“…if one can use music, it should be used a lot; if one can use dance, there should be as much dancing as possible! If one can play with colours, why limit oneself to black and white?”Augusto Boal, Games for Actors and Non-actors. Trans. Adrian Jackson. London: Routledge, 1992. p.235
I have always been attracted to musical improvisation and luckily my career has been graced by working with and learning from an array of exceptional improv musicians – from my earliest days with Dunedin Impro, to Chicago Comedysportz, Disney’s Comedy Warehouse and now my current home venue, Sak Comedy Lab. While my on-campus work generally can’t afford a resident musician, these troupes and projects have also benefited from some formidable visiting talent. Helpful communication patterns and performance strategies have emerged from this multitude of short- and long-form experience. I am writing this blog series under the assumption that my readership most likely consists of improvising performers and directors rather than musicians, so I offer these observations with that vantage point in mind. However, I acknowledge my considerable debt to the long list of my musician collaborators who have shaped my practices in innumerable ways, and hope that these performer-based tips might also make the impossible task of composing on-the-spot masterpieces a little easier as well!
Player A has just professed, awkwardly, their love for Player B. After a moment, lush music begins to swell, signaling that a song is about to start. Player A takes a breath…
Releasing Your Inner Muse-ic
1.) Breathe. This is a simple and critical lesson that I keep relearning as an improvisational singer. Don’t be afraid of silence in your musical creations. Whether it’s the song’s preamble or you’re taking a lull between verses as you seek inspiration, use these silences to breathe deeply and fully. Your musical work will always benefit when you start from a grounded place of strength as opposed to leaping into a song out of panic. As you breathe, listen closely to the clues and signals that your musical collaborator is offering: is there a gift in terms of tempo, mood, pitch, or emotional dynamic? In all likelihood several of these elements will be in play. Process this information as you breathe while also keeping in mind that these staged moments should be filled with acting and action. Breathing also connects you to the emotions and core of your character which is generally the best source for dynamic and interesting material. And as an added bonus, adept musicians can read your breathing and sense when you are prepared to take the leap into lyric.
2.) Communicate. Don’t be afraid to actively communicate with your musical ally as the song develops. The specific tools available to you are likely to heavily depend on the stage configuration of your venue. If the musician is in easy view you can probably say a lot with a simple look or nod; if you’re separated by a considerable distance you might need to lean more heavily on sweeping gestures, staging or even verbal cues. Just as musical improvisers should make strong offers it’s more than appropriate for singers to do so lovingly as well. If you want to launch into a sweeping bridge, make a sweeping gesture or change in staging. If you’re circling back to the chorus, telescope this with your lyric or maybe just whimsically gesture to players or the audience “chorus!” depending on the style of the production. It’s also possible to speak (sing) your truth if your mind can tackle the lyric logistics fast enough. Perhaps the tempo is getting too brisk: you could request a slower pace by singing “My thoughts are speeding so fast I can’t catch my breath…” There are a lot of moving pieces that interact when improvising songs – don’t be afraid to playfully let others know what you are experiencing or needing. (More significant challenges should be addressed during the postmortem.)
3.) Accept. Just as improvising singers hope that their musician collaborators are setting them up for joyful success, so too must performers strive to empower and make musicians look good. Recognize and accept offers pitched from the piano (or your instrument of choice) just as you would from any other artistic voice engaged in the performance. If we don’t view the musician as an equal partner in this magical act of creation then improvisational trouble will lurk just around the corner. My specific pet peeve in this regard is when a musician senses that the action would now be best served by a sung interlude and so begins to vamp… only to have this offer loiter painfully in the background of the scene – largely ignored by the players – so that it must eventually fade away into nothingness. A similar issue can occur at the end of songs when the musician provides a grand ending only to have the singer push on regardless as they wanted to go for “just one more verse.” If a song is pitched (or edited) embrace it. If you’re working with underscoring rather than songs – a truly priceless scenic addition in its own right – and a mood shift emanates from the keyboard, be sure to enjoy and justify it. Especially as a company develops knowledge and rapport, it is likely that a well-intended musician may push you outside of your comfort or ability zone. Give it your best shot trusting that everyone is working towards the same goal of playful excellence.
4.) Structure. It’s inherently more difficult for players and musicians to be on the same page if there aren’t some shared assumptions in terms of terminology, game strategies and song structures. I like to use the language of verse, chorus and bridges as a rough template, but it doesn’t matter what terms you use as long as they are mutually agreed upon. Use structure as your communicative friend. When verses meander unpredictably or choruses change drastically with each appearance, this increases the likelihood that singing improvisers and the musician(s) will end up working at cross purposes. Establishing and re-using a verse frame, on the other hand, or setting a catchy and easily repeated chorus or hook, provides safe harbors in the song that everyone can return to if inspiration leads you awry. Rhyme and rhyme schemes are another important tool in this regard. If you’re able to mirror prior efforts – the first verse was “ABCB” so the second becomes “DEFE” – this helps others see and repeat the patterns to keep the song moving forward. There are certainly examples of composers and songs that use structure (or rhyme) loosely, if at all, but these are probably unhelpful templates at least for initial explorations.
5.) Train. Professional singers spend lifetimes honing their craft and developing musical prowess and they know what they’re going to sing. Improvising singers strive to replicate this while also composing their songs at the same time! If musical improv is important to your trajectory – perhaps it’s heavily featured in the venues in which you want to play – instinct and moxie may not be sufficient to get you to the finish line alone, especially if you have fundamental deficits such as matching pitch or healthily supporting your voice. It can prove challenging to secure training if you have limited time or financial resources, but this may be the next step you need to take to unlock new opportunities. A better understanding of vocal production and music in general will only help you communicate more effectively with your musicians as well. In commercial venues it’s asking a lot of our audiences to frequently sit through unpleasant vocal efforts once the novelty of well-intended attack wears off. It may not be the wisest strategy, therefore, to rehearse this skillset in front of a paying crowd. Some risks are better suited to the privacy of closed workshops or tutorials.
My first long-form experiment took the form of a musical, Inta-Musical: Just Add Water (you can read about it a little here) and since then I’ve crafted more original pieces that use these skills than any other, including (Your) Opera in a Trunk, FourPlay: The Improvised Musical, Family Drive, and Lights Up: The Improvised Rock Opera as well as featuring this skill in numerous other pieces and formats. There is something rather special about the intensity and appeal of this style of storytelling. I’ve also found in short-form houses that an ability to show comfort and knowledge in this area can often make the difference between advancement or stagnation.
Related Entries: Rhyme, Verbal Skills Antonyms: Emptiness
Connected Game: Tag-Team Song