Have you ever had that dream where you’re standing on stage and people are expecting you to sing but you don’t know the words? Well, I lived that for eight weeks.
A couple years ago, I fell in love with improv. I started taking classes at The Third Coast Training Center in Nashville, and didn’t stop until I graduated the entire program. I even went to Chicago to do a week-long intensive at the iO Theater.
After that, I was in a predicament — I didn’t have any way to do improv. Due to restructuring, the club hadn’t had any auditions for teams, and after the sixth level of class, I didn’t have any more to take… except for one. Musical Improv 101.
I guess when you’re jonesing for a fix, you’ll try just about anything.
Although at times it was even more difficult than I thought it would be (and I didn’t think I was underestimating it), and although there were times I couldn’t wait for the eight weeks to be over, I learned things about myself. I’ve written about how improv in general applies to life… but here is what I learned doing musical improv.
You won’t die if you leave your comfort zone.
Keep in mind, I’m not musical at all. I have some rhythm and can kind of carry a tune (sometimes), but I’ve had zero musical theory training — so I never saw myself even attempting something like this. Then again, I said the same thing about improv itself three years ago, so there you go.
I was nervous every week (scared shitless the first week), but I survived. If nothing else, I faced a big fear — one that I didn’t know existed because I had never entertained the notion. I exercised completely new muscles, both physically and mentally. I caught a glimpse behind the scenes of an art form that formerly alluded me. I became a better improviser. I was better on the last day than I was on the first. In fact, during the last class I sang a song I was pretty proud of.
Neale Donald Walsch said, “Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.” Some may choose not to believe that, but I do. Think of some of your greatest memories. Were you in your comfort zone? Meeting your future spouse, having your first child, graduating college, buying your first home, your wedding day (or divorce day for that matter)…
Sure, many of those things tend to happen in life anyway, but there’s no reason to sit back and let life happen to you. And sure, a lot of our fears stem from the fear of actually dying (heights, sharks, etc.), but so many more are over things that put us in very little danger. Fear (in multiple forms) holds us back from all sorts of things.
I believe the fear of failure is at the top of most people’s list. Which leads me to this…
It’s ok to suck at things.
As I said, I was actually bad at musical improv at first (and several times throughout). There were days where I knew I had done the worst out of everyone in class (that’s subjective, but… trust me.) I’m not used to that. I’m not used to being the best at everything either, but I can’t remember a time when I was the worst.
Even more frustrating was after a couple weeks I started understanding the structure and what it’s supposed to sound like… but I couldn’t execute. I understood the concepts in theory, just not in practice. I wanted to get good at it, but there were certain neurological pathways in my brain that simply didn’t exist. (As it turns out, singing along to an accompanist when you’ve never done it is rather difficult.)
However… what’s wrong with that? What’s wrong with saying “I don’t know how” and, more to the point, what’s wrong with trying it anyway? Here are a couple reasons sucking at something is good:
It keeps you humble. Not everyone needs a slice of humble pie. Some people do. (Some people need to be bashed over the head with a humble sledgehammer.) Either way, being bad at something lets you know you’re human. At best it gives you empathy for others; at worst it lets you know your limitations.
You get a story. Maybe it’s embarrassing one. So what? When you’re far enough removed, you can laugh about it. Or maybe it’s a surprisingly good story. Maybe you found your new calling! Maybe it’s a non-story — but you still have it. When I’m old and decrepit, I’ll be able to say that I stood on a stage and sang to an audience without knowing the words. I think that’s kind of cool… even if no one else does.
You learn things. As I said, I now have a behind-the-scenes look at an art form that used to seem impossible to me. I learned things about song structure. I learned how to come in on the “one beat.” I learned that a waltz is in 3/4 time.
And not only that…
You can always learn things about yourself.
Improv is not about thinking fast; improv is about discovery. You listen and build upon the last thing that was said. In fact, if you’re in your head thinking too much, you’ll miss what the whole scene is about. That said… in musical improv you have to think fucking fast. And when you’re put as on-the-spot as possible, it’s amazing what comes out of your mouth.
One of the first lessons of musical improv is attaching your ideas to emotion. It doesn’t matter if you’re singing about getting ringworm from dog feces (that was a real song from our class), the audience wants to know how you feel about it. (For the record, that song wasn’t about dog feces; it was about a sense of belonging and accepting people who are different from you. Explaining it any further would wildly distract us from the point.) So, as you’re singing, you tend to latch on to readily-available emotions and storylines.
I could tell you who in my class had a hard time in high school, who was in a committed, or formally-committed, relationship, who had young children, who had issues with their parents… just from what they sang about. It’s like the old therapist game, “I’m going to say a word, and you tell me the first thing that comes to mind.” That’s exactly what happens on stage, and sometimes you can go deep-diving into your psyche. You don’t have time to think, so you take whatever suggestion you get, quickly free-associate it with something worthy of a song, think “how do I feel about this?” and then you’re off.
The point is, sometimes you have to get out of a comfort zone to discover things about yourself. Sometimes it’s helpful just to know those things; sometimes it turns into a cathartic experience; and sometimes you need to try something new just to know you can.
But even if you can’t…
It’s all about commitment.
Of the important things to keep in mind while performing improv, commitment is number one. I talked about commitment in the article I wrote about regular improv, and the same holds true for musicals. You could be the best singer in the world, but if you’re standing still, not believing what you’re singing, the audience will lose interest. Conversely, even if you can’t hit a note, committing hard to the character and the emotion will have the audience completely engaged.
It doesn’t matter if you need work at something. Commit to doing it. Commit to learning through mistakes.
Now the question is… do I take Musical Improv 2?