I must truly be an auditory learner, because I love to listen to compelling interviews. These days there are some really great radio shows that allow and encourage people to tell their stories in depth. And now podcasts allow me to listen to lots of these interviews during my weekly commute for grad school. Some of my current favorite shows are RadioLab, This American Life, Fresh Air, The Story, and the one I’ll feature today, On Being (previously called Speaking of Faith) hosted by Krista Tippett. On Being began as an intellectual look at spiritual elements of common living, and the show has expanded to explore a vast array of perspectives and disciplines.
This week I listened to a June 16 On Being interview with vocal master and improvisational guru Bobby McFerrin. In that show, entitled “Catching Song”, Tippett invited McFerrin to share of the evolution of his musical history, from his musical family (opera singing father & church choir soloist mother, both voice coaches) to his illustrious career of singing and directing music with his natural charisma.
“… to open up your mouth and start singing is a great way to deflect negative emotion. I think it’s a really good way to feed yourself some positive.”
“I want everyone to feel joy at the end of a concert… I don’t want them to be blown away by what I do. I want them to have this sense of real, real joy from the depths of their being. That’s what it’s all about, because I think when you take them to that place then you introduce — you open up a place where grace can come in, you know?”
Bobby McFerrin’s vocal and musical prowess is impressive, but he is unassuming about his gifts. He doesn’t feel a need to strut his stuff, but seeks rather to share it.
“I like to think of myself as a person who catches pieces. You know that the songs are out here, and they’re just simply waiting for me to reach out for one and grab it and pull it down and have it come out of my mouth.
I feel like that I’ve been entrusted with a talent; it’s my job to take care of it, to do my best, to give the audience my best. And by best, it means I’m myself; I’m as close to myself as possible. I’m as close to my genuine self.”
This really rings true for me. The best songs I have composed were caught. I simply gathered the pieces as best I could; they came to me and through me, not from me. All I did was form them in a way in which I could share them. Remembering this and just being myself allows me to share them without ego, without ownership.
I really like what McFerrin said about performing, which runs counter to the standard approach in the music industry and typical music education.
“When I do work shops with students, we talk a lot about performance because they all want to perform. And I tell them to do their best — not to perform, simply be themselves: the same voice, the same self that they are when they are simply walking from class to class or standing in, you know, line waiting to get on the bus or whatever.
It’s extremely difficult to do because when you are on stage in front of a lot of people who are looking at you — and you are aware of them, you know, looking at you and thinking about you and listening to you — it’s difficult not to perform or to do something that’s safe and easy.”
McFerrin is a peacebuilder. He has been bridging cultures and music genres throughout the past 30 years. He can take a room full of people and get them to sing together in ways none of them could have imagined, from the pentatonic scale to “Ave Maria”. He educates, inspires and awes people all at the same time. McFerrin’s singing comes very naturally, but he admits it wasn’t always that way, but he has learned not to worry.
“There use to be a point where I would be afraid of making mistakes. I’m no longer afraid of making mistakes. I make them every night during a performance. Something happens: I meant for my voice to go right and it went left instead. I meant for my voice to go up and it goes down, you know. Wherever my voice goes, wherever it takes me I just follow it. I just watch it. It leads me to whatever, you know. I trust it.”
McFerrin’s warm smile and stage demeanor help him to help those in his audiences join him in his comfortable, worry free mindset. He teaches people to stop thinking, and start singing. He speaks of music as healing and necessary. He says that improvisation should be taught to young children.
“Improvisation basically is simply motion. It precedes musical knowledge or understanding about anything. It’s simply the act — the courageous act of opening up your mouth or putting your fingers on a keyboard or whatever — of opening your mouth and simply singing something and following it.
He often doesn’t rely on words to convey meaning of the songs he sings. His music doesn’t carry explicit or didactic messages. It just is what it is, however the hearer experiences it.
“One of the reasons that I enjoy singing songs without words is because it allows the individual hearer to bring their own story to the sounds that I make.”
In that way, McFerrin’s music is intensely communal. It draws people together and instills goodwill and happiness. It provides gatherings of people with a common blessed experience through one of the oldest and most powerful methods of communication available to humans.
“I like to think of sound coming out, going out, surrounding the room that I’m in, you know, surrounding myself, surrounding people.”