11 Non-Musical Improv Skills for Musical Directors



Last month I posted a blog listing 13 essential music-related skills for improv Musical Directors. I made the point in that blog that those skills can be learned outside of an improv setting, and cannot be acquired during e.g. a 3 hour workshop.  Besides, those skills are general music related skills that are unrelated to improv in the first place, and it takes time, effort and rehearsal to really make them your own. That time & effort can be spent outside and improv-related setting; i.e. on your own or with a music teacher.

In this post I’d like to address improv-related skills that are essential for Musical Directors; I’m guessing what follows is mainly interesting for musicians who want to get into MD-ing for improv shows. And I’ll give away a dirty little secret before we start: all these tips interlink together; they are not islands (as in work on the first one and then get to the next one) – they are related and one feeds into the other.

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

1. Learn the Basics of Improv Theatre

Improvising a scene, playing an improv game or mounting a one hour long form is more than just hopping on a stage and being funny. The art of theatrical improv (and yes it is an art, be it perhaps not a very highbrow form of art, it’s art nonetheless) is structured.

Think about it this way: a bunch of guys/girls get on stage, neither of them can read the others’ minds, and we expect them to end up with a coherent scene of story. That won’t just magically happen.

Fortunately we improvisers have fundamental principles that guide our work. Some call these “improv rules” but personally I’m not too fond of dogma when it comes to improv. There are various “schools” of thought regarding these principles – none is better than the other and fundamentally it pretty much boils down to “Yes-And”: the principle of accepting what has been offered, and constructively build upon that.

As an MD you are IMHO an improviser equal to the actors on stage, in the sense that you are creating something out of nothing together. As an MD you are part of that creative process, ergo you need to understand the mechanics of that process, and you need to acquire the skill set to – without thinking too much – be part of that process on stage. In order to build along with the actors, you need to understand what the actors are doing (and why they are doing it) in order for you to actively participate in the process. Sure you can read about all that – plenty of blogs like this one, and plenty of good books as well (link naar reference secties!). But the best way to learn about the the Yes-And principle is to take an improv course, as if you were an actor. It does not matter you do not want to act on stage – you never have to. But take the course. Any introduction course. Provided it’s given by a decent teacher.

If you’ve never heard of Yes-And before, and want to know more before taking a course, here are some longish articles about the principle; I do not particularly endorse these and google will help you find plenty of others:


  • You are not going to learn yes-and from a book of a blog post. It takes practice
  • You may want to read my post about the Rules of Improv: Yes-And is an important principle, but I would suggest not taking that too dogmatically!

2. Learn the Style & Formats Your Groups Play

I mentioned that all improv basically boils down to the principle of Yes-and. But that said, there are many different ways of playing improv: there are short form games, narrative long-form, game-based long form, you name it. As an MD you do not only need to understand the basic Yes-And principle; you also need to understand the specific style of improv your work with, and the details of the formats.

Learning a group’s style and formats can be done by participating in rehearsal, or by watching shows. Rehearsal is the better option, in particular for what follows!

3. Rehearse With the Group

Improv is a group mind thing: the better the players know one another, the easier it will be to get/stay on the same page. Rehearsing helps you to get to know one another. As an MD, it also helps your to identify the musical feeling – or lack thereof – of each of the actors. Some love to sing and others loathe singing. Some adapt naturally to your underscoring and others will always blatantly ignore the music. You want to know all this!

This goes both ways: you want to get to know the actors but they also need to get to know you. It certainly helps if they have a feeling what they may or may not expect from you. Actors & MD being comfortable with each other is a definite plus.

Another reason is unwritten group “rules”: some groups will expect e.g. songs at fixed points in the performance; other groups use cues to signal each other and the MD what’s expected, musically and other.

Note that seasoned MDs will easily pull off a show with folks they have never worked with before. Just like seasoned improvisers will pull this off with other seasoned improvisers they have never met. But as a fledgling MD: rehearse with the group! Not just to get to know the group, but also you simply need rehearsal time, to get comfortable with what follows.

4. Learn When to Lead and When to Follow

As I mentioned before, the MD is an improviser equal to the others on stage. That means I expect the MD both to “follow” (the Yes in Yes-And) as well as to “lead” (the And in Yes-And).

Most inexperienced MDs tend to follow the scenes. Something romantic happens; boom there’s romantic underscoring. Something scary happens and there comes the scary music. However: music can influence and even steer a scene. A well rounded MD should be able to steer a scene when needed. And when is that “needed”? Well, that is hard to put in writing; experiences goes a long way: that’s why  #2 (rehearse) is important.  As is  #1 (taking a basic course in improv, to teach you when scenes need what).

Which leads to the following…

5. Learn to Make Clear & Bold Offers

If and when you choose to steer, you better make sure your offer (i.e. what you are bringing to the table) is crystal clear. If you feel a scene might lead to romance, bring on the schmaltz, but better make sure it’s loud and obvious enough for the actors to register. Hesitation and tentativeness will not get you anywhere. Learning this takes practice: hence  #2: rehearse!


Players not used to working with an MD may not always be consciously aware of what the music is doing. That leads back to  #3: rehearse with the group.

