Musical improvisation is perhaps the most intimidating proposition for the average musician. Singing, particularly in front of other people, is probably a close second! So can it really be possible to combine these two in a way which is actually fun?
Heather Urquhart and Joe Samuel of Open Your Mouth and Sing are professional musical comedy improvisers who specialise in taking groups of people with no experience or particular ability and allowing them to be spontaneous and creative.
We asked Joe to join us here at Easy Ear Training to share a bit about how they manage to combine musical and theatrical improvisation through games and live workshops.
Q: Your website says you specialise in helping beginners get started with improv. Do you find people naturally have a good ability to make up songs and express themselves musically?
Yes, I think we all have a natural ability to improvise and use our voices expressively.
Just think of any animated conversation you might have had. You had no script and you used your vocal range and timbre to express very subtle and complex emotions.
I often hear people say they have a very limited range – only to then hear them laugh with the range an opera singer would be proud of!
I often imagine walking down a busy street and throwing a huge hoop around 12 random people. These are the people I want in our workshops. It really makes no difference what experience, baggage or fears people may have, we pride ourselves on creating a safe space and letting people open up at their own pace.
In fact I generally prefer people who do not have a trained voice as this can be a block or facade that can mask much more authentic singing.
I think that varies from person to person. Some feel very exposed in an improvised scene but will happily break into song, and vice-versa.
What we do find is that conquering your fear of singing in public is achievable and very empowering.
Improv involves intense listening at all times. If you have an agenda it can stop you being in the moment.
I have to constantly clear my mind of any pre-conceived melodies or chord structures in order to be able to respond genuinely to what is happening on stage. The group dynamics in a string quartet, jazz ensemble or rock band are very similar: even though the music is often meticulously rehearsed, there is so much happening in the moment that can be missed if the musicians are not tuned in and listening to the sound they are making together.
We have many exercises and improvised song structures that we have honed over the years that work well for choirs. Obviously you can’t expect a group of people to spontaneously make up the same melody together, but you would be surprised how, with a little encouragement, you can get people singing amazing improvised songs that sound composed.
We have made a podcast about just that if you are interested:
To us a “game” is simply a structure that you can improvise within. It is used in the same way a chord progression would be used as a basis for a musical improvisation.
Different structures can focus on different skills, some lend themselves well to performance, others should stay in the rehearsal room!
There is no substitute for being in a supportive group with an experienced facilitator, as improv is so much about trust.
However, if you did want to try some improv on your own or with a friend I would go for “8 Things” where you have to list 8 things in a category in a song, or “Hush little baby” where you have to rhyme and make up your own words to that lullaby.
I hope this has inspired you to explore musical improvisation yourself! Learn more by heading on over to musicalimprovcomedy.co.uk where you can listen to podcasts, find out about improv workshops, explore improv games and purchase Sing It!, the essential guide to musical improvised comedy.