McFerrin CircleSong workshop recap

Sam Rogers & Bobby McFerrin

As expected, I had an amazing time at the recent CircleSong workshop at the Omega Institute, a memory I will treasure for life. Not just for the experience of finally meeting one of my biggest idols/inspirations, but for the array of people from all over the world that came to be a part of this incredible gathering. I wish I would have had time enough to really get to know everyone there (the coolest people show up for this stuff!), and I am deeply grateful for the friends new and old that shared this experience.

Here are some of my thoughts about the workshop itself:

The Format
Bobby McFerrin’s CircleSinging workshop has been going on for a while now, semi-annually. For what I believe is the first time, this particular workshop was broken down into three sections, roughly by skill/interest. Some folks like me attended the full week. Others came for just one or two of the 2-3 day modules. I think I learned the most from watching how Bobby and the rest of the fantastic faculty worked with beginners in the first module (many of whom did not identify as “singers”), but I definitely had the most fun and biggest reward from the last one. It worked very well to split it up this way.

The Faculty
Bobby McFerrin was in fine form this week. His profound faith and ability to collaborate are what I found to be his greatest strengths — aside from his virtuosic voice and divine discipline, which are obvious. (For this review, I’ll try to stick to teachings and not vocal artistry, for which my words fail and only music can truly describe.) Bobby moved with the energy of the group in ways so nimble and so masterful that it could be easily be mistaken for magic. However, like those who joined him on stage, he was careful to make no claim to magic, and openly welcomed questions that pierced that illusion. He did a lot of leading and Q&A, but not all that much “teaching,” really. I suspected this would be the case, though I did not suspect that I would later agree it’s better this way. While his was the primary name and draw for this workshop (rightly so!), he was flanked by incredibly talented vocalists/educators that have known and worked with him for years, and made for a much richer experience than one man alone could provide.

  • Rhiannon: My personal favorite, I have had the privilege of studying, working, and performing with her on several occasions over the last fifteen or so years as her teaching skills have deepened and refined. By now her ability to de-mystify the mysterious worlds of improvisation and of healing is second to none. The strength of her commitment, blend of patience & hard work, ability to keep it real in all circumstances, and especially to stay vulnerable is nothing short of awe-inspiring. She has a few of musical offerings and training products out there. If you’re interested in this work, I highly recommend you pick one up.
  • Joey Blake: Now an associate professor at Berkelee School of Music, he is as masterful in his knowledge as he is deep with his groove. I have studied and performed with him many times as well, and was pleased to see how his razor-sharp musical senses challenged & empowered so many of the real musicians in the crowd to really know their stuff. Professor Blake certainly knows his, inside-out, backwards, & forwards!
  • Dave Worm: It was a pleasure to watch how his quiet, humble, and extremely clear way of working affected people. Of all the staff, I’ve worked with Dave the most and know him the best. Yet still, his musical ideas continue to be some of the most surprising and nuanced. In addition to being founding members of Bobby McFerrin’s Voicestra & spin-off SoVoSo, Rhiannon, Joey, & Dave tour and teach as the improv a cappella trio WeBe3, and hosted an incredible evening interactive performance in the last set.
  • Judi Vinar: By far the most pedagogically sound in her approach, Judi was the only person I hadn’t met before. I was so very glad she was there! She often played moderator/hostess of discussions, expertly straddling any gaps between the faculty and the participants with a plain and simple accessibility. Plus she sings and swings with stunning & alluring ease.
  • Christiane Karam: Often a beautiful yin to the excitable yang of the participant’s eagerness to do & understand, her grace and grounding are like gold. While she is the newest to join Bobby in teaching this way, she acted like an equal to the rest of the faculty, which she most certainly is. An assistant professor at Berkelee (like her partner, Joey), she also brings a wealth of real world experience and musical flavor from beyond the western world.

Ten things I learned

  1. CircleSongs are what you make them. There is no specific intent or goal in CircleSinging, other than to form community from song. Sure you can project upon this format whatever you like, but the less you say and the less you need from it, the better it will tend to work.
  2. Hunting & Gathering. Finding parts flows more easily from connecting to your singers than from going to some separate place deep inside yourself. Watching Bobby’s diffuse gaze into the people around him as he began every CircleSong helped this make new sense to me.
  3. Trust your singers. Start with assuming a high level of ability from your singers, then reduce the part until they are able to repeat it back. Your thinking of something that should work based on your judgement of your singers’ aptitude has too much “you” in it and not enough “them”. Trust the music that comes, test it with the singers in front of you (not the ones in your head), and you will quickly see what actually works. You might just be impressed by their collective ability. And as Christiane so succinctly demonstrated, you can lead people who have no idea what the time signature is into a rhythm in 13/8 by trusting them.
  4. Improvisation is just motion.Start with one note, then go on to the next” says Bobby. This reminded me “present focus” + “next action” of David Allen’s GTD Methodology. It truly is all you need. What a beautiful way to take the pressure off.
  5. Simple ideas really are the best. Simple ideas are easier for the leader to remember, communicate, and hold. Simple ideas leave room for more parts, and thus are more stable when those parts are layered on. Simple ideas leave room for improvisation over the top. Simple ideas are easier to keep in time, as your singers are less tense they are less prone to tempo shifts. Simple ideas tend to be more enjoyable for your singers/audience, and therefore more groovy. For these and infinitely more reasons, simple ideas really are best.
  6. Sing with total commitment. No one wants to hear something sung halfway. Anything less than total commitment just makes the musical statement harder to understand and subtly breeds mistrust of the leader. Let your body get in it and you make it easier for people to follow. Engage your circle from moment zero with your commitment to presence, then sing like you mean it. Thank you Rhiannon!
  7. Stay with the people. As Judi remarked about a particularly theoretic solo “If the miracles are happening on another planet, we here on earth can’t really tell.” While you are committing to your part, keep connected to what is going on all around you. Know that you can’t go farther than you can go, or than your group can perceive.
  8. Listen x 4 + Mouth x 2. This convention grew out our group and is not a hard and fast rule, but it is a great guideline ala Joey! When following the CircleSong leader, listen to the pattern four times, mouth it twice, THEN start to sing. This has the advantages of giving the leader time to find/solidify the part, communicating how many cycles the pattern really is, allowing those around you to hear the subtlety of the original part before your interpretation creeps in, and, perhaps ironically, speeding up the amount of time it takes for a section to learn a part.
  9. Be creative with your warmups. I have never been much for warm-ups. To be honest, I rarely if ever do them. I just sing a quietly for a bit to find where my voice is at that very moment, then hit the stage and go. I now have a newfound respect and understanding for warmups. Each day a different member of the faculty led the group in a very different warmup, and Bobby’s was most informative though I don’t know if he spoke a word. If he would have, I think it would have been to say “Anything worth singing is worth singing musically” and “If you’re bored, change it up!
  10. Just sing. Enough with the talking already. CircleTalking is something different. We’re here to CircleSing. Right on, Dave.

These are all lessons that I will take with me in my ever-expanding CircleSinging adventures, currently at 5 continents, and counting. I look forward to spending more time and more music with my CircleSong friends around the world as the journey continues, in rhythm…