Scared of Singing?
You are not alone. Most people are scared of singing in public and for many, even the prospect of bashing out 'Happy Birthday' with anyone but the dog present is enough to break out in a cold sweat. Along with the fear of public speaking, fear of public singing can be more panic inducing than the fear of death itself! We have heard so many stories of people who were told as children that they couldn't or shouldn't sing. Sometimes a relative, or even a music teacher can destroy your confidence for singing or speaking in public with one damaging comment.
The benefits of getting over your fear of singing in public
Any time we achieve something we thought difficult or even impossible we get a huge boost to our self esteem. The fear of singing in public is largely irrational as we are not going to be socially excluded or ostracised for doing it. Stepping out of our comfort zone and owning it is going to improve our mental and physical well being and strengthen our connection to others.
Safety in Numbers
While it may seem counter-intuitive to tackle your fear of singing in public with other people, we have found that this provides the most supportive atmosphere to start conquering those demons. Our fear is based in deep instinctive fears of rejection, abandonment and social exclusion so what better way to start positively reinforcing your voice than to have the support of others who feel the same. In a large sporting event or music gig you might get thousands of people all singing together and feel that your voice will just get lost in the crowd. Is that actually facing your fear though?
One on one singing lessons can be extremely beneficial to unlock your voice and to gain confidence in your own sound. A supportive singing teacher, and on that specialises in nervous singers or beginners will be perfect to start you on the road to loving your own voice.
Join a choir
There is a growing number of community and amateur choirs that are open to all abilities and this is a great way of starting your singing journey. Yes there will be people there who love the sound of their own voice but you will find very supportive communities and other people just like you who are there to build their confidence.
Take a Musical Improv Class
Well we would say that as enabling people to conquer their fear of singing is one of our prime objectives when delivering a Musical Improv class. The hardest part is taking the leap of faith to book yourself on a class in the first place. Once you are in the room, physically or virtually, you will soon be laughing, creating, supporting others and singing. We have spent the last 15 years carefully designing classes to gently encourage people to expand their comfort zone and to actively enjoy singing in front of other people. There is no judgement of the quality of anybody's voice, musicality or creativity. Musical Improv Classes are about bringing yourself, being yourself and being part of a trusting, supportive group.
We are running a series of online sessions designed specifically for people who are scared of singing or who hate Musical Improv! Come join us and see what you can achieve and support others on the same journey towards greater self-confidence. Expect laughter, a safe space, like-minded people and, well okay...there will be some singing. Find out more or sign up to our Musical Improv for those who hate Musical Improv Class.
What is Musical Improv?
Musical Improv is making up songs in the moment. It is singing to improvised music that has never been heard before. It is working with a team to create comedic, moving and uplifting songs.
Do I need any experience to take part in a Musical Improv Class?
No skills or experience is required. You do not need any singing or drama training. You do not need to be funny or quick thinking. We do not place any importance on the quality of the voice or musicality at all. We believe that Musical Improv can be totally inclusive and is all about the heart, being truly in the moment and being part of a team. Bring yourself and be yourself. Naturally, some more advanced courses follow on from other courses and build on the techniques and experience gained there.
What should I expect to happen in a Musical Improv Class?
There will be singing! Musical Improv classes will focus on specific aspects of improvised singing such as song structure, lyric creation, emotional content, choreography or rhyming to name but a few. There will be warm ups for your brain and your voice and then some exercises, games and maybe some longer performances. Most of the time you will be singing with other people, and always accompanied by a musician.
Why should I take a Musical Improv Class?
People attend our Musical Improv Classes for a wide variety of reasons. Some are in existing Improv Troupes and want to work on their Musical Improv as a team, some are individuals who want to use Musical Improv in their own performance and some are people who just love it and want to sing, laugh and meet like minded people.
The benefits of Musical Improv are profound and wide ranging. Here are the most commonly reported benefits from our participants.
Does Musical Improv work online?
Yes! There are some adaptations we have made to make the experience better for participants, and yes there are limitations due to technology, the speed of light and lag. However our participants have reported the same levels of joy and learning than in real life classes. The benefits of Musical Improv online are that we get to play with a Worldwide community from the comfort and safety of our own homes. It is recommended that you have a pair of headphones to enhance your experience.
How can I book a Musical Improv Class?
There are Musical Improv Classes happening all over the world both online and face to face. Come join us, either to dip your toes in for the first time, brush up your Improv Singing skills or raise your performance to the next level. Visit our Musical Improv Classes page to find the right class for you, or get in touch using the form below to ask any further questions you may have, or to organise a bespoke class just for you and your friends or Improv Troupe. We have some introductory sessions coming up here.
