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.
It is healthy to be reminded why we do what we do sometimes. Last night was a prime example of this. The quiet village of Poynings nestles snugly behind the South Downs, safely shielded from the brashness of Brighton, guarding the lower entrance to Devil's Dyke. The Maydays were playing in the Village Church as part of their fundraising efforts for some new heating. The need for this was all too apparent as I sat and watched Rebecca shivering with her entire body as she waiting on the wings. We were performing our new show, "All about you" which takes anecdotes from the audience and turns them into sketches and songs. It is a lovely format in an intimate community like Poynings as most people know each other, so te anecdotes are meaningful to all. However, nobody was expecting the acrimonious break-up of a teanage couple to dominate the evening, with anecdotes from both parties!
The atmosphere was far warmer than the temperature, and we soon warmed to our task, the homemade mulled wine and mince pies keeping the audience alive. Highlights were surely the death of a clown, foxes against humans and the expensive crisp blues. On a personal level, the chance to play the church organ for our final Gospel number was a unique experience for me. Admittedly, the song itself still needs a bit of work, but as for new experiences, that one is hard to beat.
After the show we were approached by so many members of the village whose friendliness and genuine curiosity in improvisation was heartening and heartfelt. We found ourselves in the local pub soon afterwards and continued to be chatted to and welcomed into what felt like a close-knit and vibrant community.
THe discussion amongst the Maydays turned to the value of doing gigs in communities. It does say something that we had a bigger, more appreciative audience than at some of our Komedia shows in Brighton. Also, we all left feeling that we had not only entertained the village, but had contributed to their much needed cause also. Thank you to the wonderful people of Poynings!
Find out more about what we do at themaydays.co.uk
This week saw the start of two Maydays courses, the first of 2011. Last night I was lucky enough to be teaching the first session of our longform course and what a great group they are. I’ve worked with everyone before with the exception of Jo, but having seen her shortform showcase last year felt like I already knew her and was a bit starstruck. We also have three musical improv veterans on the course.
Having taught a fair bit of longform now, I always feel the need to explain to groups right form the start how challenging the leap from short to longform can be. Without set structures there isn’t the feeling of a safety net the way there is in a pre-ordained game like those made famous by “Whose Line…?” On the flip-side though, Longform brings with it great freedom, and a chance to find your own artistic expression, “singing your own song” as UB40 would say.
Having been thinking about musical improv quite a lot recently, it’s interesting to start thinking about scenes and collections of scenes as having rhythm much like a piece of music. We talked a lot last night about group responsibility. I was suggesting that perhaps in a longform piece the place with the least responsibility is in the scene, since all you can do really in be in it and keep committing to where you are and what you are doing. On the side-lines however, you are responsible for everything; colouring the scene, tag-outs, walk ons, walk ins and most importantly Editing.
I’m a big believer in serendipity and following an email I got this morning, was led to the website of Oslo based troupe Crumbs. Here’s what they had to say on Editing:
”When is a scene over? When does a scene start? How do I get out of a scene that is over? How do I change what is happening in a scene when I don't like it? How do I affectively use editing to tell the story? What does the editing tell me about the story? How do we tap into the natural rhythm of the scene to realize when we should be making our transitions and what transitions best fit the moment?”
They suggested that good editing is about “feeling the moment and creating opportunities to create new ways to transition. Timing isn't something you are taught, it is something you feel.”
I very much like this last sentence. So I will not be teaching timing for the next few weeks but feeling it. I was desperately hoping to find the clip from dirty dancing where he says “the steps aren’t enough, you have to feel the music,” to illustrate this point, alas I could not. Found this instead; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N0lOwj88TrQ
Ah, the joys of youtube.
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.