Inventing a Musical Give & Take Improv Exercise



In October 2016 we @ RIOT were invited to FLUIM2.0, a long form improv festival in Utrecht Holland.  I taught a workshop on improvised singing, in which we came up with a fun exercise.  Since then I’ve adapted the exercise for actual performance use.

The Exercise

Here is how the exercise came about.  The group was rather large, and I wanted to make sure every player got plenty of stage time, so I was thinking about stuff they might all do together.  We had been doing singing exercises in which the players are challenged to sine very different lines to the same underscoring.   I thought it might be fun to try something out and this is what we came up with, and it worked pretty well.  Here is the setup:

  • Players get a suggestions.
  • 3 players on stage, the other players stay alert off-scene.
  • Each of the 3 players will sing a simple line (possibly up to a short tagline verse).  Lyrics should be really simple because players need to be able to remember them.
  • After the 3 verses have been established each of the other players joins one of the first 3 on stage, establishing 3 groups of singers.
  • Each group sings their own verse, all at the same time.
  • Then the idea is to change focus; one group might become more prominent (louder, or visually more prominent), other groups might fade away.  Goal is to make this dynamic: once focus has been taken it should be given away again – or taken away be another group.
  • Finally, the group as a whole needs to figure out the ending, and they should all end together. There should be no confusion as to whether the end is the end.

It worked magically well, so we decided to make a video.  Keep in mind this was a workshop group of folks that are not used to improvised singing, and who were not particularly familiar with each other.  Here’s the video.  The suggestion was “Autumn” – lyrics are in Dutch but that is really irrelevant.  Notes after the video.

Some notes:

  • The variety between the songs was pretty good.  The last one was actually just 4 words and more spoken than sung, which contrasted  nicely with the more melodic second one, which as lyrics-wise an actual verse.
  • The give and take is excellent here!
  • In all, and in retrospect, length was a bit too long.  But remember this group had never done anything like this!
  • The ending still gives me goose bumps.   It is very clear – everyone knows it’s the end, so they would definitely had faded down together.  And then one of them loudly sings a different line over the rest, ending in sync!

Since then I have used the exercise in plenty more workshops. A couple of learnings from experience:

  • One thing I stress today – which I didn’t originally – is that the visual dynamics can be a LOT bigger then what we saw here.
  • Players need to be aware of what is physically happening, and can (should!) accept and join, more than what we saw here.  E.g. around 2:15 in the above video, one of the players crosses the stage and walks in front of the other groups.  Today I would encourage the rest of her group to simply follow her.

Update March 2017

Here is another video, taken at a workshop I taught at SWIMP17, an international festival in Uppsala, Sweden in March 2017.  In this one you can see more physical give & take and use of the stage.  Again, keep in mind these folks had never met before and had no prior exposure to improvised singing; the video was made after only 2 hours of workshopping.

Update May 2017: In Performance

I had been thinking whether this exercise might be useful in performance as well.  Only one way to know that that is to try it.  So we did.

In May 2017 I did a one-day workshop with a local group Caque; the goal was to put on a  musical improv show in English that night. We ended up mounting a musical version of a Harold, in which we used this handle for the opening.    Basically the idea is to set up 3 verses based on the suggestion; the 3 beat 1 scenes after the opening should be based on the 3 verses. I have a pretty detailed post on how we workshopped & performed this Musical Harold.

Main adaptations of the exercise are:

  • It should be fairly short: 2 minutes is a maximum
  • It should be visually interesting as well, so lots of use of stage
  • And in order to keep it short & tight, groups should give up focus as soon as they have it.

Worked like a charm.


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