Wednesday, June 24, 2009

On your mark... Get set... Stop?

Photo by Angel Wong
There's one bad habit from working in bands that can derail your singers in an improv show. It's easy to do, and if you're not paying attention, will suck the life out of an improv song before it even gets a chance to get off the ground.

Sneaky test notes

In a band, when you're about to begin song X, you know as a keyboard player you're playing in G, you have that padded piano sound; the guitarist comes in part way with a dreamy chorused rhythm guitar part; the bass player comes in on G later and had better nail that first note. So, after the previous song finishes, the audience have finished going crazy, the singer is introducing the next song... the musicians have little sneaky practice notes. The bass player tests that G; the guitarist has a strum with the nice chorused guitar; the keyboard player checks their piano sound and gets the level right. Just for an instant. Then a count-in, and the song starts.

I don't think this is a habit of all band musicians; certainly bands I've been in, as we've all become more confident and more at home with the material, we did these little sneaky notes less and less.


So you're about to start an improv song. Lets say you're on the hook for starting, the MC has finished introducing the game, the players are ready to go. And you tentatively hit a chord to test it out before you get started. Now - the players on stage listened to that, they are already mentally gearing up for music starting with that thing you just played. If you decide "nope, that's not the right instrument/key/tempo/feel", and change it, you're somewhat withdrawing the offer you just made and replacing it with a new one. Jarring.

Or worse - you kick off your song and let it go for a few seconds before deciding it's not what you wanted, so you kill it and start again.


Now imagine getting set up for that song again. You've picked a patch, you've selected a key, you've thought of a style to use, and you hit that first note/chord confidently. And it's not quite what you thought it was going to be. That's fair enough, these things happen. The difference is - don't stop! Don't say "wait" to yourself; don't mentally adjust for a second go at it. Keep going with your first attempt. By all means, fiddle with it as you go, change the tempo or style if it is what the scene requires. But commit to it and go for it.

What happens when you commit to it? You put an offer out there, the players feel strong guidance coming from you. They're professionals; they'll listen and be changed by what you're doing, they will accept it, and build on it. They'll yes-and the thing you're doing, even if it wasn't quite what you were hoping you would do.

And it will be ok. I promise.

You might even create something fantastic.


There is an exception to this that happens once every couple of years to me, and I hate it when this little gremlin appears. You get geared up with a key, tempo, style, ... the moment is approaching... and you lead the players with a really strong and confident chord .. But, oops, it's not a piano after all, it's a rap combo patch, and you've just played a jarring tom+cymbal octave with your left hand and a murky chord in a funk bass patch. Oops. In that case - quick recovery back to a piano and off you go. I hate that.


Robbie Ellis said...

This advice about committing to the offer is so so relevant to actors, musicians, lighting operators, sound cue operators, MCs - don't backtrack!

I haven't had the test note problem myself since I've hardly ever thought of improv music in band terms. Though I am guilty of doing the chromatic shuffle in percussion and SFX patches to find the sound I want!

Jill said...

Right on!

Mary Cay Stone, one of the keyboard players at ComedySportz-Twin Cities quoted this to me, and it's made me so very comfortable:
You're never more than half a step away from the “right” note… -Victor Wooten

If you hang on, you're just half a step from a really cool harmony or melody, and you'll be able to resolve it for kick-ass results if you're brave.

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