Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The Return of the Paddington Bears

The Paddington Bears (Ross, Adam and Kris)
Photo by Elton Scott (2007)
It's satisfying to take something already good, and tune it to make it excellent. We made a few changes to how our 3-piece approached the music for a recent show, and it made all the difference.

The Paddington Bears

Usually our Impro Gladiators shows have one musician, or maybe two on a special night. Every few years we have a show with three musicians - myself on piano/keyboards (and sometimes bass), Adam Couper on guitar, and Ross Smith on drums. All of us are play-by-ear folks (or maybe play-by-the-seat-of-our-pants is a better term). We took care to tweak a few things after our last show.

(Impro Gladiators is performed at the Paddington Tavern, thus "The Paddington Bears". I expect a cease-and-desist any second now.)

What we learned

Having three musicians gives such a great energy to a show, the audience loves it, and the actors get to work some new and challenging music. After the last show, we talked about some of the things that we could do better.

We made several changes to how we approached the show. Some of these were based on notes from our last show. Some were inspired by notes from Robbie Ellis about The Improvisors' Secondary School Musical and how they approached their 3-piece-band duties.

  • Play less: You're there, you're set up, you want to jump in and contribute... so why not? I'll tell you why not - a scene needs what it needs, no more, no less. Just because you have a 3-piece band set up and ready to go, it doesn't mean you should all be there all the time. We took care to let the actors act and not force them in to music. This is less relevant for short musical games (like Gibberish Song), but terribly important for longer games like a musical or an opera.

  • Don't crowd: Sometimes the song on stage just needs guitar, or just piano. Or even just drums. If that's all it needs, go light. A few times, when one of us knew what the scene needed, they'd let the others know they were going to do a solo spot, and off they went.

  • Light and shade: One of our sins in our previous show was to do a quick count-in, and go hell-for-leather until the song was done. We tried hard to put some light and shade in to the music this time - this is one of the things Robbie and his group did very well in Secondary School Musical. Starting with one musician doing free-form stuff, then having the others join in, gives a nice build to a song. You can slowly dismantle a song the same way, pulling parts out until you're left with the original solo instrument.

    This is closely related to that momentum comment again - with more than one musician, it's easy to get momentum going, resulting in songs that refuse to end and refuse to change. We had that a few times in our previous outing, and took care to do it differently this time.

  • Face time: We did a much better job of arranging ourselves this time as well, with Adam and myself close enough that we could see each other well and talk when we needed to. This is far more critical for the tonal elements of the band (piano, guitar), and less important for the drummer. He gets the short end of the, er, stick. Because the drummer doesn't have to follow chords and keychanges, they can end up slotting in to the rhythm appropriately. You still communicate visually with them, but you can get away with hand motions or shakes of the head to get your point across.

  • All musical games!: We did pretty much all musical games for the show, and again it was primarily short form with a few medium-length games in the second half. It's great when you can pull together a cast where everyone is a strong singer, and I think we certainly had that on the night.

    My instinct was that having so much music would overload the show, but in practice it worked quite well. A musical game isn't necessarily an all-singing game, so working in games like Soundtrack and Cuthbert worked well to give a little variety. I'll post the games we performed in a future article.

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