We have just returned from Nottingham where Heather and myself were putting MissImp, the local improv troupe, through their musical paces. MissImp are a well established performance troupe who like to welcome all abilities to their improv jam sessions, and perform monthly at the Glee Club in Nottingham. In the performance troupe there were a wide variety of experience, but they have not used much music in their shows.
It was interesting and rewarding working with an established troupe who are used to working together. It means that there was already a high level of trust and intuition between the improvisers that really came through when they were singing. We found that we could progress quickly into the more complex song structures and spend more time on presentation and technique with individuals.
Suffice to say, there were some moments of utter hilarity, as well as moments that shall not leave that room! The first day culminated in one of our favourite exercises, the pointing song. It was to become the most memorable song of the weekend. The basic set up is that 6 or 7 improvisers arrange themselves in a group on stage facing forwards. They are then asked to sing a repeated short musical phrase whenever the conductor (Heather) points at them. After hearing all the different phrases, the conductor will combine different singers so that we hear some counterpoint and some interesting combined points of view. At the end, the singers are all singing their own lines simultaneously, but with the aim of converging onto one of the lines for the big finish. In this case the song was given the theme of money, and the final line that was blasted out in fine harmony was , "Give me what you owe, you bastard. Give me what you owe".
On Sunday we went more into how to create a song from a scene, as well as some more short-form exercises that can be used in shows. The structure that most interested the troupe for their show was the ballad. This is a structure we use to great effect in The Maydays shows where we sing a love song for a couple in the audience. We finished Sunday with the charity song, a great favourite as it has it all. Verses, choruses, speaky bits, a rap, modulation, the works!
After that, we had 2 hours with SIN, the Student improvisation class at Nottingham Uni. There were some students who had never done any improv of any sort, so it was a challenge. There were 20 students with widely different abilities, and most of them had no musical improv experience at all. As I looked around the circle at the start there was an enormous amount of fear and trepidation. We eased them slowly into the singing exercises before hitting them with a blues. There were some truly memorable performances, but the highlight once again was the pointing songs at the end. After the first one with 7 people, we said "OK another 7 please for the next pointing song". I have never seen so many people leap from their seats to get involved. The fear had turned to enthusiasm and the pointing song again proved itself the king of musical improv exercises. I cannot repeat half of the phrases that were sung during the "Families" pointing song which was the last group of the day, but there were many gasps of disbelief from the audience.
All in all a wonderful weekend. Special thanks to Lloydie from MissImp for organising the weekend and for his amazing hospitality. Bring on the next one!
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.