This past summer, I had the amazing opportunity to sing in a choir setting with the incomparable Bobby McFerrin for nearly a week. The format was vocal improvisation, mostly a genre called “Circle Singing.” We sang with McFerrin and his co-teachers about six hours per day in the beautiful, holistic resort, the Omega Institute, in Rhinebeck, NY.
In this genre, the leader (standing in the center) divides a ring of singers into sections (usually by voice part) and assigns a 1-2 bar phrase to be repeated indefinitely. Each vocal section is given a contrasting, yet harmonically pleasing, part which layers simultaneously with the other voice parts. Vocal percussion, sometimes known as beat-boxing, is added, and the leader improvises on top of all (with a microphone). The effect is joyous, spontaneous, and spiritual.
As a classically-trained singer and pianist, who often rehearses many hours for each performance, the practice of vocal improvisation is liberating. The goal isn’t musical perfection, or telling a story, or even entertaining a crowd. Its about transcending expectations and flowing with the music in the moment. The magic is music that is invented, manifested, performed, and witnessed by all participants at the exact same time.
There are many musicians across the world who have learned this style of “Circle Singing,” including a couple groups in NYC. Mostly, leaders create in 4:4 time in Major or Minor tonal patterns. But, McFerrin epitomizes vocal improvisation leadership, by creating in 5:4, 7:8, 9:8, and 13:8 time. He also creates in various modes. One of his co-teachers, Chistiane Karam from Lebanon, improvises vocal music on quarter tones (see video).