Becoming Fearless –My week with Bobby McFerrin
October 25, 2013
I had the great pleasure of spending a week with Bobby Mcferrin this summer, studying improvisational singing and leading circle songs. To me, it was all about developing fearlessness. I have spent the last few summers doing just that. One summer, my teenage son and his friends had found a place near our home to jump off cliffs into a deep creek below. I would drive the boys over and watch with awe and trepidation as they made their way up the cliffs from 20 ft to 40 ft to 60 ft. One day I decided it was time for me to try it. I looked down off the twenty foot cliff (about the height of a 10 meter diving board), and just jumped. I hit the cold water with a whoop and gasp and felt exhilarated and alive. I climbed back up and looked down from the forty foot cliff. This was MUCH scarier. I stood there for a long time looking down, and told myself all I had to do was take the first step. All I had to do was to screw my courage up and take one little step. I stood there, and stood there, and finally—whew, I did it. Once, again, heart pounding exhilaration and some relief at hitting the water and finding myself in one piece.
So what does this have to do with my week studying with Bobby McFerrin? We were learning to lead circle songs. This is about standing in the middle of a circle of singers and letting all thoughts and fears and preconceived notions out of your head so you can basically become a conduit for song. Just improvise. Make up one harmony part after another, right off the top of your head, and get them to fit together so everyone is singing in 5 part harmony. No easy task, although Bobby makes it look incredible easy! The third day we were there, they let some of the students lead the group of 160 singers. They told us it was hard, and we probably wouldn’t want to do it unless we had led a circle song in the past. Three men volunteered, one after another. All had led circle songs before. No women. Finally one of the coordinators said, “Where are all the women? Who wants to volunteer?” I thought of that cliff and just stepping off it as I raised my hand, even though I hadn’t even HEARD of circle songs until two day ago. I stepped in the middle of the circle and looked at 160 set of eyes who were looking back expectantly. And then I just….jumped. Quieting my heart, I heard a bass line, then a tenor part came through, and a part for altos, mezzos, and sopranos. Suddenly all 160 singers were smiling and grooving, fingers snapping and toes tapping to a song that hadn’t existed just 5 minutes before. And I found myself exhilarated, amazed, applauded, and relieved at finding myself in one piece.
Having these little touchstones of fearlessness have this wonderful residual effect. There are times now when I look at the little things that need to be done in my ordinary life, things I put off because for some reason they make me uncomfortable or a little afraid, like making cold calls or even writing blogs that go out to the whole wide world, and I think to myself, “well, if I could jump off a cliff or lead a circle song in front of 160 people, I can certainly do THIS.” And then I pick up the phone, or push “publish”, and I am still in one piece.
Next summer I may just go sky diving.