Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Learning to Underscore, Part 1: Watch TV

As someone starting out with music for improvised theatre, you'll find that you spend lots of time having to provide mood music behind story-based scenes. You'd better get good at it - underscoring scenes is a big part of the job. How does one get started doing this?

There are a few techniques that might help you out. I'll be discussing some of them over the coming weeks.

Using TV as inspiration

Probably the most accessible resource for learning how to underscore scenes is TV. Nearly everyone has a television, and if you've got one you've got access to an ever-changing variety of programming.

The first thing to realise is that, quite often, short form improv is melodramatic. You've only got two or three or four minutes to start, develop, climax and complete a scene. It's generally ok to accentuate or over-accentuate the music. When you watch television shows and listen to their music, you'll find they often are concerned with segues and pivotal moments only, so patterning yourself off of the music you hear underscoring TV shows isn't necessarily the best match for improv.

TV does provide a great opportunity to learn though. I can remember when I first got started (and was probably freaking out about what I'd signed on for), I'd turn the volume down on the TV, and play music to go along with whatever was on. I'd change the channel quite a bit to get variety - action adventures, soap operas, the news, even sports. It's not a perfect stand-in for a live improv show - you can't hear what they're saying, so you've already lost some cues you'd otherwise use to help craft the music. When you're looking to get started, though, this is a safe exercise, and any failures are kept between you and the TV.

Another difference is that TV shows are often pretty exciting, or in fabulous locations, or involve special effects... Improv scenes often find the funny in a fairly pedestrian location, like a bus stop or a welfare office. They're still melodramatic, they just get all that excitement from the characters and the situation, and not the setting or the special effects.

Even though you can't hear what's being said, it's important to listen and be changed. Get in to this habit early. If you get stuck in your own momentum, you and the scene will be moving in different directions. Again, this can be tricky because TV shows don't move and change quite as much as an improv scene will; they tend to have a slow build and slow changes. You might have to imagine the dialog and make it more melodramatic than it really was. (Or get an improviser to provide the voices, and have them change it around. We've played this as a performance game, voicing off whatever's on live TV at that moment, and it's a lot of fun.)

It can be fun to try and replicate styles of shows. The X-Files had very distinctive music, using minor-key or discordant strings. Desperate Housewives uses a lot of pizzicato strings. Daytime soaps use a lot of moody strings and piano. Kids TV will often use bouncy pianos. The West Wing episodes are all scored brilliantly, with very presidential orchestral music. Listening to specific genres (thrillers, romantic comedies, action movies) can introduce you to common devices that you can copy. Watch some of these with the volume up, and pay attention.

Next week: Re-styling music you already know.

This is part one in a series on learning to underscore improvised scenes.

3 comments:

Robbie Ellis said...

Hi Kris - I found your blog thanks to the good people at Zenprov [tee-hee, briz-bayne]. I'm a Kiwi improv muso: I started with ConArtists in Auckland and for the last year I've been working in Wellington with The Improvisors and WIT. Two key members of WIT are Merrilee McCoy & Josh Samuels, are they familiar to you from the Brisbane improv scene? I think they were in Impro Mafia.

Anyway, I've just gone through all of your back-catalogue and you have a new subscriber.

Kris said...

Hi Robbie - I'm glad you're enjoying the blog :)

Merrilee and Josh were before my time with Impro Mafia, I'm pretty sure they both left before I started to get to know the group.

If you're ever travelling and find yourself in Brisbane, give us a yell!

Robbie Ellis said...

Hey Kris - thought I'd just mention a triumph for musical improv and a personal triumph too:

Improv: The Secondary School Musical was named Best Comedy at the 2009 New Zealand Fringe Awards (it's a Wellington-only festival, despite its name).

We had a band of three (me on keys, two guys who job-shared guitar, and a drummer on V-drums - patch and volume controllable!), and a cast of around 9 per night. Plus it was just so much fun mocking Disney.

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