Moravian Choir to improvise with Grammy-winner Bobby McFerrin.

Be happy: Bobby McFerrin's coming!
photo by Stewart Cohen

What's on the program for the Moravian College Choir's February 10 performance, which will feature a special appearance by singer/composer Bobby McFerrin? Feel free to ask Paula Ring Zerkle, associate professor of music and director of the Choir. But don't expect the answer to include many specifics. "We're not actually preparing any music for this," she says. "People may be expecting a typical choir concert, with written-out pieces. But it's probably not going to be that." Under McFerrin's guidance, the College Choir (and the Moravian Church Choir, who are also participating) will perform "circlesongs." It's a term McFerrin came up with to name his improvised choral pieces, which evoke elements of jazz, chant, and tribal music, but transcend any particular musical category. "It's music that can draw from anything," says professor Zerkle.

As a warm-up to the big event, Moravian's choir recently tried creating on-the-spot choral songs in a workshop with Roger Treece, a member of McFerrin's vocal ensemble Voicestra. "We had some students make up circlesongs, and I thought they did really well," says professor Zerkle. "To create something on the spot, in front of people, is really scary. But they loved it. Many of them stayed after the workshop to get some more time with Roger." A workshop with McFerrin—closed to the public—will take place on the afternoon before the concert. "I'm hoping that what we do that afternoon, the concepts and the music, will be used for the concert that night. But until I see Bobby that day and he agrees, it's a little nerve-wracking not knowing," professor Zerkle admits. "But that's the thing about improvisation," she adds. "You have to be in the moment. We're just going to let it happen and trust ourselves." Nervousness aside, as a fan of McFerrin and an attendee of some of his workshops, professor Zerkle is confident her singers will be inspired to greatness. "Bobby gets people improvising and singing, and I wanted to share that excitement with the Choir," she says. "He's so creative, he has music just pouring out of him."

Whatever happens, the performance is bound to be as enriching for the students as it is engaging for the audience, says professor Zerkle. "I like the students to get a wide breadth of experiences in the choir," she says. "And this is a really wonderful part of choral music that's not done very often." Along with enhancing their sense of rhythm—a solid beat being an important component of this type of collaborative singing—she hopes the experience will be a window into a wider musical world. "I hope it will help take down some of the walls between the various styles of music. We should see music as a continuum, rather than having classical over here, jazz over there ...music is just music, and you can draw from all kinds of styles," she says. And she expects choral improvisation to pop up again in future Choir performances. Probably not during the spring concert (Bruckner's E Minor Mass, April 20, Foy Hall). Maybe during jazz vespers (February 17, location TBA). Perhaps as a warm-up exercise before performances.

Or maybe whenever the Choir just lets it happen.

"A Choral Concert featuring the Moravian College and Central Moravian Church Choirs, Paula Ring Zerkle and Rebecca Kleintop Owens, directors, with special appearance by Bobby McFerrin" will take place on February 10, 7 p.m. at Foy Hall.