Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Inconspicuous Instrumentalist


Photo by Lorika13
You're a performer, and you're in a show. So it's natural to crave attention and draw focus to yourself and what you're doing. Right? Maybe not. Hmm.

When I was at high school, I was actively involved with the school newspaper. (I know, I know. Geeky.) My job was called something like "compositor", dealing with the typing and graphics and layout. We went out of our way to make it look and feel like a real newspaper. You wouldn't find layout problems or spelling mistakes in there. Well, mostly. When you're reading something like a newspaper, if you don't spot a mistake, you don't even notice that another human being was involved in making it for you. It's not until you see a misspelled word, a layout snafu, or something else incongruent that you realise that a (fallable) human put it together.

I took it as a massive compliment when no one noticed my work.

In many ways, I find my approach to improv music to be similar. I'm generally pretty happy when I can contribute to a scene, provide support for the players and guidance for the audience, but remain unnoticed. That means the music fit, like it was meant to be there. I've written before about doing whatever the music or the scene wanted; I suppose that's another way of saying the same thing - play to fit.

I find this mentality runs through most of the choices I make when it comes to improv music. For example, I'll use sound effects sparingly or not at all, and I generally don't punctuate dialog-heavy scenes with trills or musical expletives. I try to avoid doing something that shouts "hey, look at me!" musically, pulling focus from the characters and the story.

Do I always try to stay unnoticed? Not really - there are times when the music provides offers to the players, pulls them in different directions, is supposed to stick out a bit and make itself known. Sometimes musical punctuation to a physical scene can be wonderful. And of course there are musical games where the music drives the players.

I also have no problem with the "hey, look at me!" stuff when supporting the MC in between scenes in a short-form show. In that context I'm more ok with throwing in a musical gag or standout moment. The MCs I work with are great listeners themselves; they respond and work that stuff in to the show. (As long as I don't have to talk in the show. Noooo talkie. I wish I could be the Paul Shaffer to the MC's David Letterman and do the witty banter thing, but that's not me.)

Being inconspicuous doesn't mean you have to play quietly. A few nights ago, I was privileged to perform with Impro Mafia in a wonderful one-off long form improv murder mystery called Agatha Holmes. Right at the dénouement, in one of the most dramatic scenes full of accusations and revelations, I vaguely recall absolutely hammering the piano like a maniac, arms flailing about, with mad "nefarious villian ties damsel to the traintracks" music. It was brash and dramatic, and it pushed the scene further. It fit.

1 comment:

Dan said...

The funny thing is that the best type of improviser is the sort who has the exact same attitude. If you're working hard at making others look good you're doing something right.

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