A note from Carl:
Last month I drove to Berkeley, CA, to attend a Circlesongs retreat with Bobby McFerrin. Much of the time when I mention Bobby McFerrin, people reply with “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” and while Bobby did write and perform the catchy, vocally instrumental tune, there is so much more to Bobby McFerrin! He has been a model of freedom, spontaneity, and play for me for many years.
I was first introduced to Bobby’s Circlesongs album in the late 90’s by a friend who is also a tabla-player and vocal teacher, George Grant. It was a beautiful time when Erin and I were in our early twenties, not yet together as a couple, and we and other friends would gather with George’s guidance to overtone chant and play various vocal games with harmony and rhythm, and we would create these spontaneous circlesongs much like on Bobby’s album. Looping, evolving, living vocal tapestries where we could harmonize and listen and have conversations though song and sound, all without words. It was beautiful.
It was particularly powerful for me, as I identified myself as non musical. I couldn’t keep rhythm well, couldn’t really find harmonies, and rarely sang, with myself or others. In the very first class with George, any illusion of being non-musical vanished. I just needed a context for learning that allowed the un-learning of what got in the way of my voice. It felt like I was remembering the original voice that had been hidden under layers of forgetfulness.
Today I am lit up with youthful enthusiasm at singing with people again, and reveling in the connection and deep satisfaction that comes from doing what our species has done together since the beginning – sing.
Sadly, 20+ years ago, my Buddhist teacher at the time insisted that we all stop any practices other than the specific ones he was teaching. As a devoted young student, I did. Those creative fires that included my voice, my love of martial arts, my studies of bodywork, which are all so clearly essential elements of my unique thread, were stomped out.
This happens to us, right? Did someone squash your singing? Dancing? Playing? Creating? Art making? Whether teachers, parents, bosses, or partners do the squashing, we often cast out essential elements of ourselves in order to belong. Luckily, we get to reclaim them to find a more true belonging. I’m grateful I have have reclaimed these threads. A big part of this Circlesongs retreat was celebrating and honoring that reclamation.
I went to the retreat looking forward to time with Bobby as I have wanted to study with him for more than 20 years. I was not familiar with any of the other 20 teachers, yet it was this community of teachers and participants that had the most impact. Bobby actually taught very little. His friends and students each brought their unique style of vocal play and encouragement. Bobby’s teacher-friends were a unique collection of beautiful genius weirdos from around the world.
Tiago Grade, a beat-boxing teacher from Portugal. Zuzu Gonclaves, an improv teacher from Brazil who works with body-percussion. Varijashree Venugopal, whose South Indian melodies and scales were woven through with enchantment. I could write heaps of praise on all 20 of them.
None of them were trying to be like Bobby McFerrin. Rather, through the principles of play, learning, improvisation, and listening, they were each bringing the voice of their irreplaceable, unique selves and supporting and encouraging each of us in the room to do the same. This gathering was about how play, spontaneity and listening can support us in finding and trusting our authentic, unique voice.
I was reminded of what Thich Nhat Hanh said: The next prophesied future Buddha, Maitreya, will not come in the form of single human being, but rather as sangha. As a collective of beings, awakening and healing together.
I recently had a conversation with Francis Weller where he said “A good mentor does not want to be repeated, they want to be expanded.” Erin and I do not want to become our beloved teachers and mentors. We receive their invaluable guidance and support in the service of becoming who we were meant to be, to follow our unique threads and bring our medicine to the world. And that is how we are with our students. The practices and principles we teach are in service of you becoming more yourself, and bringing the unique voice and healing and movement and contributions that you, and only you, can offer to this beautiful, suffering world.
Here is a fun short video with excerpts of the 24-hour unbroken spontaneous song we sang toward the end of the retreat.
And to our beloved local-to-Utah peeps, I’ll keep you posted on an offering that will be coming this fall: A series of “Natural Movement and Natural Voice in the Natural World” gatherings that I will host at various locations in canyons and out at the Great Salt Lake.