Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Who starts?


Photo by Roy's World
One of the big decision points of an improvised song is deciding who is going to take the lead - is it going to be the musician, or the singer?

Most short-form impro shows have a variation on the game Song, where the MC provides some kind of offer, and the game is to improvise a short song. (This is in contrast to songs that live within other scenes, such as a Musical or a Musical Hotspot.) Songs are surprisingly complex, and that complexity kicks off right from the start.

Either a singer or the musician takes the reins to kick things off, and the other one follows.

Musician starts


I find that, most of the time, the musician is going to start the song. Often this is at the request of the singers or the MC. The control over the style, the key, the tempo, all comes from the muso. When you start a song this way, as the musician you have to set it up in a way that leads the players in to it.

You might choose to start with a repeating pattern, a vamp. Once the players have heard you repeat the pattern once or twice, they'll get the key and the vibe sorted out, and jump in when appropriate.

Some very simple examples include Nina Simone's My Baby Just Cares For Me, or The Bobs' The Gate. The patterns repeat nicely for these, and the singers can choose to come in whenever they like. (The sooner the better, usually.)

Sometimes you might start a song with a compositional introduction, which doesn't use a repeating pattern. For example, Styx's Come Sail Away, Ben Folds Five's Brick, and Journey's Faithfully, all of which use compositional introductions that cue the singer nicely.

For either of these, the singer can come in and decide to lead the start of the bar (the Journey example), or lag it (like Nina Simone, Ben Folds Five, and The Bobs do above), or hit it right on (the Styx example). They fit themselves in to the music, and not the other way around.

The compositional introduction usually provides a nice cue for the singer; the vamp lets the singer choose when to come in. When you're vamping, a less confident player might struggle to see where they should come in; giving them some kind of change or riff to lead them in, anticipating what could be the start of a new bar, can help.

Another mechanism is to start with a compositional introduction, but get to a point and hold it, waiting for the singer to come in. One example is They Might Be Giants' Kiss Me, Son Of God (the version from Miscellaneous T). I find these kinds of intros quite tricky; as the musician, you have to figure out where in the music the singer wants to be. Are they leading the bar? Lagging it? Hitting it dead on? In the Giants song, John holds the note on "I" for ages, then the bar starts on "built". You might want to rely on physical cues from the singer to know where they are.

Singer starts


My personal preference is for the players to start. They have the title, they may have a style of music, but they might launch in to something in a key, tempo and style of their choosing. As the muso, you have to play catch-up - locate their key, find a style that supports them, and transition from not-there to there effectively.

Why do I like it when the singers start? On those occasions when I'm starting, if I start with, say, a polka, it's probably going to be a variation on, er, my "standard polka". I'm a bit like one of those cheesy kids' keyboards where you push the "Polka" button and hope for the best. That's probably a weakness of mine more than anything else, that I might not put enough individuality or character in to something like that from the get-go. Conversely, when a player starts, I have to try and fit my music around what they're doing. Their stuff is the catalyst for the music, and it can't help but be different from what I might have done in the past.

I spent some time playing bass and/or keys in an originals band, and on occasion we'd do a cover. Often it would be a cover of a song I didn't know. Rather than listen to the original, I'd jam with the other folks in the band who knew the song well, and write a bassline as though I was writing for some new song they'd just written. Later after we'd rehearsed and performed the song a few times, and I listened to the original, I would be pleased with how related-but-different that new bassline was. I think that whole scenario is similar to doing an impro song and playing catch-up to the players; it forces me to go in a new direction, and ultimately I'm happier because I've stretched myself and composed something new. (This is closely related to the Danthem exercise.)

If you are blessed with perfect pitch, you might be able to pick the singer's key and jump in right away. Most of the time I can't pick it that easily, but it only takes me a few quiet tentative notes to find the key and go for it.

Works both ways


Just as I'm keen to have a singer start so I can avoid getting stuck in a musical rut, I've had the converse come back to me - where a player has been presented with an offer, and right away thought up several ways they could go, but they were keen to get a musical offer to put them off balance a little and make them go somewhere unnatural or unusual for them. I can appreciate that; a mind in panic is a wonderful thing. :)

The bit where you leave a comment


Singers! Musicians! Which do you prefer, singer starting or musician starting? Why? Has anything worked really well for you in the past? Has anything died miserably?

1 comment:

The Wah said...

Most of the time I prefer to start the song. Many times after receiving the offer from the audience I formulate an idea and just as I am about to start singing my rock ballad the musician starts up with a polka or 80's synth pop.

That can be very jarring

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