Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The Question

When I'm teaching a music workshop for improv actors, I like to finish it with a bit of open time for people to ask questions. I had a great question in a workshop a few weeks back, from Louise Callanan from EDGE Improv. Louise asked: What advice would you give an improviser who isn't confident about their singing voice? What a great question! (I should say right off that Louise has an excellent singing voice.)

To me, this is really at the heart of what makes improv singing confronting and "difficult". You might be playing a character, but that is your singing voice you're using, out there for the whole world to judge. At least, that's how it might feel.

I had a couple of answers for Louise.

No one is really listening, anyway.

It sounds strange, but in many ways I think you can get away with a lot in improv because the audience isn't really paying that much attention. From one second to the next they are listening, and everything you do does make it in to their heads, but an improv show is such a stream of unexpected wonderful (and sometimes awful) material that any person in the audience isn't going to be able to retain all of it. Once the lights are out and the venue is closed, they will remember the really really good stuff, and the really really bad stuff (if you had any of that).

We exploit this short term memory in some of our shows by awarding a Magic Moment at the end of the night. One of the judges nominates a couple of the just awesome moments, and the most awesome line or scene or event is awarded the Magic Moment. So the audience leaves the venue with the newly refreshed list of great moments in their minds, and those are the moments they'll be telling their friends about.

You are revered by the audience for just getting up there.

I had the good fortune to be interviewed on the Impro Mafia podcast And Time a few weeks ago. (One of the most confronting things I've ever done!) The topic of sub-par shows came up. Now and again the performers will leave a show thinking it was just terrible/sloppy/unenjoyable. The thing is - to the audience, for which even getting up on stage would be a trial, getting up and improvising at all is magic. How do they do it? How do they think that fast? How do they make it work so well? We know there are techniques that we use to make it work, but to the audience it looks impossible. Like magic.

We had a show recently that I thought could have been much better given the calibre of performers on stage. Although I was feeling down about the show, several friends-of-friends in the audience gushed about what a great time they had, and I've seen them back at shows since. Even though it might not have been the strongest show in my eyes, they really enjoyed it, and came back for more.

When you get up there to sing, even if it's not the best thing you've ever done, the audience are thinking "Wow, he/she is up there making it up! And singing! How brave/talented/clever they are!"

The bar is low for musical games.

Ah, this is the most important part of the answer. In the Zenprov music podcast a few months' back, they talk about how the bar is low for musical games. The audience will respond really well to a music game that is even just-adequate, especially if the performers have built up some currency with the audience.

Need proof? Don't Call Me Jack, Mon. After listening to that, you can't seriously tell me you think the music, the melody, or the lyrics were anything to write home about. I happened to have the song on my iPod in Louise's class, so I played it for everyone. They all sat listening intently, having sympathetic laughs as the song went on, feeling Roger and Andy's pain. Just before the end, I said "now listen to the audience" - and as the song finished, the audience went crazy. (Good crazy, not shoot-em-up crazy.) They loved it! And the actors in the class did too.

To me, as long as you commit and are truly there in a musical game (or any improv for that matter), the audience will respond.

So, to the singer who isn't confident about their singing voice - get up there, do your best, and commit. The audience will love you for it, no matter what your voice is like.

Photo by Stefan Baudy

2 comments:

Jason said...

Hey Kris,

Hi from a land far far away. :-)

I think you've pretty much nailed the "I suck" issue in your post. Once again I'd like to compare to brass, because that's what I do.

We competed in the banding nationals again this year (did really well, thanks for asking). Most of the music played is extremely technical, at the limit of your bands grade, which essentially allows the adjudicator to separate each bands technical ability.

We came off from our test piece thinking "yuk, we stuffed this" and "we stuffed that", and "intonation was lousy here", and "this was rushed", etc. Yet less musical friends, family, etc, in the audience came out all excited saying it was awesome and we were going to win for sure. (We came 2nd by one point as it turned out!)

Point being that those listening who don't *do* what you do, and can't (or won't) get up and do what you do, simply don't hear the flaws as you do. Their "suck threshold" of what is good and what is bad, is very different to yours. And you can (and should!) use this to your advantage!

Now, the challenge of brass banding, is to get more of those "non-brass" people in the audience who won't spot the issues, rather than the fairly closed audience of fellow bandies that we currently have.

Improv possibly doesn't have the same problem to the same degree. Most of your audience haven't or would never get up and try it themselves, so in the same way as brass, they simply don't hear the faults and issues that you as a player do hear.

Having a lower "suck threshold" for your own work is great for self improvement, but always remember that those listening have a high "suck threshold", and generally think you're great.

Cheers,
Jason.

Kris said...

Hi Jason!

Yeah, I don't think that self-critical element is reserved for improvisers. I can recall plenty of occasions when the band I was in made it to the end of a set, and walking off stage we had conversations like "Woah, what happened to the beginning of the bridge in that song?" "I know, I completely dropped it!" "I was lost for two bars, I don't know how we got back on track..." But invariably our horrible catastrophic world-ending mistake didn't impact the audience's experience at all.

Improv possibly doesn't have the same problem to the same degree. Most of your audience haven't or would never get up and try it themselves, so in the same way as brass, they simply don't hear the faults and issues that you as a player do hear.We often do end up playing to improvisers, or people who have seen enough impro to become impro-savvy and understand the techniques we use. I don't think that makes them a more difficult audience, though; I think improvisers are a pretty supportive bunch. I'd say improvisers in an audience are more likely to be sympathetic, if anything.

Greg and Dan talk about playing to improvisers in the latest And Time podcast; I think it was Greg that said something like "If you've only performed to an audience of improvisers, you haven't performed", or something along those lines. You need to learn the skill of performing to an audience that isn't on your side from the get go, and learn how to work them.

Having a lower "suck threshold" for your own work is great for self improvement, but always remember that those listening have a high "suck threshold", and generally think you're great.Now, I could have just used that paragraph in the original post and saved all that long-winded tripe I came up with. :)

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