Playing (with) the audience

17 01 2011

Bobby McFerrin is a jazz singer most famous for his worldwide hit single “Don’t worry, be happy”. Normally he performs just using his own voice and a microphone. If you aren’t familiar with his work scroll down to the bottom of this post where I’ve added a video of him singing. I love his music but I love watching him as a performer as well.

Bobby McFerrin was invited to speak at the World Science Festival and he uses the pentatonic scale to play his audience. I highly recommend you try and sing along first time around. If you are in a busy place, hum under your breath, but do try and sing along.

At the start he says: “Talking about expectations… watch”. I love the idea that you don’t need to explain a scientific concept in words to get it across powerfully to an audience.

He makes this look deceptively easy. The more I play this the more I take from it as a piece of audience handling. He builds the routine slowly making it clear with just body language alone what he wants the audience to do and leads them to their first extra or independent note as a wonderful surprise. But then he doesn’t allow the concentration of the panel or the audience to falter, we are right back in it. When he jumps with his legs apart he doesn’t just give us an applause point (more of these in a post to come) he is emphasising that we will need to watch closely to follow the rest. You can even watch the timings of how he plants his legs- one to give an indication of where the note is going, the other to tell us when to sing the note.

It is a wonderfully subtle piece that I think is a spectacular piece of audience handling and science communication. If you don’t already know about the pentatonic scale I challenge anyone watching this to not want to find out more afterward.

When he says it works across the world it certainly worked at the Concert Hall in Glasgow. He performed the piece there without any mention to science as part of the annual Celtic Connections festival and I was thrilled to see him do it live. If you’ve got a minute check out another of this songs…

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