Me and Bobby McFerrin
I walked out of church yesterday feeling really good. Feeling grateful. Just loving this September day in New York City, and feeling glad to be embarking on my Sunday walk home. It’s been more than 7 years since I’ve gone on these Sunday walks. I was busy up in Boston. But this summer, I resumed them. It’s been natural and easy, and the tradition has quickly kicked back in. It’s about a 2-mile walk, starting on the Upper East Side with a meandering trek through Central Park, over to the West Side and another couple dozen blocks or so south to my own Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood.
I love this walk. Anything or nothing can happen on it. Often I crave the nothingness that happens – just walking in the city and seeing the people outside in all seasons and all weather.
So there I was yesterday, getting into the stride of my Sunday walk home from church. I headed west, feeling the sun on my back and the slight cool in the air. I approached a familiar café whose tables spill out on to the sidewalk during the warm months. There was a group of 6 people sitting at the tables closest to the sidewalk. I was taken by the tone of their relaxed, happy conversation.
As I got closer to the group, I recognized a voice. And just as I passed by, one of the faces beamed out at me. There he was, the incomparable Bobby McFerrin sitting with his friends at Sunday brunch as I walked by.
My recognition -- just as I passed him – brought a deep smile of appreciation straight out of my being. I have no I idea if Bobby got my smile as I walked by. I rather think he didn’t. But no matter.
All I know is this: For the next 45 minutes, as I walked through Central Park, I thought about Bobby McFerrin and his influence on the world, -- his musical influence on the world -- his joy, his sense of play, his openness to music and musicians of all kinds, and his journeys of creative invention and collaboration.
As all of these thoughts flooded me, I was remembering seminal moments of his influence in my life. How can I forget “Don’t Worry, Be Happy?” Or “Hush” with Yo Yo Ma? Or his group Voicestra? Or his ground breaking VOCAbuLarieS? And the list goes on and on.
I was remembering the time I performed his “23rd Psalm” on Mother’s Day at The Mother Church in Boston. It’s a gorgeous adaptation of the psalm, dedicated to his mother, in which Bobby uses the pronoun “She” instead of “He” throughout. It was one of those powerful musical moments in my life to get to celebrate the motherhood side of God in such a graceful, imaginative way.
I then got to thinking about my most recent encounter with Bobby McFerrin -- prior to my micro moment with him on 63rd Street. It was on a Ted Talk (I’m a huge fan!).
One night as I was browsing Ted.com, I came across an excerpt of a talk on music and the brain. Bobby McFerrin was on the panel with a group of intensely intelligent neurological scientists. “Yikes! Heady stuff,” I thought.
Bobby got up and just started playing with the audience. He asked the audience to imagine that the stage was a giant keyboard, and that he would “play” the keyboard by jumping from note to note while singing each note. He got the audience to sing the tones with him. Eventually, he jumped to new notes without singing the notes, and the audience naturally sang the correct tones that he jumped to.
As Bobby McFerrin jumped from note to note across the stage, he was simple, funny, and playful. He engaged the audience to experience a rather complicated notion about music and cognitive thinking in the most creative way.
You have to watch this Ted Talk. It’s wonderful! Just click here!
By the time I had relived these many Bobby McFerrin moments, I was already walking down 9th Avenue toward my own ‘hood. I was excited to think how far that little micro-moment of recognition had taken me – how far this great musician’s influence reached just because I was passing by and noticed him sitting at brunch.
It gave me such pause to think about the power of an idea and its unlimited sphere of influence. I thought of its endless potential to inspire, heal, and lift up individuals from even the most seemingly random encounters.
Ah, but the encounters aren’t random. They are just connections between receptivity and realization.
So I understand that I had been open and ready on this walk, and I was rewarded with a rich musical experience all the way home! Not a word had been spoken, not a note played or sung, and yet, I was lifted up into a wonderful contemplation of music and spiritual ideas.
Bobby McFerrin reminded me that I am grateful to be a singer and a musician who continues to evolve. He reminded me of my own deep musical curiosity, and that it’s one of the gifts God has given to me. I became thankful again for the many opportunities to continue to expand my musical exploration.
In short, I am grateful to have been inspired one more time by an unexpected sighting of one of my most favorite and influential musicians on the planet.
Thank you, Bobby McFerrin! With love and gratitude.