Students jam with Grammy winner
“Don’t worry. Be Happy.”
The tune is simple and timeless; a reggae melody you can whistle while you work. The man behind the ditty that became a chart-topper in the late 1980s is Bobby McFerrin, who brought his talent to Providence’s Veterans Auditorium last week.
McFerrin was there as part of a FirstWorks’ arts-learning event where he performed and then hosted a question and answer session with students from schools across the state. Although a reggae song propelled him to fame, McFerrin’s talents and styles are many.
McFerrin typically appears alone on stage, accompanying himself by singing both the melody and other musical lines. With a four-octave range, McFerrin can sing from high falsetto to resonating bass. He can also harmonize with himself, a practice known as multiphonic singing. Percussion comes from rhythmic tapping and slapping his palm and thumb upon his chest.
The blend results in a unique form: a solo, a cappella act that has bass, drums, harmony and melody.
Last week, McFerrin captivated the students, who were mainly singers and students from performing arts schools.
After two songs, McFerrin perched on the edge of the stage and opened the floor to questions. He told students how he grew up listening to artists in various genres.
“I grew up with everybody,” said McFerrin. “They all lived in my house.”
Both of McFerrin’s parents were vocal teachers and performers; his father was a classical singer at the Metropolitan Opera and his mother appeared in regional and Broadway shows.
“My parents encouraged me greatly,” he said.
But McFerrin said he had to find his own voice.
“Who taught me how to sing this way? Basically, I did.”
McFerrin said singers typically rely heavily on instrumentation to back them up. One day, he began to wonder if he could make a solo act without other musicians.
“I imagined myself on stage alone … being totally self-reliant,” he said.
In his 20s, McFerrin spent six years discovering his voice. He stopped listening to other vocalists for cues.
“I wanted to decide what my voice sounded like,” he said.
McFerrin said the problem for aspiring artists is the constant exposure to similar-sounding performers.
“You’re surrounded by ‘cookie-cutter singers,’” he said. “Singers that stand out have a very unique sounding voice.”
McFerrin said discovering who you are as an artist is the key to longevity in the industry. He also said being the best person you can be will help get you work.
“People want to hire you because they like you,” he said.
McFerrin briefly touched on singing in reality competitions, like “American Idol,” even as auditions for “The X-Factor” were happening just down the road at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center.
“‘American Idol’ singers are quite talented, but they don’t last because they all sound too much like someone who’s already made it,” he said. “If your goal is [just] to be famous, you’re on the wrong road. Just try to be the best at your craft.”
McFerrin’s goal was to be a working musician. The fame, he said, just happened to come his way. Now 62, McFerrin has been working since the age of 14, when he began playing in bands. Throughout his early years, he played a number of instruments, including piano and clarinet. It wasn’t until he was 27 that he realized he wanted to be a vocalist, although he said he could remember singing in his crib. Within 24 hours of deciding to be a singer, McFerrin landed his first gig.
“I was meant to do this,” he said.
McFerrin found fame and success but he did face some challenges along the way. For his first solo tour, he requested he perform entirely alone, without the previously hired accompaniment. Half of the booking agents cancelled his engagements. He faced another hump when he began conducting the musicians he did eventually work with and found resistance.
“They saw me as the reggae guy,” he said.
Eventually, McFerrin worked his way to conducting the New York Philharmonic and Chicago Symphony Orchestra in special shows.
So what helped him to overcome his challenges and find success?
“Perseverance and somebody to believe in me,” he said.
In addition to his solo performances, McFerrin invited a handful of students to join him onstage for duets and trios. He also organized an impromptu chorus, handing out vocal parts and asking the students to echo what he sang. After a call and response session with the entire crowd, McFerrin took more questions.
“What inspires you?” asked a student.
“The way I live my life inspires me; Jesus inspires me; you inspire me,” he said.
McFerrin said that small things, like a gesture, word, or experience, can inspire a song.
“Every hour has a golden moment,” he said.
“What about stage fright?” asked a teacher.
“Everybody has butterflies,” he said. “You just have to make sure yours are flying in formation before you get out on stage.”
McFerrin said there is a difference between performing and singing. Performance has an element of pretending to be something and someone else, whereas singing is entirely honest.
“I remind myself not to perform,” he said. “I like to think of it as just singing.”
He told students not to be afraid to make mistakes on stage.
“Even if I do mess up, it’s OK. The concert is not the most important part of my day,” he said. “Waking up, doing my meditations, walking my dog ... Those things are important.”
McFerrin encouraged students to find their own voices and listen to everything from Beethoven to hip-hop.
“Music has value, music has power. You should expose yourself to all types of music,” he said. “Music is the most transforming art there is. It gets into the soul immediately.”
For video of Bobby McFerrin performing for students in Providence, visit www.youtube.com/WarwickBeacon.