Improv is motion, says acclaimed vocalist Bobby McFerrin
Vocal master Bobby McFerrin strode onto the Newlin Hall stage on Thursday morning and delivered a riveting convocation about improvisation. He illustrated his remarks with performances from Riley McCormick ’17 of Owensboro (pictured right), Paul Holt ’17 of Louisville, and Larry Bitensky, associate professor of music (pictured above), among other audience volunteers.
“It was pretty intimidating to be jamming with someone like him,” admitted Bitensky, himself an award-winning composer.
McCormick concurred, calling the experience “awesome.” McFerrin picked her out of the front row, and when he learned she, too, was a musician, called her to the stage and had the guitarist, Armand Hirsch, turn over his instrument.
While at Centre, McFerrin also presented a Thursday evening concert and a Friday matinee for area school groups.
Along with his incomparable singing, McFerrin shared some thoughts on improvisation during the Thursday convocation.
“There are laws to improv,” he said. “The fundamental law of improv is motion.”
He suggested that members of the audience limber up with the “21-day improv challenge.”
“Do it for 10 minutes a day,” he said; the results will be amazing.
With improv, it’s important to get a sense of where the other person is going, he advised.
“The first thing you need to do is listen,” he told Bitensky, when joined at the piano by the Centre professor. “Keep your mind and heart open. Don’t give into fear.”
To Holt, also a pianist, McFerrin said, “Make yourself think about what you’re doing. Don’t just throw your hands on the keyboard.” Then, he added, “explode your mind.”
McFerrin grew up listening to Top 40 radio in Los Angeles, which he credited for inspiring his widely varying repertoire and musical interests. Although he has been singing professionally for 50 years, he said that he didn’t start performing his signature solo vocal concerts until well into his career. He got the idea of a solo instrument approach from listening to pianist Keith Jarrett, but it took practicing for two hours every day for six years before McFerrin felt ready for his own concert using his voice as his only instrument.
He is fascinated with the “nowness of improv,” McFerrin said.
“Lots of times it doesn’t work,” he said. “That’s the risk of improv. But sometimes it’s so awe-inspiring that you just can’t believe it.”
He concluded the convocation with a story about a trip his friend cellist Yo-Yo Ma took to Africa. As a tribal elder sang, Ma carefully transcribed the notes, then asked for the song again so he could make sure he had the notes exactly. In response, the elder sang something completely different. When Ma asked why, the elder explained that during one version there was an antelope in the distance, in the other, clouds.
In other words, things changed.
“Music is here,” said McFerrin. “Music is now.
“These are the two things I want you to remember.”
by Diane Johnson