13 Essential Musical Skills for Improv Musical Directors

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Introduction

A couple of times every year I get asked to work with musicians who want to do Musical Direction  (MD) for improv, or I get asked to run MD workshops at festivals. Which I happily do, but it often surprises me how unrealistic the participants’ expectations are. I think the reason for this is the fact that a lot of important skills for improv MDs are general music-related and unrelated to improvised theatre, and can be taught by general music teachers or studied at home by means of books or internet. And frankly attaining those skills takes time & practice – it is unrealistic to expect one can learn and master these skills in a half day workshop.

In this post I’ll try and list these skills & explain why these are needed. In the last paragraph I’ll explain in a bit more detail why these topics are difficult to address in a single workshop session.  Even if you are a schooled musician, read on – some skills might surprise you: the MD does not just play music, she also invents music on the spot, and together with the singers she might invent whole songs!  Hence a wide variety of skills is needed!

MDing with LIP
MD-ing with Ligue d’Improvisation Professionelle – Brussels – March 2018.

Prelude: Underscoring Versus Songs

  • There are 2 modes of MD-ing, and they require a slightly different skills set:
  • Underscoring: the MD does a soundtrack “under” a scene.
    Songs: the MD provides music upon which the actors will sing a song.

You may not be familiar with the term “underscoring”: Wikipedia explains this as follows:

In a musical theater or film production, underscoring is the playing of music quietly under spoken dialogue or a visual scene[citation needed]. It is usually done to establish a mood or theme, frequently used to recall and/or foreshadow a musical theme important to the character(s) and/or plot point, onstage or onscreen.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Underscoring

In the list of skills below I’ll indicate whether the skill is important for underscoring and/or singing (or not).

Skill 1: Scales

Know your scales, in every key! Practice those daily. Minor/major and the blues scale are the absolute minimum. Google is your friend, there are books available, and any music teacher in your can help you with that.

Why? Scales are absolute basic musical skills. No discussion about this one, and important for songs as well as for underscoring.

Skill 2: Dexterity

Finger dexterity is important, both for keyboard players and guitar players. Exercises are easy to find. Look e.g. for tutorials on runs (e.g. over scales).

Why?  Dexterity is really a basic skill for playing any instrument.

Skill 3: Chords

Know your chords, in every key. Major/minor/7ths are an absolute minimum. Make sure you understand slash chords and how/when to use those. If you’re planning on doing jazz or jazzy styles like neo soul, you’ll have to add 9ths, 13ths, Sus4s and so on. It you have no idea what all this is, look it up! There is plenty of free chord material available on the internet! If you are a keyboard player, do not go about “blindly” learning chords; you need to understand chord structure (i.e. how you can construct any chord out of musical intervals). Lear to play botch block chords, and ways to arpeggiate them.

Why?  Chords are absolute basic musical skills. No discussion about this one, and important for songs as well as for underscoring.

Skill 4: Chord Progressions

Make sure you know plenty of chords progressions. I maintain a rolodex with progressions for over 500 songs and sometimes students ask whether they can have a copy. They are missing the point: the value is not in the rolodex, but in the process of discovery.  So make your own rolodex.  There are plenty of free sources of chord progressions on the internet. Here’s one example: https://www.piano-keyboard-guide.com/piano-chord-progressions.html; a video below.

Be sure you can play any chord progression in any key.

Why?

First of all most music does not stick to 1 chord – the exception being a certain styles of modern droney (techno) dance music. As an example see this techno set below.  Chralotte De Witte does mix in a little melodic stuff around the 52 minute mark but it’s very limited.

Chord progressions are in my mind slightly more important for improvised songs than for underscoring. If you and the actors are going to improvise a song, you probably want to serve them a chord progression they “unconsciously” know. The majority of all popular hit songs are variations on maybe a handful of popular chord progressions. If you don’t believe this watch this video!

For underscoring you can get away with more exotic chord progressions than for singing.

Skill 5: Improvise your own chord progressions

Once you “know” a bunch of chord progressions, see if you can mix them, or alter them. Find out which chords in a progression you can swap for other chords. Experiment to find out what works for you and what doesn’t. There is theory about some of this too, which you may want to study. Google “chord substitutions” and see what comes up. Here’s a famous chord substitution technique, used quite often in jazz: the tritone substitution.

Why?  Mastering this skill will allow you more inprovisational freedom in your playing, compared to improvising over a set chord progression.

Skill 6: (Left hand) Comping Patterns

For keyboard players there are lots of different ways for left hand comping. For guitar players comping patterns are equally important (but they are not left-hand specific of course). Make sure you know plenty of them.

Why? 2 reasons:

  • Variation in comping style makes for, er … more variation!
  • Certain musical styles (see next skill) have specific comping patterns, e.g; boogie-woogie.

Skill 7: Musical Styles

Make sure you know how to whip up a ballad, a reggae song, a gospel song, a folk song. Here is a list of musical styles you might need in improv (you can even edit the list yourself) but be advised that styles are cultural. At home, in Belgium, I have never gotten Irish Folk as an audience suggestion, but in the UK I have.

This skill refers back to Skill 6 (comping patterns) as certain musical styles have distinct comping patterns.  Think ragtime of boogie-woogie.

