Daily Practices Toward Peace and Creative Improvisation

I’m a fan of vocalist and improvisor Bobby McFerrin. The year after I graduated from my community choir, the group attended a choral festival for which Bobby McFerrin was one of the clinicians: 0ne more reason to consider flunking senior year. But alas, I did not, and have never seen the man in person.

I’m not even sure how I first became familiar with him, but I have always had an attraction to something about him and the music he creates

More recently, my husband sang one of McFerrin’s songs with the Minneapolis based group Cantus. It was a setting of Psalm 23 in which all the divine pronouns are changed from male to female – a choice I got to learn more about this Sunday.

During a long car ride on Sunday I turned on public radio and was pleased to hear Bobby McFerrin being interviewed. (Click here to hear it.)  The discussion covered topics ranging from spirituality to improvisation to family to prayer.  The topic that continues to ring most through my mind is that of various disciplines.

The discipline of ordering your day and seeking quiet. McFerrin was so drawn to this that he actually had considered joining a monastic order or the priesthood.  There is definitely something in me that has a similar longing (for the quiet and routine, not the priesthood).  Earlier this spring I had a 24 hour solo get-away at a nearby silent retreat center.  It was fabulous and very hard.  Having set times throughout the day to stop and reflect and gather our thoughts is something Nathan and I try to incorporate in our lives with increasing frequency.  In a way, children in the picture can help this happen as their presence raises the importance of the routines of naps and snacks and cuddle time.

McFerrin reminded me of this value and inspired me to continue to pursue those routine moments of “bringing myself back to my calling” – checking in with myself, with God, and with those around me.

The discipline of creative exercises. Two types of creative exercises were mentioned in this interview.  One was related to the writing of the 23 Psalm setting. It was during a time when his own personal creative exercise was to write a piece of music first thing after waking each morning, before doing anything else.  This technique is probably not going to happen any time soon in this house per our schedules and kiddos, but we will be hanging on to the idea for future application. What would that be like? What would my creative muscles feel like to consistently do a similar creative exercise first thing, with a fresh mind, while the rest of the world (or at least the neighborhood) was still sleeping?

There is something so beautifully human about it.  An element of creativity that drives me to pursue it is the idea that people were created with the unique ability to be creative – animal species may have some sophisticated means of communicating, but none can create like humans can.  How beautiful, and even worshipful, then, to begin ones days not by diving into the immediately practical tasks, but by exercising and realizing this unique creative potential.

The other creative exercise Bobby mentioned was one that, I admit, I will not be doing any time soon.  Set a timer for 10 minutes, and sing.  Anything.  Just don’t stop letting things come out of your mouth.  Interestingly, he said that, in his experience with students and such, at the two minute mark the person will usually start talking to himself about how ridiculous the exercise is and want to quit.  He says to push through for 10 minutes every day for about three weeks and see what happens.  Nathan, naturally, is eager to give this one a go, but I’ll pass.  As I say that I also will add that there is something in me that wishes I was more willing to try it.  The freedom and lack of inhibitions that come with vocal improvisation are enviable indeed. I am not committing myself to never being able to do this, but I am just not ready yet.  Another thing to aspire to as I continue to bend my limits of comfort.

However, as I read through the comments on the program’s website, I learned of a similar – and, for me, much more approachable – exercise for writing.  Set a timer and write.  No erasing (I think a real pen and paper would be better for this one as my backspace reflex is rather uncontrollable), no scratching out.  Don’t stop for anything.  Don’t worry about nonsensicalness.  Just write.  The cool thing about this one is that even we busy parents could make this happen.  Granted, three minutes of uninterrupted time are never a sure thing, but they definitely do happen.  I will be trying this one very soon.

Woven throughout McFerrin’s discourse is his strong valuing of improvisation. Interesting, isn’t it, that this master of improvisation is such a fan of structure and order and discipline. I think I tend to be scared of improvising because it is so free and foreign, but the way that McFerrin talks about it really compels me to seek more ways to regularly practice it.  The value it can bring to me, not just as a musician, but as a person, seems worth the work.

Disciplining ourselves toward creativity is something that can and, I think, should be somehow rolled into our lives. Most likely it already is somehow.

By Naomi Bird

Wife of tenor Nathan Bird, pianist, organist, former music therapist, writer, tea-drinker, mom of two mini-sopranos and two mini-tenors, and learner of loving the arts.

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