Musical Improv – My Two Cents

For most, musical improv is a scary thing.  Not only do you make rhymes and catchy choruses, but try to keep a decent pitch and stay in rhythm as well.  And the whole time there are an embarrassing amount of things that could go wrong.

Well, here is my two cents on the always magical and ever impressive musical improv.

Number One – Keep things simple.   As both musician and actor, the simpler a suggestion – the better.  It means a broader array of interpretations, a wider spread of directions I can take it.  For example songs about Dairy work great, rather than songs about Wisconsin Sharp Chedder – Made By Brown Swiss Breed Cows.  By having a simple, broad suggestion I have more possibilities.  Same goes for your residential musician.  Keeping style and genres simple (unless you know they can deliver on an impressive interpretation of Emo-Caveman-Bosinova-Beats), gives an added layer of confidence and security that is palpable to the singers, and the collective confidence is multiplied.  Just say rock!

The hardest part with musical improv is meeting the expectations of the audience, who all have their own definition of Caveman music.  We set ourselves up for failure when ‘pimped’ with something that is too absurd, or simply out of the capabilities of the instrument i.e. if my musician plays a ukelele I’m going to stay away from Northern-Heavy-God-Metal and African-Polka-Ska. (I dare Béla Fleck to do one of these genres on his next album.)  My point: making rhymes and meeting audience expectations is difficult enough.  Simplify for god-sake.

Moving on…sort of. Song titles and suggestions don’t need to be more than 3 – 4 words.  Short song titles means a catchy chorus, the likes of which audience and actors will have an easier time (a) following, (b) supporting and (c) remembering.  Never-mind your brilliant rhyme, forget your clever expansion of character and heightened circumstances, it’s all about the chorus!   You want a simple wording that has a strong rhythm and fun melody.  Chances are the audiences will forget your clever use of the word fromage (French of Cheese)and corsage (French for cheesy), but they WILL remember the collective ensemble singing in unison, “Cheesy, cheese, cheese” to the tune of Strangers in the Night.

Lastly, never under estimate the power of Group Mind.  Even if you don’t sing like Wayne Brady, or lack musicianship, chances are you can follow, and support the lead guys/gals rhymes.  How cool is that when four people shout the same word, in unison, under completely unrehearsed circumstances. (Unrehearsed is a loose term.  All good art requires practice, but you know what I mean, it’s improv).  And of course there is always that simple catchy chorus that needs a simple one-word, one-note harmony accentuating the emotional intent of the of the song.  Or, turn that chorus into a round, like Row-Row-Row your boat.  Sometimes the chaos of a simple, supporting, ensemble can been VERY entertaining.

Come out this Saturday when I hope to show you these tips in action.  And also come out to my other, less formal, shows around town.  Dates and details can be found on my website.

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