McFerrin inspires young to shine

Singer writes, meets middle school pupils

June 03, 2000|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

When LaTonya Lilly, a pupil at Booker T. Washington Middle School, wrote to singer and conductor Bobby McFerrin thanking him for a visit he paid her class last year, she added a postscript: "Please write back."

He did. McFerrin, who appears tonight and tomorrow with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, wrote letters to every member of LaTonya's class, responding to their thank-you notes this school year.

Yesterday, they had a chance to meet again, as 11 of the letter-writers came to watch McFerrin rehearse conducting Beethoven's Seventh Symphony in his signature light-hearted style at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.

"Letter-writing's not that easy," McFerrin, the father of three, said yesterday.

His disarming and uplifting letters put fame in perspective ("it was never my goal"), encouraging pupils to reach for their dreams. The gist of the missives might be summed up in his sign-off to one: "Have a wonderful life!"

Explaining why he felt compelled to respond individually to each boy and girl, the musician answered, "There were so many questions in their letters, they invited a dialogue. It's a dying art, and I was so glad they shared their lives."

Once, between Beethoven movements, McFerrin turned to rapt pupils and said in a stage whisper, "This is fun, real fun. You should try it some time."

McFerrin met with the group afterward for a playful conversation in which he sang songs by the Beatles, Stevie Wonder and Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg, who wrote his current favorite melody, he said. After singing a few bars, he pretended to swoon and laughed before switching into a convincing country music twang.

The eleven seventh-graders who had passed up a school picnic to attend the rehearsal with a few dozen pupils from other city schools said that seeing McFerrin again was an even better treat. Their teacher, Virginia Richard, said the time spent and the letters exchanged meant a great deal to them.

"I was quite surprised that someone famous would write back to me," Olivia Haynes said. "And I was stunned at what he wrote."

To young Olivia, McFerrin wrote: "I also played the flute in the high school orchestra. And for a while I thought that I might be a writer of plays and poetry. So, you see, we share a lot of the same interests."

Jarrell Garner, another pupil at the school's arts academy, told McFerrin in his letter that he plays the tuba. His ears perked up when the tuba led the orchestra in the rousing finish of the last movement, allegro con brio.

But, he confided in his letter to the musician, "I like to sing to myself. I think I'm pretty good. I'm afraid to tell people I can sing."

McFerrin's response: "Don't be afraid. You know what? I didn't like the sound of my voice at first either. But I kept on practicing until it felt good." His parents, both classically trained singers, ran a musical household, McFerrin wrote in a few of the letters.

Genai Moore found him equally enthusiastic about her career choice of medicine. "So you want to be a pediatrician? That's wonderful!" McFerrin wrote, recalling that when he was sick as a child, "music was another medicine." In any case, he urged Genai, "Do your best in whatever you do."

Continuing the conversational style in telling about his life, McFerrin wrote Monterra Miles that he was grateful that "God made me a singer."

But it was not until he was 27 that he woke up to the fact that singing was his gift.

Comparing singing and conducting for Devone Rivers, McFerrin declared, "No matter how much fun it [conducting] is, singing is still my No. 1 fun thing to do!!!"

Well-known for his vocal acrobatics and for his 1989 a cappella Grammy Award-winning hit, "Don't Worry, Be Happy," McFerrin took up the baton at age 40 in 1990. As he told one correspondent: "You're never too old to try something new."

In his letter, Devone said, "Whenever the teachers play "Don't Worry Be Happy," we sing right along. Every day we listen to one of your songs." He also promised to save McFerrin's autograph in a safe place, "so I can pass it down generation to generation."

Some of McFerrin's typed correspondence struck a light tone. He liked the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew mystery stories when he was Erica Lee's age, McFerrin told her.

Before they parted, McFerrin led the group in humming a few chords, which they did with alacrity. "See? Just in the act of singing, you became one," he told them.

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