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.
I have just returned from a volunteering trip to Soksan International school in Cambodia. My wife and I had the idea ever since having our first child to show them a bit of the world, and how other children did not enjoy the same privileges that they do. No idea if that worked or not, but I did get the chance to try out some musical and improv based exercises with some bemused looking Cambodian children and adults!
The first thing I noticed was that the children were far less familiar with the whole idea of group games and exercises. Simple clapping exercises often turned out to be just too confusing, not because the children were unintelligent, just that they were not used to playing in such a controlled environment. Why clap when pointed to, when you could just clap all the time?
Also there was a huge amount of shyness to being singled out of a class. So for example when doing some scales to different words, it was all but impossible to get a suggestion of a word from a single child. The best results came from inclusive activities that involved movement or group singing to a pre-existing song. As a result I wrote five songs that we could all learn together. This ended up with me leading the kids pied-piper style through the school (see pic).
As for improv games with the teachers, we did get all the way through to 3-line scenes. It is so ingrained in their culture to be complimentary that most of the scenes went something like this:
"You have a lovely face"
"Thank you, you have lovely feet"
"Thank you, your necklace is lovely" - and scene.
However, we broke down a few barriers with the more physical games such as passing a sound, or zombie walk or Samurai. The adults were certainly willing to chuck themselves in and laugh and were not afraid to make themselves look silly. I would have liked more time with them as they certainly seemed to be getting the point of being relaxed and confident and making stuff up on the spot. It was a great experience seeing how improvisation can help with speaking a language that is unfamiliar, and also great to see the teachers letting their hair down and just having fun. Listening to some of their life stories was harrowing and it showed me that play and fun is not always frivolous - it can be a massive release and an opportunity to vent frustration in a safe en
This is the little passage I wrote for a business and improv book.
While studying music at University I was fortunate enough to play the violin in a string quartet. Being students, there were many convoluted and bizarre relationships among the four people playing, and we would often bring unresolved arguments, unrequited love and seething jealousy with us to rehearsals. After the cursory and often bitter verbal exchanges we would place our bows on strings and begin. At this point, our verbal communication channel was muted, talking was reserved purely for practical purposes. At the end of rehearsal however, the air was often cleansed of the heavy emotional content that had suffused it so thoroughly beforehand. Arguments dissolved, passions muted and conversation would often return to more mundane practicalities of the day.
I was also studying psychology at the time and distinctly remember coming fresh from a lecture about non verbal communication into one of our rehearsals. As the first violin, it was my job to “lead” the quartet. This means that the tempo, dynamics, phrasing and synchronising were my responsibility. A bow high in the air descending towards my strings would allow the other members to time their simultaneous entries so we all came in together as one. Leaning forwards would bring down the volume, sitting back and broadening my shoulders could result in a triumphant crescendo. Eye contact could encourage a tune to rise above the others, a slight frown could send a tune scuttling back to a supporting role.
In amongst all the artistic decisions being made were entire conversations. A slightly pleading expression could say sorry; a faint smile, I forgive you. Arguments could also be started. One I remember clearly was during the Shostakovich string quintet. I had the job of stating a new, jaunty theme on the violin before passing it to the viola. I gained eye contact with her just before finishing the tune, a slight nod and she was off. She stamped on the tune, growling it out, giving it a complexion I had been utterly unaware of until that time. The exchanges became more and more violent, and at the end of the rehearsal, she packed up and stormed out.
I am convinced that the three years of playing in that string quartet improved my ability to communicate effectively without speaking. I now use those skills as musical director of improvisation company, The Maydays. As the sketches develop, I need to make the decision when to start playing, what to play, and what emotion to bring out. Once the song has started, it is my job to give it structure and to signify any significant changes in mood or style without giving any visual signals. As the end of the song nears, I am looking for someone to take charge of the ending of the song. If no clear leader emerges I will make it as clear as I can when I think the song should stop.
From the singer’s perspective, things look rather different. Essentially the performers are making a case, putting forward a point of view, but doing this as a team, without preparation and without verbally communicating with each other. The success of the song is measured directly by the reaction of the audience, whether it be one person or a room full. The fact that there is music which has a definite speed, rhythm and harmony means that there is little room for hesitation. Full commitment is required not just for the individual, but so the rest of the team understands their role.
