” he says, “it has nothing to do with awards or notoriety. In my music, I am not interested in trying to impress, while at the same time I want to fully show up and not hide—my prayer is to be sincere and authentic and allow the music to come through me and not from me. And if I can be a vehicle for that in the world, I’ve done my job.”
Allison Gorman is a freelance writer and editor based in Chattanooga, Tennesse.