Wednesday, March 25, 2009

We're The Replacements

In My Evil Twin, we talked about working in a duo, and how that differs from working as a solo improv musician. Now and again, you might have the opportunity to work in a larger group, say, a three-piece. What should you look out for?

Generally the issues that surface in a duo are even more noticeable in a trio.

The communication overhead is still there, but more pronounced; the driver needs to communicate to two other people. I've found when I've tried it that verbal cues tend to take over. And they're usually loud verbal cues, so you can be heard over the instruments. Maybe hearing that contributes to the chaos and fun for the audience, but I'm always concerned that it might be clobbering the actors.

The momentum aspect is also more significant. Especially for musical games like Opera, once the band gets a head of steam going, it's hard to stop it. I would suggest having a driver, a director, is extremely important for this sort of thing - one person who can see the performers, can see the band, can motion or speak or whatever is required to halt things, speed things up, change the pattern, and so on.

In an improvised song, I find it's very important to musically differentiate the verse, chorus and bridge. The momentum of a 3-piece really works against you here; if you're driving, and the others have come in and are really adding to it, you have to clearly signal changes ahead of time.

Of course, if one of the musicians is providing purely percussion, it's a bit easier for them; they're not going to clash melodically, and as long as you're not chopping and changing tempo they'll be on track. You might want to call out particular changes or variations or stops for them, but even if that doesn't go well you'll survive.

One really fun thing about a trio is that you'll probably have more than one instrument that can cover the body of the music, leaving the others to either support that, or trill around.

The Paddington Bears

To end our 2007 season of Impro Gladiators, we had a music show featuring a three-piece band, The Paddington Bears, with Adam Couper on guitar, Ross Smith on drums, and myself on keyboard or bass depending on what the music wanted. I surprised myself by mostly playing bass on the night, forming a rhythm section with Ross, and leaving most of the structure and progression driving duties to Adam. I'm very used to providing the body of the music, even in a multiple-musical-improviser situation, so this was a fun change.

Although it would seem a three-piece like this would really suit longer musical games, I found the momentum on the night worked against us. It took a little time to settle in to a groove, and more than a little energy to push us out of that groove and in to something different. That more than anything else made me uncomfortable during the show; the players had to follow the music and there wasn't the usual give-and-take. It seemed especially hard to find an ending at just the right time. I definitely think this is something you could address with rehearsal.

Improv: The Secondary School Musical

Robbie Ellis from Wellington Improvisation Troupe and The Improvisors in Wellington New Zealand was an integral part of a recent series of long-form musicals featuring a three-piece band. While I didn't have the pleasure of seeing the shows in person, a few things struck me while listening to recordings of the shows.

Robbie (generally using piano) started most of the songs and provided clear direction for the rest of the guys (on guitar and drums). Generally the guitar and drums would creep in as the song progressed. Robbie said that finding an ending was indeed pretty hard, but to me it sounded like they did a great job. Sometimes the guitar and drums would each make their exit before the song was done, so the some came full-circle and ended on piano again - and it's way easier to find an ending when it's just one musician. Sometimes they did an all-in ending and just nailed it, through copious doses of verbal cues and eye contact.

The Improvisors's show Improv: The Secondary School Musical was the latest in a long line of successful musicals for that company, and you'll be hearing more about those musicals in a future post.

Opening the show, closing scenes

I find start-of-show music and (short-form) end-of-scene music to be really satisfying in a three-piece. Calling styles works pretty well, as it does in a two-piece. If you can all play by ear, at the end of a scene it's fun to call a song and fire it off quickly. Scene ended in a kiss? "Prince Kiss in D, three four!" and you're off. You're not looking to do a note-perfect ripoff; no one is going to hear you play it again, ever. This sort of rapid fire jamming does work well with a bit of practice. Usually my preference playing impro is to avoid playing well known songs, but ending a scene is an exception; you aren't robbing focus from the scene to do it, you're tagging the scene with something complimentary, just for a bit while the MC thanks the players, gets scores (if you do the scoring thing), and wraps it up.
Photo by Leanda

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