What Musicians Can Learn From Improv

by Randy Chertkow and Jason Feehan
06/16/2015

File Under: Creating and Making Your Music, Making Videos 

When you want to enhance your creativity, how do you do it? We stumbled on a method back in 2006, when we decided to embark on a major project called TheSongOfTheDay.com. The project involved us releasing one song for every day of 2007 -- 365 songs in total. We were writing, recording, and producing songs well ahead of time to reach this goal. Although we were prolific composers, because of the scope of the project, we invited other people into the project to help us write and record so much music (and even create some videos on current trends like Star Wars) We would do this in songwriting weekends where we'd often compose entire albums of music in just a few days -- all of it to be recorded more fully later after the demos were captured first.

To our surprise, the most prolific writers and lyricists weren't musicians -- they were improv actors. These actors were all trained through the rigorous Second City and ImprovOlympic programs in our hometown of Chicago. No matter what idea we threw out to the group, they could come up with concepts, words, lyrics, and ideas around it. Some of them would just write tons of lyrics with no music or melody whatsoever. These lyrics were then built on by the musicians in the group who found it easier to write music once the lyrics and concept there in black and white.

The improv actors we worked with shared the core principles they were using to generate so many ideas and suggested that we go through the program. While we were too busy to do it that year (we succeeded in releasing a song every day of 2007!), we always kept these principles in the back of our minds. And, we finally did it.

Recently we graduated from Second City. And it has enhanced our creativity. We liked it so much, we now do improv professionally as a side gig in venues around Chicago. Besides teaching you how to make up songs -- it's not uncommon for them to ask students to make up and sing entire musicals on the spot -- they have a number of core principles that musicians can learn from and use in their work.

We'd like to share the best improv techniques to help you create more music, and amp up your creativity:

1. Yes and…

Ideas come from accepting every single contribution, and this is why Yes and… is the most important premise of improv, with the simple idea that what gets said must be accepted and built upon. If one person says "We're on the moon!" that's where you are. If the next says, "And we're having a birthday party!" you're having a birthday party on the moon. If you don't like the direction the group takes, you can only transform what's there, not deny it. As long as you follow this rule, collaboration is frictionless and you don't know where it will take you. Editing comes later.

2. No agendas

When you're trying to make a free-flowing idea, having a fixed idea or direction that it should go doesn't work out well. It stops you from genuinely participating. It's the same problem that undermines good listening -- don't listen knowing what you're going to say next, because then you're not really listening. In order to have genuine contributions, you should be reacting, not acting. You are still making decisions, but you're doing it based on the last idea expressed.

3. Statements not questions

When you do contribute, make definitive statements and don't be afraid to make decisions for the group. Most people start by cautiously not boxing in their fellow collaborators with their own ideas, but when you're working on something without a script, you need those decisions to give the partner something to work with.

4. Play

The entire first course in Second City's program are basically games to make you feel comfortable being creative, silly, and to learn to trust the group. This is because most of the lines that you try out on stage in improv don't work, but when they do, they're gems. Every good improv group starts with simple and often ridiculous warm up games that could be played on a school playground. You can't do anything wrong in the creative process except to stifle your creativity. So let it out and play.

What should be clear based on these rules is that a collaborative effort means that you have to trust the group that you're with. It's equally important to have a good vibe and working relationship with them. And if you're working alone, note that a lot of this form of creativity comes from reacting. Nearly every sketch in improv starts with an audience giving a suggestion of a place or a relationship, and if you're writing on your own, you can still find inspiration or something to react to in order to get you moving.

What also should be clear is that this isn't just about music. It's about being creative about your persona, your marketing, your videos, and all of your creative output.

And, finally, remember that the entire reason you do this process is so that you can capture the result, and refine it later. Editing and producing come afterwards but it all starts with riffing on the music and lyrics (if there are any) and making something with others that never been done before.

Related:

#makingmusic #improv #songwriting #creation

Photo Credit: Alan Levine


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