Bobby McFerrin: Playing with Genius

Genius & Joyful Bobby McFerrin

Yesterday, I had the privilege of seeing genius at work: Bobby McFerrin’s matinee performance at the Boston Symphony Hall on March 21 was amazing.

McFerrin created contagious joy as he shared his vocal inventions and invited us, the audience, to collaborate in the role of back-up orchestra.  In a way, McFerrin, well-known singer and conductor really didn’t sing as much as he played.  And we, as if we were all talented and obedient children, gleefully played with him, enjoying the simplicity of our own voices.

You may remember him as the guy who sings “Don’t Worry – Be Happy” as I did before attending this performance.  I knew that he used his voice, his microphone and his body as his primary instruments – but I did not know that he would so completely engage and entertain a few thousand people for two full hours doing just that!   I highly recommend that you visit his YouTube postings and his site bobbymcferrin.com to get a glimpse of what he offers – because I can’t find right enough words do justice to the experience.

However, I do want to comment on the inspirational lessons I learned by observing a creative craftsman at work.  McFerrin has transformed the art of vocal improvisation to a renowned art form.  Because he was generous enough to answer audience questions post performance, I was able to ask him how he discovered his art.  I was fully expecting that he had accidentally happened upon it.  But no – first he conceived of it and then he spent six years transforming his vision into action.  I am paraphrasing, but essentially, McFerrin said that at the age of 27, when he decided to go from pianist to singer  – he had a vision that he wanted to be able to improvise vocally in a similar way to what he had seen Keith Jarrett, composer and pianist, achieve on the piano.  He told us that he learned to listen and observe very carefully, and after working at it for six years, he was able to craft a vocal performance skill that began to meet his expectations.

Lesson number one for me:  Great accomplishments and art, (even if you have some genetic talent) often takes work and vision!  Serendipitous that also that same day, the New York Times reviewed a book called “The Genius in All of Us” by David Shenk. Reviewer Annie Murphy Paul sums up the book’s concept, “…think of talent not as a thing, but as a process; not as something we have, but as something we do.”  Further support for this principle is also evidenced in Daniel Coyle’s book “The Talent Code.”  The book’s subhead says it all, “Greatness Isn’t Born.  It’s Grown. Here’s How.”

I find these are thought provoking resources for those of us who dream of doing great things.

Lesson number two for me:  To allow maximum creative flow, I believe one is best served by being completely present and comfortable in one’s own skin.  McFerrin’s improvisations and connection with the audience are astounding.  Imagine how different that experience might have been had McFerrin been consumed by fear or worry?   I don’t believe he could have delivered.  I also don’t believe that the audience would have felt the joy that radiated through our hearts had that been the case.  Such a state of relaxed being can be learned and there are many paths to get there.  Any mindfulness practices, such as meditation or yoga are often helpful.  In some cases, therapy or life coaching may also assist.  Check out this link http://www.umassmed.edu/cfm/home/index.aspx for additional information about mindfulness.

While I may never be a genius and my mindfulness is a work in progress, many thanks to Bobby McFerrin for providing a great afternoon and the inspiration to keep practicing my way toward greatness.  And in the meantime, per his direction, I won’t worry – and neither should you.

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Date: Monday, 22. March 2010 18:47
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