Singing with Bobby

A few weeks ago, I learned that Bobby McFerrin was going to lead a CircleSong at my church. Stalwart followers of this blog will remember that I wrote a post about Bobby a few years back, after he’d been interviewed by Krista Tippett for On Being. I was struck and inspired at that time by the way that Bobby talked about coaching students through fear. He tells them to open their mouths and sing for ten minutes. He tells them that about a minute in, every fiber in your being will want to stop. Don't stop, he says. Keep going.

At that time I’d been struggling a bit with my writing and had been waiting for fear to simply go away. Bobby inspired me to stay in my seat and keep showing up at the page. It seems to me that Bobby's encouragement of young singers speaks to Elizabeth Gilbert's observation of fear.

Liz Gilbert Fear and Creativity

Liz Gilbert Fear and Creativity

When I met Bobby last year, I gathered the courage to tell him about the blog post. His response: “Cosmic.” So, when I learned that he was leading a CircleSong, I decided I would go – even though I have zero training in singing. For one, he’s about joy and spontaneity and creative expression. Who doesn't need that? He believes that humans are meant to sing. I believe that too. I just happen to think that my singing is best kept inside my car with all the windows rolled up. Also, did I mention that he’s Bobby McFerrin?

Having never seen or participated in a CircleSong, I walked in with two fears. One: that he would expect that we have singing experience and two: that we would sing individually.

The pews were at least half full with people when I arrived. Immediately one of my fears came true: Bobby asked everyone to gather according to their voice type. I have no idea if I’m a soprano, alto, or what. I lurked at the back of a group as he walked around singing a note and asking the group to sing it back. The group I’d chosen was way too high. I kept moving myself a few steps to the right until I felt like my voice fit in.

Fortunately, my second fear didn’t come true. We never had to sing on our own. What happened was Bobby would give each group a little piece to sing. We’d repeat it back to him until he was satisfied that we’d gotten it. Then he’d move to the next group. After all five groups were singing their pieces in repetition, he improvised over us. Though this video is not our church, the experience was a lot like this:

Even though I stayed at the back of the group, I was captivated by the joy of people raising their voices together in song. After an hour, our songs took a turn toward silly as Bobby started one group repeating phrases after him that become more and more absurd until many of us burst out laughing.

When the group broke up, I slid out the side door. As I walked home in the dark of an October evening, I possessed that delicious airy feeling of having tried something out of my comfort zone and having a blast doing it. That's the thing about fear. It keeps us small. But opening our mouths and letting our voices be heard? That's when we expand and take up the space that was intended for us in this world.

(Elizabeth Gilbert quote from Pinterest. Video from YouTube).