Why? Several reasons why this skill is important:

  • If you MD for short-form performances, you may have to play musical games, such as Greatest Hits, in which the audience, MC or other players calls the musical styles to play – see video below. So be prepared.
  • Some long-form formats also call for explicit styles, e.g. a Postmodern Musical.
  • Variation is the spice of life – knowing lots of musical styles allows you to spice things up.
  • The story/scene may call for a particular style: if a scene ends up in Cuba, better be prepared to offer some salsa for example.
  • Style can also accentuate the mood of a scene (see also further). A romantic scene might benefit from a ballad-like underscoring, for example.

Skill 8: Combine Styles with Chord progressions

Pick a chord progression and a key you are comfortable with. Try to do a ballad, a rock song, a reggae song on that progression. Mix up styles and progressions and see what works for you & what doesn’t.

As an example reconsider the Axis of Awesome video above: lots of different melodies and styles, all on the same chord progression!

Why?  This skill will allow you to a wider gamut of stuff to improvise!

Skill 9: Mood music

Make sure you know what kinds of things work, both melodically and harmonically, to underscore the mood of a setting. Youtube is your friend. Michael Pollock’s book “Muscial Direction for Improv & Sketch Comedy” has a CD with examples.

The video below has over 2 hours of creepy-mood piano to inspire you.

Why? Mood music is mainly applicable to underscoring.

Skill 10: Understand modes

If you don’t know what modes are, look it up! The good thing is you probably already know the 2 most widely used modes: Ionian (music in a major key) and Aeolian. There are 4 more useful modes; make sure you understand these and are able to apply them.

Why?

To play music for improvised songs, Ionian and Aeolian should be sufficient; however if you want to do hollywood-style underscoring and understanding of all modes will greatly widen the scope of your underscoring.

Skill 11: Song Structure

Learn about song structures. Make sure you understand the concepts of verses, choruses and bridges. Learn about harmonic techniques to differ your verses from choruses and bridges.

Why? This skill is mainly useful for MDing improvised songs.  Be that in gamey situations (think along the lines of the WLIIA video above), or think musicals.

Skill 12: Themes

Practice exploring themes. Any musical phrase can be turned into a theme (or a motiv if you prefer that term).

Why?  Themes can really “connect” the underscoring together, leading to a more unified experience to the audience.  Rather than underscoring scenes individually, using themes for e;g; characters or settings just tightens up the whole!

Skill 13: Ear training

Do not confuse this with perfect pitch. Perfect pitch is the ability to discern any note simply by hearing it, including all notes in a chord. This is a rare trait. Studies show around one in ten thousand people have perfect pitch, and many never discover they have it (certainly all those who do not actively practice music).

By ear training I mean the ability to play along with any music you hear; this aplies both to melody lines as to chord progressions! And yes, you can practice this!

Why?

You will often find yourself in the situation where a known tune might fit the scene perfectly. If you have never played this tune, and you are able, simply be referring to how the tune sounds in your head, whip up a – perhaps simplified version – of that tune on the spot, that’s a great skill for an improv MD. Suppose you have a scene in which one of the characters is the president of France, it is great fun to underscore with a theme that resembles the Marseillaise!

Expectations Management

There are several reasons why these topics do not really belong in a hands-on improv MD workshop, or when these skills are being addressed, you need to manage expectations:

  • All these skills are stuff you can work on by yourself, away from an improv setting. You simply do not need improvisers around you when you are exploring a mode, or when you are learning boogie-woogie left hand patterns.
  • For some of these skills you may want to find a teacher indeed – but that teacher need not be familiar with improv. If you want to work on your jazz skills, hire a jazz teacher. Not an Improv MD (unless that improv MD is also a jazz teacher – but even then, you will be working on jazz, not on improv theatre stuff). Even learning how to improvise melody lines, is a musical skill, not a (musical) improv theatre skill.
  • You do not even need a physical teacher.  For just about any skill I listed examples of videos and websites with interesting material.  I did not curate these links; I just googled some terms and inserted whatever I found.  There is much more,  and much better material to be found: Google is your friend!
  • Most of these skills take time to master. I simply cannot teach you how to play 10 new and different musical styles in a 3 hour workshop. I can give you tips & direction, but you’ll have to do the hard work yourself.

Takeaways

Several takeaways from this post:

  • Learning to become and MD takes a lot of time and hard work, and most of this work is not improv-related. You simply cannot learn these skills in an MD workshop, and you do not need an “improv MD teacher” to learn these.
  • The list of musical non-improv skills is long. Really long. That can be disheartening, but it needn’t be. You can start by picking the low hanging fruits. Suppose you know a couple of chords on the guitar and you find yourself often in settings where mastery of styles is important. Great: start exploring styles, using the chords you know.
  • Following from the previous point: have a plan! Decide for yourself what you are going to work on next. There is so much to explore in music, nobody ever masters everything.
  • So figure out what your weaknesses are, and address those in a structured way. Do this every day – you’re way better off practicing something – anything – for 15 minutes a day, rather than for 2 hours once a week!

However

All that said, if you want to work on say music styles, I will gladly workshop with you for 3 hours. But do not expect to walk away with the ability to play 20-odd different styles. Sorry to break it to you, it won’t happen.

Also, I’ll gladly admit that even though I typed up this list, that does not imply I’m an expert in each and every skill.  I have my own to-do list of the musical skills I need to work on.  And I try to do so every day.

And finally of course there are plenty of improv-related skills that are important to MDs and I will devote a separate post to those.

More?

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