Singing Games for Musical Improv - Performance Pieces
Wow the Audience
You have rehearsed, you can nail a hoedown in your sleep, your longform sets in rehearsal are legendary or you simply want to add some spice to your Improv set. Here are some of the best, tried and tested crowd pleasers for your showcase, performance, Musical Improv Class or simply for fun.
Short Form Musical Improv Games
Almost any game that works well in rehearsal can be presented on stage with a few tweaks. For a showcase or Musical Improv Jam these games serve as great quick ways to show off your hard work in class. Some of these are well known thanks to the likes of 'Whose Line is it Anyway' and some have been lovingly adapted over years of classes and rehearsal.
No list of Short form Musical Improv Games would be complete without the ubiquitous Hoedown. The nemesis and undoing of many, but also the greatest reward to the Hoedown champion is at stake. If you want a fuller description of how to actually do a Hoedown, have a look at our Musical Improv Games - Hoedown page.
Often sung either one line at a time, or a full verse each, the Hoedown is a quick AABB rhyming verse that usually follows a set tune. You can download our backing track of the Hoedown here.
This is a commitment exercise as much as anything else. There can be no backing off and mumbling your way through. There is no compulsion at all to get it right, hit all your rhymes or stay in tune, but you must stand tall and give it everything you have. Watch the 'experts' either blag it or nail it here.
Sometimes called the 'Irish Drinking Song' although with my own Irish heritage I prefer just Drinking Song, this is another one line at a time comedy classic. Again, the bar has been set by the 'Whose Line' crew and here is another great example of how commitment and good humour can win when everything else has failed.
The Drinking song, like the Hoedown is a great exercise as it puts us right in the present moment. With no time to set ourselves up with a rhyme or think of a clever gag, this is true improvisation. All you can really do is...well...open your mouth and sing. For me, this form of improv where the performer is truly at the edge of the unknown and diving in with abandon is some of the funniest and most satisfying to watch.
Of course, there is also space for the people who really can write a whole verse in their heads and then deliver it perfectly which is also amazing to witness.
You can read a fuller description of the game on our Musical Improv Games - Drinking Song page.
Madrigal - or Headlines in Harmony
Another crowd pleaser and a great way to use audience suggestions for some comedy. The fun comes from the players taking headlines, phrases or other suggestions and then singing them, back in a faux serious Medieval choir parody. The second and third time around the lines get mashed up with each other and the skilled performer can rearrange them into some priceless combinations. It's simple yet very effective. You can read a fuller description on our Musical Improv Games - Madrigal page
Performance Song Formats
Alongside the short form Musical Improv Games are the more substantial performance pieces. These can be used to open or close a set, as an encore or to fill a slot in a comedy night.
The Blues is a well known musical genre and has been brilliantly adapted for Musical Improv. Again a great way to use audience suggestions, you can ask for something that is bothering someone. A niggle is usually better than a full blown crisis! Then the performers can really go for some vocal acrobatics as they sing the Blues about the subject. This can be performed as an AAB structure - essentially a rhyming couplet and then the name of the blues, or AABB, or a more freeform bluesy rant. You can download our blues backing track here or read more about it on our Musical Improv Games - Blues page.
A staple at the start of many of our Maydays shows, the ballad is a lovely gift for a couple in the audience. This is one of the few times in improv where we try not to invent any new information, rather use all of the story told to us from the audience member about how they met their, hopefully current, partner. Then their story is sung back to them in over the top musical theatre style. There is no more reliable win than rhyming a name in a song, and if you can get a more obscure reference or hard to say place name from the story in somewhere you are really winning. You can read more about the ballad on our Musical Improv Games - Ballad page
We often sing a charity song in our classes as a way of getting a large group involved in singing the same song. Each singer may only have a rhyming couplet, but throw in the pretentious spoken introduction, a rap section and some Mariah Carey vocal acrobatics at the end and you have a sure fire hit on your hands. Recent favourite charities have been 'More pockets for women' and 'Netflix (Nutflix) for squirrels'. You can read a fuller description on our Musical Improv Games - Charity Song page.
Make your own Musical Improv Performance Game
Most of these performance pieces came from a random idea in a rehearsal room somewhere and then grew to be the institutions that they are now. We have always tried to push the boundaries of what we can improvise on stage, sometimes to great effect and sometimes...well. If anyone was actually there for The Mayday's heavy rock unwanted Christmas present song that closed our show with us knocking over chairs and storming off stage then they can tell you that not all ideas are good ones.
