Some of my favorite musical improv moments have been collaboratively crafted as a Tag-Team Song. It’s an accessible and dynamic frame for combining original Music and lyric that, when played with finesse (or just joyful abandon) proves itself time and again as an audience favorite.
This game is often introduced as a combination of tag-team wrestling and music. If it’s available, a microphone is placed center stage with the team of improvisers standing ready behind. As original music begins – inspired by an audience suggestion – one player steps forward and begins to sing. A unique song follows with players periodically tagging each other out and picking up the song narrative from exactly where it left off, be it mid sentence, mid word, or mid sound!
An original title is obtained, “It’s a lot to ask,” and the improvisational musician crafts a stirring introduction with an up-tempo country feel. The players stand behind the situated microphone, and as the music segues into a new verse Player A self-nominates and begins…
Player A: (singing)
“When I wake each morning and I see you lying there
With that glowing face and flowing auburn hair…”
Player B tags A out as they deliver their last word and steps up to the microphone…
Player B: (singing)
“And you gently breathe, I feel each cool caress
I can’t help but ask myself, could I love you…
Player C tags in…
I haven’t slept one moment all through this dreary night,
Kept wide awake as you tumbled…”
“…left and right.
Snoring louder than the bells of the hunchback,
I used to sleep soundly but now…
“I’m an insomniac!
It’s a lot to ask, I tell you,
To roll around our bed in vain…”
“It’s a lot to ask, I tell you
To live in this glorious pain…”
It’s critical that singers and the musician are working closely together and picking up on each others’ cues and instincts. Even (especially) if the song becomes up-tempo, it can prove helpful to start more gently – perhaps even with a freer rhythm – so that everyone can begin on the same page (or sheet of music!)
Traps and Tips
1.) Tagging best practices. Clean and well-timed tags are critical for the joy and success of the song. Players should be wary, on the one hand, of tentative taps that may be missed or unclear for the singer and other waiting players. On the other hand, overly aggressive tags that more closely resemble slaps could throw off the singers or cause injuryl. Tags need to unequivocally signal that you’re about to sing so that the current singer can quickly clear the space for you. If you have a tendency to loiter or hover (perhaps weighing when to go in) this can prevent others from entering or stall the song if the active singer assumed you were good to go. For flow, it can prove helpful for exits to move in the same direction so as to avoid traffic jams, or players can make their tags gentle pushes to nudge the leaving player to safety. Also, look to gently build the frequency of the tag outs as the song builds. It’s part of the fun for it to look like players are eagerly awaiting their turn at the microphone, but it’s hard to establish the song initially if tags are coming every third word.
2.) Structure is your friend. Although this game certainly benefits from strong singing voices, players with modest experience and ability can also find success, especially if everyone leans into the song structure. Creating clear verses, a repeated chorus, and perhaps a bridge that breaks up the routine, provides a helpful template to elevate your storytelling and lyrical efforts. This also empowers the improvising musician to help if everyone has agreed upon clear structural markers. In some show formats I’ll actually deploy a director or conductor who can help by recognizing and signaling these benchmarks. A simple and memorable chorus, specifically, can serve as a real song-saver as it provides a home base to return to if the narrative goes astray or players lose each other (or the accompaniment) a little.
3.) Try some target rhyming. An upcoming entry on rhyme deals with this technique more fully, but this format provides some unique opportunities to set each other up for strong end rhymes. Players have a little more downtime and can step forward when they feel inspired which isn’t always the norm in musical improv games (although, it should be noted, that players should also be hyper aware of when a fellow player is running dry and step up to save these teammates from the microphone.) Target rhymes – or saving the better theme-connected word for the payoff – provide strong lyrical punctuations and can also gift fellow players dynamic tag moments: this was the intent with the “hunchback” set up for “insomniac” in the example song. The heavy lifting certainly resides in the set up so it can be kind to share this responsibility amongst the team especially if everyone has a similar comfort level and proficiency.
4.) Hold onto your point of view. It can be easy to emphasize the technical and structural aspects of this musical game and overlook the fact that, at its core, it is really an opportunity to craft a strong story. More often than not, singers assume the same point of view and character as opposed to having the “voice” of the story shift with each subsequent tag, although this can serve as a legitimate approach too. I find it useful to allow the first singer sufficient space to establish a clear angle into the narrative and material. If tags come too quickly it’s much less likely that everyone will have processed the specific tonality or objective of the song’s protagonist. The point of view may shift or develop as the song unfolds – a bridge is a particularly good moment to explore a sudden tilt or discovery – but the song will typically struggle if players aren’t in agreement on the story fundamentals. If our singer is tortured by their lover, for example, reversing or resolving this attitude will likely herald the end of the song so such a move shouldn’t be made accidentally or lightly.
5.) Sell your ending. Most Tag-Team Songs end in a very similar way in terms of the structure which isn’t accidental as it just works. While the body of the song should consist of single voices tagging each other in and out, it’s become a best practice in most of my home venues for everyone to join in for the final word or refrain. Hopefully the song has created a recurring and recognizable chorus or hook as this allows greater confidence if everyone “knows” the climactic lyric. If your company includes strong singers this is also a great time to add a little harmony or embellishment. The image above shows such a moment from a Gorilla Theatre performance at Sak Comedy Lab.
As you become comfortable with the logistics of this game there are so many ways to add new layers. Be on the lookout for discovered games within the song or tags – perhaps one player always grabs the target rhymes but does little else, or the same singer always cues the chorus with increased gusto each time. I’ve also messed with this frame with some frequency as a Gorilla Theatre director. Sometimes I’ll have one player deliberately undermine all the beautifully set-up rhymes in a Bad Rap kind of way, or have a point of view that directly opposes that of the protagonist.
Connected Concept: Music