The United Federation of Teachers is celebrating its 50th birthday, so this session was started with the entire audience singing Happy Birthday in unison. Then 10-time Grammy winner Bobby McFerrin unassumingly took his place on stage in a t-shirt and jeans. Honestly, I would not have known him from my neighbor. He starts singing, adding in vocal percussion, and humming, all the while asking for sound checks and reverb adjustments. I’m riveted and entertained already.
He seamlessly transitions to a vocally percussive version of “Black Bird”. If I closed my eyes, I would guess there were at least three men on stage. Yet, there is only one incredibly talented musician. Another song begins; I can’t imagine what might come next. The sounds coming from his mouth, chest, hands, and other body parts do not sound natural.
Am I really here, listening to this? Intense.
Half of the room is beedee-ing on cue while the other half beedah-s. McFerrin continues to draw the audience in. I feel like we’re in concert together. Now he’s training the audience to respond with certain pitches based on where on the stage he jumps. The audience hums the tune he dictates with his feet while he sings a harmony. I am amazed that when he adds a new pitch, even if he jumps further than the space allotted with one note, the audience sings an interval that matches his jumps.
McFerrin sings the Bach Prelude as the audience sings Ave Maria (Oy vey, Maria for the Jewish teachers). There are obviously some trained sopranos, but for the most part the audience knows the tune and, at the very least, everyone hums along.
In a question and answer session, a teacher asks how to encourage her kids to learn about classical music. He encourages her just to play every-and-any kind of music in her class. Another asks if he employs math and music together – he says not anymore, but the study of music theory is mathematical all over the place.
McFerrin says music probably came before language, but he wouldn’t know because he wasn’t there. He suggests using song for everything; he learned how to spell encyclopedia from Jiminy Crickit! For every content area, there must be a way to incorporate music into the lesson. I’ve got to think about how to do this in physics.
Someone asks if he writes down his improvisation. He says he doesn’t write it down and doesn’t remember either.
From further questioning we learning his top five composers and/or musical artsists are Mozart, Gershwin, his dad (a baritone and the first black singer to sign a contract with the Metropolitan Opera), and Miles Davis. He most recently downloaded the score for the movie Unfaithful.
A young girl asks how he sings like that; McFerrin makes some funny noises and she laughs out loud. Her dad asks if music says something about a generation, what does music say about our culture? Ultimately, McFerrin says, music should be redeeming; artists are responsible for saying good things about life. He doesn’t like anything that’s violent, pushy, bossy, etc. That said, he sings again.
“Baby, baby, baby, running, running, running, everywhere…” His fingers tap the microphone as though he were playing it like an instrument.
As I watch and listen, I can’t help but think he embodies everything I want to be as a teacher. His “students” are captivated: we are not captivated by him. We are captivated by his music. I want my students to be captivated by the content. An “instrumental” version of Somewhere Over The Rainbow comes next and only intensifies my captivation; I want to find a piano as soon as possible and let the pent up music out. Actually, it makes me want to bring Bobby McFerrin home.
All of a sudden he’s transformed from Dorothy to a mix of Glinda and all of the munchkins, next the Wicked Witch, a trumpeter, and every character from one end of Oz to the next.
When all is said and done (and the Wicked Witch has melted), I realize that Bobby McFerrin was asked to speak because 1) his love for music oozes and 2) because he’s hilarious.
It just makes me think every teacher should ooze love for what they’re teaching.