Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The Dan Exercise

Learning to work with actors to create improvised songs and operas is probably one of the hardest parts of the job of a musician for improvised theatre. Supporting an MC, opening and closing a show, even underscoring a scene - the musician is there, the music is present, but it's nearly always purely a support mechanism to give the rest of the show what it needs. Music for songs, however, is different; you might as well be up there on stage with the actors - you're driving as much as they are.

The stakes are higher too. If you flub something while you're underscoring a scene, it's pretty easy to recover. When you drop a song part-way through, that really impacts the success of the scene.

I'm always on the lookout for exercises that can help new improvising musicians learn this craft.

The Dan Exercise

My friend Dan Beeston from Impro Mafia and I unintentionally created a nice voice+music exercise a few weeks back. I have no name for this, so I'm calling it The Dan Exercise. (Feel free to suggest something better. The bar is pretty low here.) (And no, Dan, "Sing-Along Time with Dan" or "Dan the Kung-Fu Singing Master" are not appropriate suggestions.)

Dan was relating the brilliance of a singer named Jonathan Coulton, who writes these clever (and sometimes geeky) songs that are heartfelt and ludicrous at the same time. (Hmm, sounds like songs from impro; no wonder his stuff appeals to improvisers.) Dan is a confident performer with a great singing voice; he stood up on stage in the empty theatre and just belted out one of the songs unaccompanied. I was sitting at the piano at the time, and my pavlovian response was to play along with him. Since I'd never heard the original song, I just played whatever I thought fit with the melody Dan was singing.

The results were stunningly good! That has a lot to do with the already-strong melody and lyrical content of course. From Dan's point of view, the song was the same but different; the tempo and key were the same as the original, but the style, the chord progressions, the little moments in the song, they were all different.

I suspect this might be a nice exercise for learning to work off of a singer and provide your own music. The pressure isn't on the singer to put together music or lyrics. And since it's not a performance piece, you can experiment with the music pretty safely. It also served as a good vocal warmup for Dan before the show.

Of course, it's not as interactive as a usual impro song, where the singer is feeding off of the musician as well.

Musical Chinese Whispers

Sydney improviser Rebecca DeUnamuno cooked up a way to turn this in to a performance game. Rebecca is easily one of Australia's best improvisers; if you ever get the chance to perform or workshop with her, jump at it.

You'll need maybe three singers and just as many musicians, which immediately makes this a bit challenging to resource, but I think it would be tremendous fun. First get a musician + singer to improv a simple song, taking care to give the song a well defined structure. Then swap the musician out for another one, previously offstage and unable to hear the performance. Have musician #2 come and accompany the singer, providing music for the melody and lyrics from the original song. Hey presto, new song! Now swap out singer #1 for singer #2, who gets the accompaniment from the previous round, but has to cook up new words and melody. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Would this work as a performance game? I don't know :) It would be fun to try though.


Dan said...


Peter C. Hayward said...

What's particularly interesting about the examples that you listed is that Jonathan Coulton songs are creative commons - I'd love to see you and Dan sit down and record one of them. You could distribute it on the net, legally!

Legally, I say!

Kris said...

@Peter: I've wondered about doing that actually. There are plenty of JC songs I haven't yet heard, and Dan is dropping by for a podcast recording session sometime soon... Hmm...

@Dan: Excellent. "Danthem". Crosses over nicely with your loves of Tenacious D and the Ukelele.

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