The musical improviser
is an improviser just as much as the players --
he or she can make offers, respond to offers, must learn not to block
develop narrative, etc. This means two things: 1) it's best if the
musician has an improv
background, and 2) the players should learn
to listen for musical and sound offers.
Which brings us to the most obvious difference about musical improvising.
The offers are much subtler. Most of the time, the audience won't
notice the musician at all (except occasionally during songs). Sadly,
much of the time the actors won't notice the music either, at least
not consciously. The down side is that it can be frustrating to
make offers (whether narratively, dramatically, or whatever) that are
ignored. The up side is that the musician can afford to make (occasional)
BIG offers, since it still won't really block or force the story
in any one direction. By big, I don't mean loud of course, but rather
very significant (e.g. like playing a dramatic chord to emphasize
a revelation, or switching from sad to happy music).
Something I've occasionally tried is something that doesn't apply to
actors, which is to make what I call contrary offers. These are
musical offers that are intended to be counter to the scene. For
instance, during a scene set in a nursing home, play rock music. Or in
a military camp, play a children's song. As you may gather, because of
the way music complements a scene, such offers don't destroy what has
been offered, but rather usually benefit a scene. Even if the players
don't pick up on it (and surprisingly, they will often not notice what
seems to be an incredibly blatant contrast), it may affect their play
subconsciously, or at least it can affect the flavor of the scene for the
audience. (A cautionary note -- I'd recommend this only for experienced
musical improvisers. It's better to learn how to do "appropriate" music
before doing "inappropriate" music.)
For songs, remember that most actors are not singers. The key word
is simple. Simple simple simple. Simple rhythms, simple harmonic
progressions, simple song structure. Whenever possible, provide
clues as to what comes next in the song. Play a 7th before modulating.
Provide really obvious lead-ins. Even talk out loud to the singer(s),
saying "one more time!". Powers of 2 (except 12-bar blues). You can
do 90% of your songs with I-IV-V (with the occasional ii). Provide
dramatic contrasts between verses and the chorus. Provide accompaniment-style accompaniment, not solo style (e.g. play single notes in the left
hand, and chords in the right, no funny stuff). Also, use instruments
that have strong attacks (piano, guitar), so the singers can immediately hear
chord changes. Remember that you are trying to make them look good,
not yourself. The audience won't notice any fancy stuff you do anyway.
Warm-ups: singing requires warming up. Before each show, do a few minutes
of vocal exercises, then practice improvising some songs. What I usually
do these days is have a group warm up their voices by singing scales
and the like, then maybe one line-at-a-time song in gibberish, then
a few more line-at-a-time songs in English, then one more where they
all sing their own song at the same time, bellowing the song to the
back of the house. Make sure all the songs are in different styles.
Learn different styles. Analyze different styles of music, and try to
identify what's unique about it. Pay particular attention to music you
don't like, which you probably haven't listened to all that much. Try
to identify the chord progressions, the instruments used, the rhythms,
the structures, the tempos, the bass lines, the instrumental riffs.
Find what's common, find how composers make theirs different. Spend a
little time paying attention to the music of horror movies, 70's
action-adventure TV shows, Shakespearean dramas, science fiction,
samurai epics, 30's musicals, etc. Music can have a tremendous
impact on the flavor of genre scenes.
Always experiment. The subtlety of musical offers means small mistakes
will never be noticed, so feel free to make big mistakes. Try doing
scenes with just drums as background, or abstract avant-garde randomness.
Take the opportunity on stage to use a chord progression you've never
used before (as long as no one's singing to it). Take a real song and
deform it into something unrecognizable. Switch moods erratically.
Pimp the actors. Pimp yourself.
Remember all the standard rules of improv. Listen. Make mistakes.
Have fun. A good improviser is someone who makes their fellow
players look good. Say yes. Don't plan. Look for endings. Try
to do something you've never done before. Reincorporate. Etc.
Great musicianship isn't necessary to be a good musical improviser.
I consider myself a mediocre musician. Someone who's a decent musician
and a decent improviser will make a much better musical improviser
than a great musician who's a bad improviser. (And by improviser,
I mean theatrical improv, not musical improvisation a la jazz.)
It's very hard to play so much music in the course of an evening
that the audience actually notices it, provided that the music
is appropriately varied. But don't be afraid to let scenes have
no music either.
Games involving music include doing an opera (in English or in
gibberish), doing a musical, doing interpretive dance, having players
be called upon to sing their innermost thoughts, making up a song (in a
nightclub, as a commercial jingle, as karaoke), having actors change
emotions based on the music, singing whenever the musician is playing
music. Lots of games are improved with music, including genre
switching, scenes in foreign locales, radio plays. Music can be used
just to introduce scenes, or as background music between scenes. Also,
any scene can potentially have the player (or players) break into
song, and any scene can have background music.
Be careful to vary the music. I have found it very easy to fall
into a pattern of playing music that's reflective of a narrow
range of moods, or just in one tempo. Be conscious of what you've
played before, and try to provide as much variety as possible (as
appropriate) during the course of a show.
Work "The Girl From Ipanema" into every show at least once.