6. Learn That it’s Not About You

If you are a concert pianist then it’s all about you: you are the star of the evening. If you are the lead guitar playing in a rock band you probably think it’s all about you, and for quite a chunk of the gig it will be all about you and your searing, ripping solo’s. If you play in a jazz combo it’s all about you for every player, taking turns soloing. In improv, it’s never about you. It’s about the whole. And oft-quoted improv adagio is “make the others shine”. Since as an MD you’re just one of the improvisers, that holds for you too.

You play what the scene needs, you play what the song needs. That does not mean you’re condemned to a servile role. See  #5: you’re supposed to make clear and bold offers. But so do the actors.

I worked with an aspiring MD one, several years ago. He was a brilliant jazz pianist. The subject was music for improvised songs. When he witnessed a musical rehearsal his comment was “but that’s way too simple”. So he got a shot at doing music for a song and the singers complained “we can’t sing to that, we don’t feel where the music is going”.

If you want to show off your musical skills, being MD for improv is the wrong place for you. If you have excellent musical skills, they will shine through everything you do as an MD, nothing wrong with that. But don’t show off. Showing off you will not add to the performance, and you know what, you won’t even add to your own ego either, because the whole of the show will be worse off compared to when you play along with the actors, balancing give & take.

Note that this holds for the actors too: nobody likes an improv player who always leads – that’s called steamrolling. Improv is a group effort: the group gets to shine, not the individuals. Sure, some shows John will have the spotlight more than Jane does, but other nights it’ll probably be the other way around.

Improv is not a competition between the players (remember, as an MD you’re just one of them). There exist competitive forms of improv (like TheatreSports and ComedySportz) but really, the competition aspect of those formats is wrapping paper. When players take the competitive aspect too seriously quality tends to suffer.

7. Learn When to Play and When not to Play

This follows somewhat from  #6. There is absolutely no need to drown the whole performance with underscoring. Silence is equally important as music, and can be of equal emotional value. Furthermore, if there is constant music the audience won’t even notice it anymore. If you decide to play, it better be meaningful. When in doubt, there is no doubt: just hold off.

The same holds for the actors: we typically do not want to see “talking heads” improv, where actors just jabber & jabber. Physicality, object work and activity are equally important as words.

8. Learn to Drop the Metronome

When you are playing a scripted song you want to be pretty tight. If you play with a band or an orchestra you’ll want to be synced to the drums or percussion as tightly as you can. For that reason practicing with a metronome is good practice.

However, when you are underscoring a scene, it is often a good idea to forget the metronome, and to follow the dynamics of the scene. Take e.g. a scene in which 2 characters have a question/answer exchange: instead of just rattling off a chord progression underneath what is going on, why not adapt the moment of you chord changes to the switches from question to reply?

Similarly, if you are providing music for an improvised song, your singer may decide to slow down (or speed up), following the emotions of the lyrics – in such a case it is not your job to wrestle the singer into the original tempo.  So learn to drop the metronome if the scene or song demands that.

9. Get on Stage

I mentioned several times the importance of rehearsal. But even more important is actually performing in front of an audience. The best way to learn what works and what doesn’t is on stage. You’ll learn to read audience’s reactions, but equally important is the comments afterwards from the other players, or from the coach/director. Most groups do post-mortem notes. BTW – if you get a note, take the note.

I like to compare it to competitive cycling:

  1. Sure, you need to spend lots of time on a bike, churning away miles.
  2. But competitive cycling is a team sports: you need to also work with your team, get to know everyone’s strengths and weaknesses, make sure you understand the kind of cycling the team does. A Tour de France is a very different beast than a cyclo cross.
  3. Learning the strategical and tactical workings of a race takes experience: you need to do actual races.

For an MD the 3 things-to-do for a that comparison boils down to:

  1. Hone your musical skills.  You don’t need improvisers for that. You can practice on your own and work from a music teacher.
  2. Take an improv course, work with a group, rehearse.
  3. Play on stage. As often as you can. Screw up, learn from your mistakes, and get better.

10. Obtain Permission to Suck

Following from the “screwing up” in  #9: the craft of the Improv MD is mainly learned on-stage in front of a live audience. Figuring out what works for you and the audience is trial and error.  Ergo, you will  screw up.   And you should.   Playing it safe and only doing what you know works is pretty lame in an improv context.  So give yourself permission try stuff you have never done before.  That might go awry, but do give yourself permission to screw up, and make sure you get permission from the actors.  Don’t worry – a well oiled bunch of improvisers does the same, with themselves and with the others.

If this sounds weird to you here are some articles on the subject:

11. Listen With Your Eyes

I’m guessing that most musicians are pretty good listeners; the product you create is meant to be listened to. Also, if you are playing in a band, you’ll have to listen to (at the very least) the rhythm section.  Obviously you’ll listen to what the players say, and you’ll react to that.  When a player claims “I’m so sad” you’ll bring in the sad music.

However, in  #7 I noted that for actors physicality, object work etc are equally, if not more important than verbose stuff.  You need to see that.  A player may state “I’m happy” but at the same time her physicality may evoke the opposite.  You need to see that.  So don’t sit there with your eyes glued to your keyboard (or whatever you are playing).

Also, make sure you are positioned in such a way that you can actually see all actors’s faces. Listen with your eyes!  Here’s a picture of me eyballing what the heck the players are up to in a performance.

Eyeballing what players are doing – with Ligue d’Improvisation Professionelle (LIP) – Brussels – 2018.


So there you go: 11 non-musical improv skills for aspiring Improv MDs.   I’m sure other experienced MDs can think of many more – feel free to share those!


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