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Beginning Musical Improv: Part 1
by Ben Brinton

If there were ever something that scared improvisers, musical improvisation would be it. With so many unpredictable circumstances, one cannot help but freeze in the thought process of "what am I saying?," "does it sound right?," "am I in key?" Though this article cannot prove as valuable as actual experience, my hope in writing this is that within it you might find an explanation, or exercise, or inspiring thought that thrills you with the magnificent potential waiting to be tapped in musical improvisation.

I have divided this topic of musical improv into three sections, each one set up to spotlight a basic tool used by the actors. The concepts in these articles are pretty basic. My intentions are not to critique, argue, or inflate my personal ego, but to eliminate the anxiety that so many actors have about music and it's relationship with improv. In addition, I want to destroy those excuses actors use to weasel out of any attempts of musical improv. Mind you, there are several details that make a good musical scene into a terrific one, but those details come only after understanding the basics: rhythm, melody, and rhyme.

RHYTHM

In the dictionary, rhythm is defined as a "flow, movement, etc. characterized by a regular recurrence, as of beat, rise and fall." No one has the right to accuse themselves or others of not having rhythm. There is a rhythm in us all. There is not one person who lacks a beat in their soul. There ARE those who cannot hear or feel the rhythm that others are so receptive to. Not a problem, that is due to a lack of focus and awareness. If you think about it, your heart has a rhythm, a constant "rise and fall." When you walk, your footsteps make a beat. That is rhythm. Be aware of that. Be aware of other rhythms in your world (your car turn signal, a dog's insistent barking, your breathing, etc.)

I want to destroy those excuses actors use to weasel out of any attempts of musical improv.

In improv, rhythm provides a sort of grid that every actor on stage works from. It's the backbone that unites the actors thinking, getting them on the same page. Rhythm does not always have to be stated as a thunderous drum beat. Some moments ask for a subtler beat, but in its absence there is still a period of time that carries the actor or action. There is still rhythm in that; it's just not obvious. When a strong rhythm is established, the audience members bob their heads, tap their feet, or maybe even clap their hands, but ultimately it gets them moving and involved at the same pace as the actors. A rhythm brings the audience to the same page as the actors.

So how does one nurture this inherited beat? First listen to music, anything and everything. From those songs, recognize how they made your foot tap, or your head sway. Be aware of how that rhythm makes you want to move. Slow and sensually? Fast and forceful? Groovy and laid back? Recognize these beats and store them in muscle memory. What I mean by that is train your body to move with those beats. Move those hips, or shake those shoulders, just so long as you actually feel that continuous rise and fall, that flow, that movement. Eventually it will become instinctive. And therefore your frantic mind on stage won't have to worry about a beat; you body will do it for you. The key thing is to get exposure to numerous styles of music. And really study them. You are an improviser; your greatest ally is knowledge. If you are still having troubles with feeling a rhythm, turn up the volume, put the speaker next to your chest, and actually feel the heavy hits in your gut.

Exercises: The MACHINE

Start with one actor. He/she will do a simple action with sound, and repeat it (with sound) over and over again, keeping a steady pace (rhythm). Example, a lady pulls at something and makes a high pitched 'ding' and then returns to her first position to do it all over again. Once they are grounded in their movement, add another actor that does another simple movement working off of the first actor. Example, a man takes a step towards the dinging women and grunts just before her 'ding.' Allow some time for the actions to connect and steady themselves in the rhythm. Continue adding actors. Remember: You are going to be doing this action a lot of times so keep the action and sound simple, and somehow connect the action to the actions of other actors. The group should then be a human constructed machine with individual parts and sounds working off of each other.

To be continued...

Ben Brinton is a musician and actor. He performs improv with the group Knock Your Socks Off (KYSOff) in Salt Lake City, UT.


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