Time to Sing?

An opening song by RIOT
An opening song by RIOT (2016).

If you are doing musical improv, how do you know or decide when to sing?  In this article I discuss a couple of options.


Sometimes songs just happen organically.  The Musical Director (MD) provides underscore to a scene and a player just feels she has to burst out in song.  Magic!  In my experience this is how songs often occur in formats that are not specifically musically oriented – i.e. in which it has not been pre-established that there will be singing.

If your format specifically calls for (lots of) songs, you cannot rely on magic alone for songs to appear.  So below some other options.

Establish the Title

This one is described in Nancy Howland Walker’s excellent book Instant Songwriting – from Musical Improv from Dunce to Diva.  The idea is that the singer establishes the title, and then consciously decides to start singing.   Basically, a singer will “know” instinctively that a line she just uttered would make for a great title, and decides to burst out in song.  It’s important to start singing right away: both the MD and the other players know that the last line that was spoken (not sung) will be the title.

There are a couple of advantages to this approach:

  • You can use the title as a tag line, i.e. you will return to this phrase in every verse. And you can set yourself up for rhyme to the title.  Here’s a great example (produced by Nancy): the actor knows that “I’m destined to kick butt” is a really great line, and decides to use it as title and tag line.  Furthermore, he knows that “butt” is a great word to rhyme on – and he does!

  • You can use the title as an anchor for a chorus, i.e. use it clearly – and perhaps repeatedly – as lyrics for the chorus.

Of course, if there is no music already there to sing to (no underscoring), how will the MD know you are going to sing?  Here we have 2 options:

  • Either you burst out into song, and expect the MD to pick up.  I am not a big fan about this for several reasons:
    • Very few singers can establish a clear style and chord progression just by singing.  If you can: good for you and I’d love to perform with you!
    • Unless your MD has perfect pitch it may take a bit of searching.  And – I’ve been told my MDs that do have perfect pitch that when a singer is in between pitches, this often confuses the MD.  YMMV.
  • An alternative is that the player/singer decides on her title or tagline, like in the example above, and repeats it a couple of times, thus signalling the MD that a song is about to follow.  Hereunder a video where one of my students does exactly this: her song title is “I didn’t sign up for this”.

Being Pimped

Also a possibility: getting pimped, as a player, to sing.  Example:

  • Honey, there is something I need to tell you.
  • Yes, and I can see you’ll do it in a song.

One caveat: please don’t pimp any player into doing something that player is uncomfortable with.  If you are performing musical improv, I am assuming every player is eager to sing, so in that case: by all means!

Audience Decides

Another alternative is to let the audience decide – that is basically a format in its own right called Sounds Like a Song:  you divvy out (plastic) flowers or cuddly toys to audience members, who get to throw then when they feel the scene asks for a song.  And then you burst out into singing.

An alternative is to pick one audience member and give her a bell to chime when she wants a song.

Musician Decides

Another option is to have the MD or musicians cue a song.  This can be tricky when the music underscores as well – players may mistake underscoring for a cue to sing – and then a song appear organically – which is nice as well.  My advice for an MD to cue a song: be really obvious; be loud enough so the players simply cannot mistake what you’re offering as an offer for a song.

Opening Songs

Perhaps your format calls for an opening song?  In that case all actors & musicians know that the first thing to happen is going to be a song.  Easy-peasy.


Just like your format may call for an opening song (easy-peasy remember), perhaps your format calls for a closing song.  This is a bit more tricky as you’ll need some sort of signal or a cue to indicate to all that it’s time for the closing.  There are a options: some groups end the performance with a tune similar (in style, rhythm, chord progression) as the opening song – so when that re-appears, that’s your cue.  Others have a fixed progression for the closing song.  And others again use hand signals and/or eye contact; a timer on stage that indicates that time is up, or a light signal from the tech booth can also be used.

Fixed Formats

And finally, some groups perform highly structured formats, in which the number of songs, and their function, within the performance is fixed.   This takes some rehearsing – otherwise you risk players getting stuck in their heads thinking about the structure, rather than playing, but give a really polished effect when well rehearsed.  This is not exactly my cup of tea, so I don’t have many examples, and those who teach these kinds of things don’t tend to publish those on the open internet.  If you know of any sites that list such structures, please let me know and I’ll update this article.

An example I can provide is my own version of a musical Harold : players and MD know there are probably going to 11 songs, certainly an opening group thing, and after scene 9 there will be a group finale.  So after scene 9 we know there is just (and only) going to be a song.

Anyhow, if your whole performance is structured you will know when it’s time for a song, and perhaps even which type of song.  I’ll devote a later post to types of songs.

Know any other way to actually start singing an improvised song? Let me know!

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