Music as a Second Language

“I try to sing the way I sing in my kitchen, because I just can’t help myself. I want audiences to leave the theater and sing in their own kitchens the next morning. I want to invite people into the incredible feeling of joy and freedom I get when I sing.”
– Bobby McFerrin

I was blessed to grow up in a musical household where I learned to sing like I learned to talk. From my mother’s vocals and piano playing to the recordings that ranged from symphonies to jazz, music filled my childhood. I was particularly moved by the songs of George and Ira Gershwin written before I was born. I memorized Our Love is Here to Stay listening to Ella Fitzgerald, and Barbra Streisand taught me Someone to Watch Over Me. My mother carried the melodies and I sang the harmonies.

Gene Kelly brought the music to life with the 1951 film shaped around George Gershwin’s symphonic poem American in Paris. I was captivated by the snappy choreography, and I loved the extended ballet at the end. I listened to the record of the symphonic piece over and over.

And so music embedded itself into who I am.


Journal Excerpt – December 31, 1992

I was joined yesterday by 1,000 others in San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral, where Bobby McFerrin and the 18 members of Voicestra led a 24-hour continuous nondenominational event, “Singing for Your Life, a unique vocal vigil for healing, inspiration, and renewal.” The first evening I spent four hours listening to the spontaneous melodies, walking the labyrinth, meditating. During a particularly hypnotic chant, McFerrin stepped out of leading the circle of singers around him and picked up his toddler daughter, holding her and including her, giving her the physical embrace that he was giving each of us musically.

I returned tonight for the final two and a half hours on the final day of the year. Individual members of Voicestra had taken shifts leading anyone who wanted to join the improvised ongoing vocals. McFerrin himself stepped back in for the last couple hours. In the packed church, about 150 of us stood on the altar in a circle as McFerrin led us through four- and five-part textures from gospel rhythms to mesmerizing chants to jazz. A lot of us were in tears when we finished, privileged to be part of a celebration of joy, strength, creativity and empowerment.


Last week after a gap of 22 years, I attended my next Bobby McFerrin performance, this time with the San Francisco Symphony. The all-Gershwin program included McFerrin conducting An American in Paris, weaving jazz vocals with the symphony for Rhapsody in Blue, and finishing with just McFerrin and his instrumental trio performing songs from Porgy and Bess.

The live notes moved me in a way that bypassed words, tapped into the stream of music that my life flows with. Tears filled my eyes hearing the strains that I’ve known for as long as I can remember.

In the final part of the evening, McFerrin led a couple thousand unknown people in song. There is an intimacy found in singing together that transcends the setting, whether it’s a living room or a concert hall. Afterward, we found ourselves in friendly, spontaneous conversations with people we had never met.

It feels awkward now to write about an experience and a feeling that are inherently nonverbal. Just as he does in person, Bobby McFerrin brings the intangible to life on his website: “Listening to Bobby McFerrin sing may include unparalleled joy, a new perspective on creativity, rejection of the predictable, and a sudden, irreversible urge to lead a more spontaneous existence.”

Tonight, after a long hiatus I reach for my dulcimer, sing a song that I wrote myself, and make plans for joining my voice with others. So it begins anew.


Listen to Barbra Streisand’s 1965 recording of Someone to Watch Over Me.

Listen to Ella Fitzgerald’s 1959 recording of Our Love is Here to Stay.

Watch the extended ballet accompanied by the full score of American in Paris, from the 1951 movie.


  1. Woodswoman – It’s always such a treat to hear your thoughts on life, and in this case, the sounds that have influenced them throughout your life. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Your gift of capturing spirit and emotion and sharing it with us through words is amazing. Thank you for taking me with you on your many adventures!

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