I am still suffering flashbacks from last weekend's comedy music improv weekend. Strange scenes of gyrating Paul McCartneys, uplifting duets in space, filth and fury in Primark and unmentionable scenes in Rochester orphanage.
We structured the weekend around the two main song structures that we use in the Maydays. Verse/chorus songs, and tagline songs. From these structures, complex and wonderful forms such as the tagline duet, the ballad and the set-up song emerge. The tagline duet in particular requires all ones improv skills to be honed and alert as the final verse requires the performers to repeat their first verse over the top of each other. When successful, the song takes on a kind of logical complexity that is both satisfying and beautiful to watch. The song structure lends itself to poignant or romantic themes, and there were some very touching moments. "Show me your secret garden" stuck to the premise brilliantly, while exploiting innuendo to great comedy effect.
The pointing song is one of my favourites. We used groups of 6 people, arranged in two rows of 3. A subject is given, such as water, and then the director points at each person in turn, who sings a repeated line about the subject. The fun starts when combinations of people sing their lines together. THe whole thing ends with everyone singing their individual lines, but with the intention of converging into one single line by the end. The effect is powerful, and a great reminder of how counterpoint and harmony can be used in songs.
The other form that consistantly produces hilarity is the tagout musical. The premise is simple, the whole exercise must be sung, the narrative can only emerge through singing. A scene is set with two performers on stage who can be tagged out at any time by another character. The story tends to become chaotic first, and then themes emerge and usually rounds off with a chorus, summing up the events of the musical. I cannot go into the goings on at Rochester orphanage here for fear of being banned from the internet, but if you let your imagination run, you might come close.
The journey felt like it had just begun when Sunday afternoon arrived. I was exhausted by the close of play, having improvised my way through a hundred songs or more. I will admit that there are times at the keyboard when I cannot come up with any new ideas, and find myself revisiting old progressions and themes. I guess it is like the improviser who relies on characters they have done before. In music, you only need one idea to create originality. One note, or simple rhythm is enough to power a song. In improvisation, one idea should be enough to fuel a character or scene. Heather tweaked an existing improv game into a singing exercise where the performers have to make a shape with their mouths, and then let a character emerge from the type of voice this creates. The results were utterly hilarious, and just go to show how such a simple seed can grow into a monster.
We are thoroughly looking forward to the 10 week course coming up in April, and are looking into the idea of putting on a drop-in music day once a month. I for one would love to do more of this, I am addicted and proud to be addicted.
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.