In my previous class of musical improv, song structure and format was extremely important. Listening to your fellow improvisers in a group and in a two-person scene into a song was the key to making the song successful. From environmental details, to picking up on key words and phrases a person says, everything was important. The same goes for Longform improv. Developed by Del Close of Second City and ImprovOlympic fame, he created a structure known as the Harold which was first performed in 1967. Since then, companies such as the Groundlings in L.A., Upright Citizen’s Brigade, and the PIT have used the Harold in Longform improv. Typically, there are two categories of improvisation: Shortform (think Whose Line Is It Anyways?) and Longform (The Harold).
After taking musical improv, I knew to expect a certain structure for the Harold. I even studied various notes on the format before starting Longform due to its complexities (click on the picture above to find out about the format.) Last night was our first class for Level 3 in which we study Longform, particularly, the Harold. We did various Harolds, and I really noticed the amount of listening it takes to make each element successful. A good memory is also useful. I credit learning song structures in musical improv for not completely freaking out about following The Harold’s format. I find it challenging in a different way, and I am excited to see what more I can learn.
Here’s the thing about singing. It puts the performer, and some might say the audience as well, in a very vulnerable position. There is nowhere to run, no place to hide. Sound is emanating from the mouth of the person singing the song. Is it good? Well, that’s subjective. Is it difficult? You bet. Why? Because the person onstage is telling the truth. They can’t hide behind a funny joke, a witty remark, or complex dialogue. They simply have their voice. Sure, instruments can buffer the nature of the actor’s natural instrument, but the audience didn’t come to hear a muffled tune, they came to hear a song.
Over the past 8 weeks or so, I have been taking a musical improvisation class at the People’s Improv Theater, the PIT as it’s fondly called. As I have written before, it has been one of the most challenging things I have ever done as an actor. I am forever grateful to have had the opportunity to have taken the class, studied with the teachers, and performed with my fellow classmates.
Singing has always been something that I have loved doing even though I know that I will never be the next Maria Callas, Kristen Chenoweth, or Idina Menzel. Frankly, I wouldn’t want to be. So why do I do it? I’ve always loved music. I’ve always studied music. Ever since I was little and my mom got me a Muppets keyboard that taught me how to play “Rainbow Connection”; Ever since I was 7 and sang in choirs at church, and later in high school; Ever since I was in various musicals like Oliver!,The Wizard of Oz, and Godspell, music has been a central part of my existence.
It’s also funny that something I love to do so much can bring with it an element of uncertainty and fear. But, it’s that vulnerability which I find to be compelling. It has helped me get over hurdles in life, and this experience with musical improv is no different. I am facing a fear. Fear, by its very nature comes with negative connotations. However, I think there is such a thing as “good fear” and I have certainly come across it over the past two months. I am not the best singer in the world, but I am embracing a part of myself that I have stifled for a long time and it’s nice to bring that part of myself out again.
I know my strengths. I am good at: Acting, making people laugh, and writing. It’s only fitting that I get to merge all of those elements into improvisation. As an improviser, I am using my skills as an actor to emote and create something which I am essentially writing off the top of my head through listening to my scene partner (or partners.) This makes us writers, actors, and directors of our own material. Now, add the element of librettist (the person who writes a script for musical) and lyricist to the mix. Congrats, you now have musical improvisation.
It’s not just making stuff up for the hell of it either. There are specific rules, and a certain structure that we follow in order to make it work as improvisers. From song structures, to the format of the actual show, there are rules that are followed. It is within those confines that the show comes together, making it one of the most interesting forms of improv and pure entertainment.
What will the libretto be this Saturday at 7:00 down at the People’s Improv Theater? Only time will tell. But wait…what are the lyrics?! Oh right, we’ll have to come up with those too.
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Shortly after completing my level 2 class of the improvisation program at the People’s Improv Theater (PIT), I enrolled in the musical improv class. It has been the challenge of my life. We need things in life that challenge us in order to learn and grow. This class certainly has challenged me. Not only am I singing for the first time in a few years, but I am also making up the lyrics, following specific song structures, as well as listening and responding to my fellow improvisers (pianist included). Holy moly, my brain…I never knew my brain could work that fast. I also never thought that my brain would have to concentrate on so many things at once. I think that I am breaking out of a shell that I’ve been in for a while. It feels good to challenge myself as a performer, and it’s fantastic to have such wonderful teachers for the class. My level 2 teacher is one of the instructors, as well as the pianist (who is freakin’ amazing by the way) and I’ve been recommending it to everyone.
I think as performers, we should not only take improvisation to improve our skills, but specifically musical improv. It really helps get over hurdles and it’s fun too! We get to make up a musical on the spot. And for those people who think that things are pre-planned, believe me, they’re not. Believe me. But, that’s the beauty of it. It’s truly a magical thing when actors can be on the same page, work together, and come up with something interesting. I am so fortunate that I had the opportunity to take this class. Onward and upward to Level 3!!
Below I am including a video from my fellow musical improvisers at the PIT @EvanKaufman & @rebecca_vigil performing in Union Square during the holiday season with improvised Christmas carols. And guess what else? The pianist who accompanies them is one of the teachers for my class, and he is truly fantastic. Currently, they have a show called Your Love Our Musical, where they interview a couple and then make a musical out of the love story they just heard about. It’s amazing. It’s at the PIT. Plus, I have to support my fellow PIT performers. They’re awesome.