Interview: Spontaneity and flexibility drive Bobby McFerrin’s passionate curiosity

Bobby McFerrin

Riverside Casino & Golf Resort — Friday, Feb. 12 at 7:30 p.m.

Bobby McFerrin
Photo by Carol Friedman
In 2008, the University of Iowa’s Hancher auditorium closed due to flooding. In the years since, the Hancher team has steadfastly continued to fulfill its vision of “striv[ing] to enrich the life of every Iowan through transformative artistic experiences.” Bouncing from venue to venue—never with a place to call home, but always with a purpose—Hancher has managed, deliberately, to live in the moment, all while never losing sight of the goal of coming back to a permanent location.

Now that goal is close at hand. This fall, Hancher will start its 2016-17 season in its new space, located just north of where the old facility once stood. Before that happens, though, Hancher has one more show on the road. On Feb. 12, out in Riverside, the final guest of Hancher’s homeless odyssey will perform: Bobby McFerrin. Hancher could not have made a better choice for this celebratory occasion. McFerrin is the poster child for reinvention: He’s an internationally renowned vocalist who didn’t decide he wanted to sing until his late 20s, and a guest conductor of the world’s most prominent orchestras who didn’t hone that craft until he was about to turn 40.

More vital than anything, though, is the way that McFerrin shares Hancher’s passion for its audiences. As a goodbye gift to Hancher on-the-road, this institution whose tagline is “Great Artists. Great Audiences.” will give its audiences an artist who can play them like an instrument—who is famed for teaching those listening what it’s like not just to experience, but to BE music. McFerrin answered some questions for Little Village on making music and making history.

Little Village: As a performer who is so dedicated to improvisation and audience participation, how do you approach the process of recording an album—is it a different animal entirely, or do you try to capture some of that spontaneity?

Bobby McFerrin: Yes and yes. It’s a different animal. Of course I try to capture the spontaneity and freedom I love best when I make music, it wouldn’t feel right any other way. But then there are layers of editing and mixing and arranging that honor the way we listen to recorded music—over and over again, like an old friend.

How do you apply the lessons and philosophies of improvisation to your everyday life?


Your father was the first African American soloist at the Metropolitan Opera. How has that impacted your own career choices … do you seek to break new ground, or do you just go where the music takes you?

My father was one of the most disciplined artists I’ve ever met. He was in service to the music he loved. That’s been a huge influence on me. I love to be spontaneous and to be surprised, but I never try to be new or different, I try to go where the music leads.

Having been raised in a musical family, and with two of your own children growing up to be career musicians (and having spearheaded music education initiatives), what would you say is the greatest benefit to children from being exposed to music?

Just to be clear and fair—I’ve never really spearheaded music education initiatives. I’ve been a guest artist, a guest teacher, a member of a team. My hat is off to the music educators who make it happen day after day after day. I think including music in the day to day process of living and learning is transforming. It’s not about whether kids grow up to be career musicians. It’s about the development of their brains and their awareness. Music brings people alive.

You studied piano in school, and spent much of your early career dedicated to singing—what drew you to explore conducting?

One of my first memories is of conducting our family’s stereo turntable, which was playing the Pastoral Symphony by Beethoven. I studied clarinet first, and then piano and composition, and I didn’t become a singer until I was 27, so I had some sense that music-making was something I did regardless of the instrument. When I was turning 40 I thought, “What’s the most grown-up thing I can do to celebrate?” and right away I knew I wanted to have the chance to conduct a real symphony orchestra. I never thought of it as a possible new career, but I did take it very seriously. I started to study right away. I took lots of private lessons, worked on my own, went to the Tanglewood Institute. I talked to friends at the SF Symphony, we made a date for me to conduct on my birthday, and after that it kind of snowballed. I do think of the voice as my primary instrument, but I still do some conducting and it’s always lots of fun. I feel very fired up about the survival of orchestras—it’s hard for those big groups right now, but they are an incredible resource. There’s nothing like hearing an orchestra play live.

You’ve had some high profile and highly successful collaborations in the past, with artists as diverse as Yo Yo Ma and Jack Nicholson. Looking forward, who would be your dream collaborator (besides your audiences, of course!)?

I’m a very private person when it comes to music, I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about these things, I just hear music in my head. But I’ve been very lucky when it comes to collaborations. I still get to work pretty often with Chick Corea, who is one of my dream collaborators. Just this past year I got to perform with Questlove, and Snarky Puppy, and the Choir of Trinity Wall Street, and the Chicago Symphony. I still have fantasies about playing with Eric Clapton; that one hasn’t happened yet, but I’m not complaining. Often I get invited to do things I would never have imagined, and those are always the greatest.

As someone whose instrument is clearly in tip-top shape, what is your main preservation advice for vocalists—how can we stay at the top of our game, as you have?

Take care of your overall health. Eat right, drink lots of water, exercise, look for the joy in everything. Sing every day.

Are there any vocal styles that you still hope to master … have you explored throat singing? Taizé chanting?

I love to hear new things and respond to them in the moment. I have a great team, and they put together these “Bobby Meets” programs all over the world. So I’ll get to play with a fiddler in Maine or a throat singer in Russia. I drink in the sounds and they always change whatever music I hear next. Some of the vocabulary stays with me. But for me the center of inspiration is how universal it all is, how it comes together, how it’s all just sound. I love meeting singers who have devoted a lifetime to going deeper and deeper into one sound—like throat singer or chant or Bach. But that’s not what I do. I try to embrace it all and then sing whatever I hear in my head.

Besides yourself, where do you see the greatest innovations happening in vocal music today, and where do you dream of seeing it go in the future?

I’m not a musicologist or a soothsayer. I just love to sing.

Genevieve Heinrich is a writer, an editor, a malcontent and a ne’er-do-well. Occasionally, she acts and sings. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 192.