You can see our curated list of Singing games and Musical Improv games on our Musical Improv Games page.
Singing Games for Musical Improv - Warm ups
Why warm up?
Warm ups are a crucial part of any performance. They help prepare the right muscles for action and prepare the brain for activity. Without a good warm up your performance can suffer, or worse, you risk injury. When giving any vocal performance it is very important to make sure the voice is well prepared, and in any improv performance it is equally important to make sure the brain is well prepared. These singing games will help you boost your performance and help look after your voice.
Using your voice when it is not in good health is likely to lead to more damage. Musical Improv can demand a wide range of vocal styles, pitch, dynamics and timbre so the voice needs to be in good condition. Hydration, diet, physical and emotional health will all help to support a healthy voice.
Being in a good mental state, both in yourself and with your team is also fundamental to giving a good performance, whether it is just in rehearsal or on the stage. Musical Improv will put you and your characters in a huge range of situations and you need to have high levels of trust in your group and ideally be in a good mental state yourself. Clearly this is not always achievable and so warm ups can really help us to 'get in the room' both emotionally and physically.
Singing Games for Vocal Health
There are a few singing games and singing exercises that are generally agreed to help keep a healthy voice. Here are the ones we use most often in our Musical Improv Classes
Five note ascending and descending scales are a great singing exercise to check in with your voice and to really listen to your sound. Each time you complete a scale, move up to the next note (whatever that means to you) and then you can gently explore your pitch range bit high and low. We use different repeated words for each scale to give the mouth and brain a gentle warm up too. For more details see our musical improv games - scales page. For more detail on warming up the voice here is a great article on vocal exercises for singers
Similar to scales, sirening really helps you listen and tune in to your range. Start low and with your mouth closed. Gently raise your pitch until comfortable near the top of your range and then go down again. As you warm up you can open your mouth and start to gently explore the top and bottom of your vocal range a little more.
Time to get your best horse impressions going. Vibrate the lips together and explore your range in a similar way to sirening. Great for warming up the lips, mouth and vocal chords.
Musical Improv Singing Games for warming up
Now the voice is warm we can really start to get connected to our own state and tune in to the people we will be improvising with. Improv warm ups serve the purpose of getting everyone on the same page, giving and accepting suggestions, taking the spotlight and limbering up the brain.
Just a wonderful way to connect to those around you. You can close your eyes and breathe together as a group. When you are ready you can start to hum or sing together. The focus is really on listening to the sounds you are making as a group. For a more detailed description, see our Musical Improv Games - Acapella Harmonies page
Sing Your Name
Really useful as an introductory Singing Game for a new group or the first Musical Improv Class. Each person says their own name however they would like it to be said and then the group scans that name to a scale. you can have just first names or go for the whole thing. Lovely way just to get people to say hi and introduce themselves before a warm name bath. For a more detailed description, see our Musical Improv Games - Sing Your Name page
Have to include this as one of my favourite singing games. Each pair in a group will sing a duet with each other. No real words allowed which gives room for loads of expressive singing, character and story. For a more detailed description, see our Musical Improv Games - Gibberish Duets page
Warm up your way
Every group, class and troupe are different and many long-standing groups will develop their own practise for warming up. In The Maydays we like to do counting 1-20, a mind-meld and a Musical 8 things. This starts to serve an important role as a ritual, to help us get connected and to transition to performance mode. In a class, warm ups serve as a way to transition from the outside world to a class. Singing Games provide the perfect way to relax, listen and warm up, not only for a Musical Improv Class, but for any group activity.
Tell us your favourite warm ups
You can see our ever-growing list of Singing Games on our Musical Improv Games page. We would love to hear your favourite Singing Games for warming up, whether it is for Musical Improv or anything else so please do comment or get in touch to let us know what you are doing to prepare for your big or small musical improv performances.
Ending a song well in musical improv can make or break it. You can create an astounding melody, heartbreaking lyrics and beautiful choreography but if it fizzles out that’s often all the audience will remember. On the flipside, if you feel your song hasn’t gone that well, you can give it the old razzle dazzle showbiz ending and people will be on their feet.
There are tons of ways to end songs, for inspiration you can even turn to songwriting books and blogs but as improviser I am often asked how exactly do I initiate one of these endings? In this blog, Joe and I will break down some tools to create great song endings from both the singer and musical director’s point of view.
Heather says: Probably the most common and easy way to end a song is to change the speed. Slowing down is really recognisable and clear for the musician and rest of the cast to join and also gives an opportunity for that long held diva final note. For a high energy ambitious ending you could try speeding up too.
