Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Review: Musical Direction for Improv and Sketch Comedy

Musical Direction for Improv and Sketch Comedy is the first book dedicated to teaching the art of music for improv. Does it belong in your bookshelf?

The book

"Composing" and performing music for improv is a niche within a niche, and there are precious few sources of information to guide the new musical improviser. Musical Direction for Improv and Sketch Comedy by Michael Pollock fills that gap; it is a unique and useful resource.

The book starts out with some coaching for brand new improvising musicians, leading with a material on what this improv stuff is all about, along with a very practical runsheet on how a typical show is structured, from call time to heading home. It's perfect for the "Hey, musician friend-o-mine, we need some help with this show. Do you know what improv is? No? Here - read this." situation.

Michael has great material on how to improvise segues and how to underscore scenes, taking the reader through exercises to help them become more comfortable making this stuff up. One of the longer chapters in the book provides excellent guidance on accompaning an improvised song - easily one of the most difficult parts of this craft to learn.

The book takes you through more than 40 improvised games (musical and non-musical), giving the newer improviser some guidance on the sorts of games you'll find in a short-form show. Growing up as a Theatresports musician, I knew many of these games by different names (eg "Musical Mirror" instead of "Soundtrack"), and there were plenty of games I hadn't met before.

As well as material on musical performance and composition, Michael includes lots of material about the logistics of being an improv musician, from the sorts of gigs you might do (and the money you might earn) down to the equipment you might want to have ready to go for performances. I particularly appreciated the last chapter on the sorts of professional best practices one should have as a performer, never mind as an improv musician.

Aside from improv, Michael has wide and varied experience with musical composition and performance, and it shows. There is a chapter devoted to the kind of improv-sketch-comedy hybrid Second City perform, including concepts that are relevant to any dramatic accompanist.

It is evident from Michael's writing that he loves what he does. He's experienced enough to know his stuff, but is totally open to learning and being changed. There's a particularly interesting chapter where Michael discusses how witnessing a performance by Fred Kaz gave him a massive "Ah hah!" moment that taught him some important lessons.

The CD

The book would be great on its own, but the package is rounded out by a CD with more than 50 tracks to illustrate the concepts described in the book. Michael has tracks demonstrating a play-on, segues, punctuation within scenes, mood music for various moods, and sample accompaniment for improvised songs of various styles. There are some great tracks where he demonstrates a scene without music, then the same scene with music. Reading the book, you know that he understands improv and music; listening to the CD, you realise he's an extremely talented pianist and has the chops to pull off pretty much anything one might require for an improv gig.

Writing style

Michael addresses the reader like a mentor, giving guidance and encouragement, opening doors and inviting experimentation. Somehow he manages to remain conversational while writing with an economy of language that shows he has explained this stuff many times before. I've been doing this improv thing for a while, and I had a great many "Yeah, that's it!" moments reading this book, where Michael clearly articulated concepts that had previously swirled about unformed in my head.

There is a sort of Earth Shattering Secret in the book, but not the one you might expect. The secret is that - you can do this. You can break this odd job down in to manageable parts, learn the skills you need, and do it.

Michael Pollock

Michael Pollock has an impossibly great pedigree as a musical improviser. He has performed in Hollywood as a freelance musician for over 30 years, and his television credits include The Drew Carey Show and The Tonight Show. He is currently the Musical Director for The Second City Training Center Los Angeles, and performs improv regularly including Opening Night! The Musical.

Aside from his improv work, Michael is a featured solo pianist on Main St USA at Disneyland, and you can buy a CD of his work as "Ragtime Michael".

On a personal note, Michael has been particularly supportive of Musical Hotspot, providing encouragement and ideas, along with support at his site It's always a pleasure to get an email or a comment from him about an article, and I hope you'll be seeing more from him on this site soon.

The verdict

I've met many improv musicians in the last year working on this blog, and reading their emails, the phrase "Michael Pollock's book" comes up all the time. Those musicians wisely went out and bought this book. And so should you.

Buy it. Now.

Michael Pollock's Musical Direction for Improv Comedy is required reading for any new musical improviser, and there's plenty in it for experienced improvisers as well. You can find it at Amazon, along with his entire catalog of books.

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