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This past year in The Second City Training Center’s Music Program was one of the most challenging-yet-rewarding improv experiences of my life. There were times I felt like I could have given Liza Minnelli’s Sally Bowles a run for her fabulous, show-stopping, goddamned money. Other times, I felt so beat up by form, structure and just plain “not getting it” that I had to check to see if I had a nose bleed. Here are 6 things I learned about musical improv from the teachers at Second City who know it best.
1. Sing How You Feel
Love! Anger! Revenge! Insecurity! Want to know what the most interesting songs are about? Songs you probably listen to every single day on Spotify? FEELINGS! The same goes for music improv. Don’t introduce a convoluted plot twist in your song— just sing from the heart, baby! Sort out your character’s feelings in song! You’ll have a sassy little number that’ll leave the audience begging for more, AND we’ll know more about your character.
2. Keep It Simple
Please, trust me when I say, music improv is HARD! It’s crazy-hard! REGULAR improv is hard! Throw a song that you’re making up RIGHT AT THIS VERY MOMENT in the mix, plus a possible style it’s being played in, and that’s about enough pressure to have sudden stage puke dribble out of your mouth and onto your Peter Pan collar. Just remember, simplicity is your friend. Boil down your thoughts into a thesis statement, and sing that for an easy-to-remember chorus.
See #1 above for ideas on verses. Pull a Katy Perry and draw out one word for a reeeeaallllly looooooooooong time, even! Calm yourself and let the audience hear you rooooAAARRRRR! (Oh-oh-OH-OH-OH-OH-Ohhhh!)
3. To Rhyme or Not to Rhyme?
Ok, here’s where this might get controversial, but I’m going for it: Rhymes are great. Rhymes are crazy-cool. Rhymes are impressive.
You do not have to rhyme.
A whaaaaaaat?!? (Our improv car careens off a cliff and explodes in a fiery fury). That’s right. Get the Jaws of Improv Life and pry those people out of that improv car, because nobody is dying on my watch. I repeat, you do not have to rhyme.
If you come up with a great rhyme scheme in your song, FANTASTIC! You are way ahead of the game, and your song if probably slammin’ right about now. However, just about the very worst thing you can do is force a rhyme. What happens when you rhyme “orange” with “boreange” (which, as much as we want it to be, isn’t a word)? Or “now” with “cow” when your song is about a space alien learning what it means to be human? Don’t rhyme yourself into a rut if you don’t have a rhyme already lined up.
A word coined by Music Program teacher Aaron Graham, this phrase basically means “musical theater showmanship.” Make a chorus line! Plant your feet and sing out! Start a simple dance break! These things are what make musicals fun to watch and a special genre all their own. No reason not to embrace that when performing musical improv. When in doubt, just jazz square it out!
5. Fuck It
The music just started! I must sing… now? No… NOW… right? Musical improv can be scary. It’s incredibly easy to get in your own head and second-guess every choice you’re about to make. The best way to defeat nerves is with a “fuck it” attitude. We’re making up songs! We’re already dancing in the land of the delightfully dumb, so might as well dive in and make a splash!
6. Own It
Whatever you’re singing about— whether it’s sneaky snakes or going through high school as a centaur— as long as you own your choices and what you’re singing about, you can’t go wrong! Don’t question it; just sing on and love every second of it. Treat each and ever performance like it’s the opening and closing night of a Broadway musical that YOU get to create, and you’re bound to be a smash!
Want to learn dramaticity for yourself? The Second City’s Music Program is holding auditions on Saturday, April 19th, 2014. For more information on the program and its prerequisites or to sign up for an audition, please click here.
Marie Maloney is an actor and improviser who performs at various theaters around Chicago. She currently performs musical improv with her independent team GULP! and her MINt team the Crème de Mints. If you’re interested in seeing where she’s playing next (or stalking her), you can check out her website.