A couple of weeks ago I finally had the chance to do something I’d dreamed about for years: sing face to face with Bobby McFerrin.
In case you don’t recognize the name, but Bobby’s the founder of circle singing (not to mention one of my heroes and an incredible human all around). And probably most famous for his 1988 hit “Don’t worry be happy”.
When I heard that he was going to be doing a weeklong workshop on circle singing, I knew I had to attend. What I didn’t know was just how much it would deepen my understanding of music.
The first thing I noticed was how fragile he looked.
I knew that he had been dealing with some health issues and that he hadn’t sung for a while, but I was taken aback to see him so diminished. Once the initial shock wore off, I could see the old Bobby underneath — smiling and playful, living and breathing music.
The first night he sang, it was delicate. So much so that I was a little worried he might not be fully healthy enough to sing for the rest of the workshop.
But something incredible happened over the next couple of days.
The next morning, he looked a little better. That evening, as he sang with us again, he looked even stronger. And it just kept going from there. As the week progressed, he looked healthier and healthier, truly coming alive in the music. By the end of the week, he felt so much better that he decided to start circle singing regularly again.
He wasn’t the only one affected.
All of the singers there, many of them well known performers, stellar musicians, and incredible improvisers and teachers, walked away feeling more healed and whole than we could have ever expected.
After spending a week bathing in the true vulnerability and beauty of the singers around me and the songs we created together, I realized that my understanding of music as a healer was just starting to unfold. It was an incredible reminder that music heals both the breaks between us — and those within us.
And it couldn’t have happened without Bobby’s two foundations for making music.
We’ve all been in situations where we come together with a group to sing, only to leave feeling more drained than when we came in. I’ve always had some loose ideas about why this is, but spending this week immersed in song crystallized it for me — and then Bobby put words around it.
To make music that truly heals, you have to understand two things: performance is an illusion, and no two moments are alike.
Let me elaborate. Bobby told us a story about how he was supposed to go to southern Africa with Yo-Yo Ma to sing with a local tribe. While he couldn’t make it, Yo-Yo Ma did. When he was introduced to the tribe as a famous cellist who was going to perform later that evening, the people there were confused.
He was there. They were there. Why didn’t they just make music together now?
Lesson one: music is all around us, just waiting for us to call it into being together. Performance is an illusion.
Another time, Yo Yo Ma was listening to a shaman sing, and asked him to repeat a line. The shaman sang something entirely different. When Yo Yo Ma said, “That’s not the same thing,” the shaman replied, “You’re right. The first time I sang about the clouds. The second time there was a herd of elephants walking our way.”
Lesson two: every note is unique, a tiny, perfect gift from you to me and to the world. Sing it one moment, it’s perfect in that moment. Sing the same note in another moment, it’s perfect in an entirely different way. No two moments are alike — all you have to do is show up and let the music flow through you.
Now, back in the “real world”, I’m bringing those two foundational lessons into everything I do going forward, from regular choir rehearsals to my own vocal improv classes. Because as always, it’s about connection. It’s about vulnerability. It’s about healing. And it’s about love.
Let’s expand our generosity and invite others to join the circle together.