There are many parallels to the business world here. There are often times when a case needs to be put forward by a team to an audience, whether it be a board of directors, or a room full of employees. Often the narrative will turn in unexpected directions and there is no time for discussing strategy, the team must move as one and communicate with conviction and without hesitation. The success of the team is measured directly by the response of the audience and the acceptance of the proposition being put forward. Let’s look at some specific skills that are required for this dynamic strategy to be effective.
As I mentioned before, if no clear leader emerges then I will make the decisions myself, being behind the keyboard. Performance becomes significantly easier however if an individual steps forward, often physically and takes control. In business a leader will be predetermined by their profile within the company, however there are times when the leader needs to have knowledge in a specific area such as I.T. or H.R. In these situations, the right person needs to take control or the message can easily become unconvincing. Leadership can be transferred so that the best person is in control at any one time, or it can be maintained by an individual, so that they are always in control of the team. An effective interviewer will take charge of the entire conversation and make it clear when the interviewee should start talking, and more importantly, when to stop. This can be done by positioning the body, gaining effective eye contact, or even audibly taking a breath. If control is given away to the interviewee, the results can be disastrous.
One of the worst case scenarios in a performance is when two people start singing together. At this point the façade comes tumbling down, and there is no way of convincing the audience that this was supposed to happen. The same is true when speaking. Speaking over someone else is rarely an effective way of getting your point accross. When putting a case forward as a team, it is even more important that everyone takes their turn without crashing anyone else’s point. Just as in leading a string quartet, signals of when to start and stop can easily be given with eye contact or intonation. Listening is not just about words, it is about body language and facial expression. Only when you can “listen” to all the channels of communication can you really work together effectively as a team when delivering a message.
Once a leader has emerged, they must then carry the role with 100% commitment. Many songs have begun with a ridiculous line such as “Aliens have stolen my dog”. If this song is sung with a feeling of apology or embarrassment then the humour is not as effectively delivered. If however, the performer steps up to the front of the stage and sings the line with a full voice, wide gestures and complete commitment, the humour is intensified massively. The same is true when trying to persuade someone of your point of view. If the listener detects a hint of insecurity, they will most likely remain unconvinced. After all, if you do not have faith in your own convictions, why should anybody else? It is far funnier if the performer really thinks aliens have stolen their dog, than if they are just putting that forward as a funny idea.
Give the same speech to two different people and they will deliver two different messages. It is possible to read a speech with the same words in the same order, but communicate an entirely different meaning. Our body language, intonation while speaking, expressions and eye contact will all tell their own story, and it is often far more powerful that the story the words are telling. How many times has a text message you sent been completely misinterpreted, and then you spend the next four messages just trying to communicate that you were joking, or you thought they were joking? Effective speakers often have very well rehearsed movements that they use to deliver their messages. One only has to look at world leaders to see that their use of their hands, eyes and body is very carefully controlled. When part of a team, you must not only use these skills to communicate with your audience, but also with the other members of your team.
Speeches are only as good as the person speaking. Most of the time, having the words written out for us is a hindrance. Losing eye contact with the audience, losing our place on the page and stumbling over words are very common problems, even for the most experienced speakers. Being able to construct a speech or conversation on the spot is a far more powerful way of communicating. The best public speaker will have bullet points, or general headings to structure their speech, but will not rely upon a script. When a conversation or discussion takes an unexpected turn, the improviser will be right there, ready to respond, ready to turn the surprise back on the other person.
All of these skills can be practised. Traditionally this has taken the form of painful role-play situations at training days. It does not have to be like this! Joining an improvisation workshop gives a safe, supportive environment where these skills can be honed within a group of like-minded people. The role of comedy is to give the performer a clear objective, and also makes the whole process a lot more enjoyable. From my point of view, the role of music within improvised comedy is to break down inhibitions and really nurture commitment. It is a very personal experience to sing in front of a group of people, but in the right environment it is also very empowering. There is no need to have a good voice or musical experience, singing is a natural extension of talking, and we can all do that. You will be amazed how quickly fear can turn into self-belief, and often into addiction!
For more details on how to join a workshop, visit themaydays.co.uk or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.