Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Listen and Be Changed

There is one skill, one skill alone that makes the difference between a good impro musician and a great one.
Is it longevity? Sure, that helps. Doing impro for a long time means you can get to know the people, and start to figure out how it all works. Is that the key? Nope, that's not it.

Is it technical instrument skill? As a technical pianist, I'm just ok. I would say skilled enough that the average joe thinks I can play, but not so much that I'd compare well against "real pianists". (I know a few of those real pianists, and I find them quite intimidating. You know who you are.) So piano skill isn't it either.

I'm good at playing by ear, too - I can recall songs from 30 years ago, movie and tv themes, commercials... Nothing impresses more than being able to recall the right movie theme music at the right time. Nothing's more fun than an impromptu sing-along of dorky 80's tv show themes with the cast before a show. But that's not it either.

So, what is it exactly? What is this secret key to being a great improvising musician?

Option 1: Listen and Be Changed

To me, by far the most important skill to have is the ability and willingness to really pay attention to what is going on in a scene, and to allow yourself to be changed by it.

When underscoring a scene, this comes through all the time. Underscoring an improvised scene is like riding a raft down a river; you're going somewhere, you may slow down and speed up and have jolts along the way, and you probably can't predict when those jolts are going to happen, but the river will take you there and make those changes happen. Just as a scene will take you there and ask you for the music it needs.

There was a wonderful example a few months back in Prognosis: Death, where Nurse Lottie Buble (Natalie Bochenski) and Dr Melody Carmichael (Amy Currie) were having a lighthearted chat about nothing in particular, when Melody mentioned Dr Burton Mangold (David Massingham) in passing. Mangold had only recently dumped Buble at the altar, and the mere mention of his name sent Buble reeling while Melody continued on, oblivious to her friend's momentary discomfort. The music went from bubbly-happy to wistful-bittersweet in the blink of an eye, and snapped back again almost as quickly.

In an improvised song, the singer(s) are going to lead the music somewhere using their body language, their intonation, and of course their lyrics. As the musician you may have set up a groove to sit in, but if the singer clearly wants you to take it somewhere else, you need to go with them.

We had another lovely example at Impro Gladiators a while back, with a duet featuring a girl (Kiesten McCauley) looking for love, and the boy (Stav Davidson) who watches her from afar. It was a textbook love ballad, right up until the verse where the boy reveals that he has stalked the girl outside her window every night, at which point his verse changed from touching-love-song, swelling to become melodramatic-operatic as he explored the depths of his obsession.

This works both ways, of course. A few nights ago, Impro Mafia staged a fantastic long-form musical, One Bride For Seven Brothers. Towards the end of the show, in a ballad joining the two newly-married romantic leads, Nancy Buttons (Amy Currie) was singing to her sweetheart Golly Riley (Tristan Ham) about the lovely life they were about to start. The music shifted briefly to a minor chord for one bar, and without skipping a beat, Amy filled that bar with the line "no more pain or fright". Her lyric changed to match the music. Listening. Good stuff.

Option 2: Don't listen, and stick to your plan

The alternative is to be the driver, to set the musical tone for all of your work. Don't get me wrong - strong musical offers are excellent, and a confident musician paired with perceptive and willing actors can yield excellent scenes. But someone who is unwilling to change is going to ignore offers from their fellow players. It's been a long while since I've seen a musician railroad actors, but I still can remember thinking that the musician mustn't really want to be there.

Improvising actors are taught early on not to block; when someone presents an idea on stage, you want to avoid saying "No, but let's go with my idea instead!". It's no different for musicians - if the folks on stage present an idea (a song with a key/tempo/feel/...), and you blow that away with a different (and perhaps even arguably a 'better') idea, you've blocked them and said no to the reality they were about to create.

Yes Man

We saw Yes Man a little while back, a movie featuring Jim Carrey as a man who, after a life of saying no to opportunities, commits to saying 'Yes' to every opportunity that comes his way. (As movies go, it wasn't horrible, but it wasn't great, as evidenced by the preceding trailers for movies we'd never heard of.) Jim's character Carl finds out that by accepting opportunities (offers from the universe), he breaks out of his monotonous, inertial life and discovers excitement and unpredictability. Each acceptance took him somewhere, and from there another new opportunity would take him somewhere else, until he ended up being blissfully happy in a situation he would never have arrived at normally.

Improv is like that. Saying yes to opportunities means tossing out the thing you thought you were going to do, and going somewhere that might be uncomfortable or unpredictable. That is so ok. More than just ok, it's the basis for everything.

Is that it?

I would say that, in an impro scene, I'm good at watching and listening, and being ready to pick up on what the scene asks for to take the music there. (My wife will read this and grin that I'm talking up my ability to listen. Hi sweetie.)

This skill, the skill of paying attention, obviously isn't reserved for musicians; the best players on stage do the same thing, accepting offers and building on them. As an improv musician, you need some musical skill, and playing by ear is always helpful, but a willingness to be present, in the moment, ready to accept the scene and go where it wants you to go, is key.

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Girl Clumsy said...

Perhaps I need to become an impro musician, which might then in turn help me become an improviser who's better at music.

Perhaps I need a different angle - I generally feel like I try to instictively follow music in terms of tone, etc - but perhaps it's just me not listening.

Interesting, at any rate!

Kris said...

I think you nailed it when you said you do impro music instinctively - I think that's how it should be. Everyone listens to music, everyone's wired particular musical sensibilities in to their head, to the point where it feels like instinct.

The best proof I have for that is Dan - I think he and I grew up on similar music, so now and again I'll just know what he's about to do, and we end up somehow in sync while doing something out of left field.

I don't know if musical chops help or hinder folks on stage singing. I can't do what you guys do :)

This will sound strange, but in many ways I find I play my best music when I'm not particularly thinking about how the music is constructed technically. I'm better when I'm lost in the scene, the story, the emotion of what's on stage. It's still me playing in there, but the scene is drawing out the music, not me. (There's a future post on that actually.) So I reckon instinct is the most powerful tool you have :)

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