Joe says: Yes a slow down will be the thing I am listening for most of all. I can initiate a slow down from the piano and it is hard not to follow that so it is my default option if nothing else is being signalled
Heather says: Remember the 1980s when all songs ended with a fadeout? Why not do the same for your improvised song, fade to a whisperer with movement or an exit to match. Again, bringing the volume up higher for a big finish is a great indicator that the song is building to its final crescendo.
Joe says: So rarely used in improv but a delightful and often funny way to end a song. Can be hard to initiate, but using body language to get physically smaller can certainly help.
Heather says: Body language is your best friend when it comes to ending songs. In a way, maybe not a separate category as it is needed for all these song endings to an extent. However clear movement can allow you to achieve an ambitious ending like a sudden stop if you’re sending clear signals. No need to look at your MD as they will have a close eye on you but experiment with ways of conducting or creating choreography that is comfortable for you and clear for the rest of the team.
Joe says: I will be watching the chorus leader or the person singing near the end of a song like a hawk for any signs of conducting the end. This is really instinctive and you do not have to actually do predetermined signals or gestures, just be in your body and have an intention and that will show in how you are moving and what you are doing with your arms.
Heather says: Related to your body language, more specifically, can you initiate a stage picture that is a clear song ending? Some examples might be striding down the front of the stage, walking upstage and turning away, taking a knee or striking a pose. Ending with the stage picture you began with can also be a clear indicator or a neat trick in something like a dream sequence song.
Joe says: Really nice to do this. It may still require a slow down or conducted ending but certainly a good way to show that the song is about to finish.
Heather says: Ending in the way you started can be really fun if that section hasn’t appeared elsewhere in the song. Using the stage picture as mentioned above but also using the lyrics, melody, attitude or spoken dialogue can all work too.
Joe says: Likewise this is a good way to signal that the end of the song is approaching and often that is all that is required.
Heather says: Extremely common and really effective in both written and improvised songs is a repeat at the end. For songs with a chorus you can do as many repetitions as feels right, perhaps with other members of the cast joining, counterpoint melodies, maybe even a key change. Without a chorus, there is still the opportunity to repeat the main hook in the song or even the last line, second half or your line or a single word.
Joe says: This is something that takes courage and boldness to pull off, especially if everyone is singing the chorus already but good eye contact and signalling your intent that something different is about to happen will mean that your team goes along with you
Heather says: If you’re reading this, chances are you are a musical improviser and the good news is you’re not still mid song so you did manage to end a song successfully, even if you don’t know how you did it! Listening, observing and being present with everyone onstage and your musician or band offstage is always number one. If you do this, you will find an ending together even if you’re not actively choosing to the end the song in any of the ways above (or the countless others not mentioned here)
Joe says: Nothing wrong with doing nothing, but bear in mind that you are then handing responsibility for ending the song to your MD, which is fine, but don’t do it all the time!
So, there you have it. A few ideas for ways to end songs and how to do it. Many of them shade into each other but pick what feels fun, experiment with what feels new and stay committed til that final note!
Heather and Joe are available for online, remote and in person coaching, plus shows with The Maydays, Blues Hammer and the Concept. Get in touch to find out more and to tell us about more weird and wonderful ways you have ended your numbers.
We have no idea of course. There are some documented songs that are very old. The best documented and often quoted as the 'oldest song in the world' is the Hurrian Hymn which was discovered in Syria inscribed onto a clay tablet and is nearly 3500 years old according to some sources. You can hear a recreation of it here. More recently there is the Sumerian 'Hymn to Creation' which goes back to 800 BC and then a wealth of Egyptian, Greek and Judaic tunes from 600 BC onwards. In terms of an old song that is still being sung today we should probably look to the Hindu orature which was passed down the generations from 1000 BC before being formalised.
As far as the oral tradition goes however, it is impossible to say how far back our folk tunes go, how many variations and misheard recreations have evolved through the centuries and who may have been the originator. Our species goes back over 30,000 years and our brains have evolved little in that time so any capacity for music we may have now was shared by our ancient ancestors.
I spend much of my professional life listening to people improvise tunes and it is fascinating how some melodies seem to persist. Are these tunes echoes of an ancient, pre-linguistic communication or more simply, fragments of shared melodies from modern day western musical culture? In one of our more experimental sessions we facilitate a group of people to sing together in the dark with no pre-conceived tune or accompaniment. In these sessions which can be very tribal in their feel, certain hooks, melodies and rhythms also seem to emerge with unerring regularity. You can hear the results of some of our experiments on our 'Singong' podcasts here.
