What Studying with Bobby McFerrin has Meant to Me

A friend asked me what studying with Bobby McFerrin has meant to me, musically and personally. She’d hoped to get a concise answer, one or two lines she could quote from for a piece she’s writing for me. That, apparently, was not meant to be, because here’s what I came up with:

On the one hand, I wouldn’t want to overstate how much Bobby’s been a musical influence of mine. By the time I first heard of him (around the time his album “Simple Pleasures” came out in 1988), I’d already had a bunch of formative musical experiences, written some songs, sang in my first rock bands and an a cappella group. I’d not yet gotten my real music training, nor my real introduction to Jazz.

But right away his music had a strong impression on me; I admired him right off the bat, and never stopped. I struggled to find ways to integrate some heavily-vocal stuff like he does with the Progressive Rock and Classic Rock that I loved. Unsuccessfully, I guess, because although I played and re-played his 1990 album “Medicine Music” until the tape wore thin (remember cassette tapes?), I didn’t follow his career too closely over the following years. (Although I did also get his 1995 album “Bang! Zoom,” which he made with the jazz fusion/smooth jazz band Yellowjackets, and wore the tape nearly as thin as I had “Medicine Music.”) I don’t think you can hear any McFerrin influence on my 1998 album “Wanderlust,” for example.

But always in my mind he was one of those Great Musicians, gifted with one of those Seemingly Unlimited Voices that I aspired to have myself. I have an old memory of hearing about him saying something about vocal range, how it’s not just about how low or high you can sing, but also how loud or soft, how gritty or pure… ultimately, about stylistic range, about what you’re musically and vocally capable of. That was pretty damn influential.

So in 2011 when I heard that there was a week-long workshop called “Circlesongs” with him, I signed up before I really knew what in the world “circlesinging” might be. By this time I had gotten my Jazz education and had been in a couple of different Blues and Jazz bands. I felt like I was pretty seasoned, pretty much a professional. So what I thought I was in for was the chance to meet something of an idol, and possibly some intense Jazz Vocal Improvisation workshopping. And it was that, in a sense — but not really.

My very first experience with circlesinging happened before Bobby even got to the workshop (there were weather-related travel delays for many of the students and instructors). And I don’t think I knew right away how profoundly it would change my approach to making music, but right away I knew that it was a deeply powerful musical experience. As I think about it now, my most moving and emotional musical experiences have been at Circlesongs workshops. Bar none. Very few things come close.

At Circlesongs 2011 I learned what circlesinging was all about, and learned about a whole world of vocal-improvisation music-making techniques that I’d had no idea existed. I also learned, quite as a side effect, that the more I value each and every person in the world — including myself — just as much as one might value an “idol” such as Bobby, the better everything gets. (That has the effect of making people like Bobby much more approachable.) And this is a behavior that Bobby and his colleagues model; they treat everyone as if they’re special, as if their needs are important.

At Circlesongs 2012 I learned more about circlesinging, and also keyed in more to some of the lessons that were there to be learned about improvisation. All of Bobby’s long-time collaborators are trained improvisers, and improvisation is integral to circlesinging. I was incredibly fortunate at Circlesongs 2012 to briefly get some one-on-one improvisation coaching, and it has taught me a lesson that goes far beyond making up musical sounds.

Improvisation, you see, isn’t about showing off your technique or your musically inventive cleverness. It’s about picking a sound to come next that is meaningful to you in some way, whatever that means. And the same should apply to picking songs to play at your show: pick something that’s imbued with meaning for you in some way. And, if we get really deep with it, we’re really talking about how to live life, too, aren’t we?

Studying with Bobby and his colleagues hasn’t changed my musical tastes. But it has fundamentally transformed my approach to making music, and what making music means to me. I’m now committed to making every musical choice I make (from the smallest inflection to the broadest career decisions) mean something, and have the potential to reach people and move them in some way that matters to them.

That’s what that dude and his friends have done to me. Nothing less.

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