I like to think that if we could listen in to the improvised singing sessions around fires 30,000 years ago that we would recognise fragments or even whole sections and that what sounded pleasing to those humans would still sound pleasing to us now. So next time you are whistling a random tune, or humming distractedly while washing up - just think - you could be unconsciously recreating a song from the earliest days of homo sapiens.
I fantasise about walking out onto the street and throwing a large hoop around 12 random people and bringing them into a musical improv comedy class. Once people are in the room we can work with their insecurities and perfectly valid defences around a situation that many people find stressful. Getting people into the room is a different matter and over the years I have been playing and facilitating musical improv comedy, or musical improv theatre I have heard many of the same defensive phrases thrown at me like flashbangs - designed to temporarily blind me so they can run away or kill me. Here are the most common.
1. I could never do that.
This is a totally understandable reaction for an audience member who has just witnessed musical improv comedy on stage. However, in all the time I have been playing for and facilitating, I have never come across anybody who managed to fail when they gave it a try. Failing is simply not an available option. How can you get a tune wrong that does not exist? How can you get lyrics wrong when you are writing them? I guess the only way to actually fail is simply to refuse to join in at all but that would be like saying I lost a game of chess simply because I didn't sit down to play.
2. You have to be able to sing, and I can't.
Again, this is the go to defense for anyone who is terrified by the thought of singing in front of other people. Personally I far prefer to work with people who have not got trained voices. It is easier to put up defences if you have a wonderfully trained voice. A huge vibrato soprano voice is not at all useful in the vast majority of improvised songs. Your own voice is the gateway to your personality and this is where the gold lies.
3. I'm not funny
This may very well be true in the 'sitting-in-a-pub-bantering-with-my-loud-and-funny-mates' environment. I am the same, watching opportunities for one liners go past like trains while other people hop on and off freely. Humour in improv however arises from being natural, truthful and surprising yourself. No jokes required, just the courage to step forward and be you.
4. I'm not quick-witted enough.
One of the joys of singing to an accompaniment, once you get over the fear, is that the music provides a lot of space. More than a non-musical improv scene. Songs are packed full of repetition, silence, gibbereish (ooohs and la la las) and extreme poetic license, so much so that I generally do not understand what the lyrics to a song mean. The one that just popped into my head goes:
Black velvet and that little boy's smile
Black velvet with that slow southern style
A new religion that'll bring you to your knees
Black velvet if you please
I love that song but as far as I'm concerned it is about a piece of black velvet. I know it isn't about that but I don't care - I love the music, the emotion and the memories of where I was when I would listen to it.
5. I could never do that
You could. You can. You should.
6. The very thought scares the life out of me.
That is what makes musical improv comedy such a powerful, immersive and life-affirming activity. In the right setting where you feel safe and supported by those around you of course. Conquering our fears is one of the most empowering and motivational experiences in life and yet it is rare that we get the chance to do it without an element of danger. You can't get injured doing musical improv comedy! Well okay, we have had a grazed foot during a rap battle but that aside - it is very safe. It is a unique opportunity to confront that which scares us, defeat it and turn it into a positive experience, even one we would do again.
7. I'm busy.
Yeah, of course you are. That's fine. Naturally you do not want to waste your time doing something your can't do and is terrifying. That is why we should spend our time doing things we are perfectly comfortable with and that we are very good at...
If all of those 7 responses welled up in you then you are the person we are looking for! You are in the hoop I have just thrown in the street and I am now dragging you into a room to face your demons. Except I'm sorry to disappoint you, but they wont be there.
It's Spring and we're in a busy writing period again. When thinking about the importance of choruses in improvised songs, I came across this fascinating article by Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis from the university of Arkansas all about the science of music and repetition.
It turns out repetition IS music. So next time you're worried about your 4 x the same line improvised chorus being a bit boring and repetitive just remember that scientifically speaking you are actually being more musical than your fellow improvisers with their crazy chorus structures.
We now have a bunch of videos showing The Maydays demonstrating some of our favourite musical improv games. If there was ever a show of commitment and enthusiasm over style and content then this is it. Watch as we hurl ourselves straight into the improv abyss that is The Hoedown or musical 8 things. You can see a list of our musical improv games with checklists for different skill areas or you can also watch them on ouryoutube channel. Or you could just watch them all right here...
It was too much fun not to repeat, so we repeated it. Follow our journey as we continue to discover the pitfalls-both musical and moral-of putting a band of improvisers together with a troupe of improvisers in our latest podcast.
Heather Urquhart and Joe Samuel have over 15 years experience performing, teaching and writing about Musical Improv. Based in the UK they have facilitated workshops and graced stages around the world.