Merlin Works Teacher Spotlight: Michael Brockman

Michael Brockman brings a whole new dimension as part of the Merlin Works Faculty. He’s been helping teach Improv Singing Classes at Merlin Works for years and he brings a ton of knowledge about music, an endless well of musical choices, and ages of performance experience as a touring musician and recording artist. Next up, he’ll be singing Improvised Singing 201 with Aden Kirschner Wednesdays in May.

When and how did you get in to improv?

Of all things I answered a Craigslist ad in 2006 (I think). Girls Girls Girls was looking for an improv musician. I had seen Shana (along with several other folks) on the cover of the Austin Chronicle not long before and read about improv in Austin. I remember thinking, “That sounds like fun”, but didn’t really give it a second thought. Then came the Craigslist ad, I auditioned, GGG found me acceptable and I’ve been getting sucked farther and farther into the improv community ever since.

What was a turning point for you in improv? 

Improv was just a whole new outlet and chance to grow musically that I hadn’t even known existed. So I was pretty enthusiastic right out of the gate. As far as “turning points” I remember playing at TCIF with GGG and Jill Bernard back-to-back and actually having a touch of stage fright, something I didn’t think I was capable of experiencing anymore. I also remember being pretty pleased with the way the shows turned out. So there was some kind of turning point in terms of my self-confidence there. I also remember underscoring a show early on and breaking into the “Halloween” theme during a spooky section of the show. It got a big laugh from the audience and I had the sudden realization that I could get an audience response by using iconic (or at least recognizable) music when underscoring. I think having that in my pocket made me feel more like a legitimate improviser in my own right rather than simply a sideman.

What do you love about improv?

Smartass answer? As the musician I get one of the best seats in the house. . Real answer, it utilizes much of the varied skill set I’ve built up over the years. All the things I’ve learned as a band member – solo performer – dueling piano monkey – jingle writer – composer – producer – et al all get drawn on in some manner as an improv musician. I love the intellectual and emotional engagement of that real-time synthesis.

What are some highlights of your performance experience?

I think anytime I do a show “cold” with new people and it works it makes my personal highlight reel. The first time I played with Jill Bernard at LAFF comes to mind (I can still hum “Working on a Gun Line” from that show). Playing with Impro Melbourne and Three Falling (from Israel of all places) at OOB was great, too. These were all people I had literally just met and we went out and did coherent, entertaining shows. That’s just a rush. While there’s a lot to be said for playing with people you’ve worked with for a long time and have great communication with, there’s still something extra-special about those first “click-y” moments with brand new people.

How would you describe your teaching style?

My style of teaching improvisational singing has modified over the last few years. When I’m teaching private lessons in voice or an instrument I’m a firm believer in the old saw about “knowing the rules in order to break them”. As a musician; I’m a technician first, and an “artist” or whatever you wish to call that role a distant second. So I emphasize technique and concept.
Improvisational singers, however, simply don’t need a thorough technical grounding in music. What I think useful for them to have, though, is the ability to recognize common musical conventions. I find most people already know many of them whether they realize it or not. They can “feel” the difference between major and minor progressions. They can “feel” the difference between 3/4 and 4/4 time signatures. They can “feel” that a V7 chord wants to resolve to a I chord. My goal is to get them to begin to recognize these “feelings”, whether they know the terminology or not, and be able to put them to use when creating melodies and harmonies in an improv context. To do this I rely mostly on demonstration and positive reinforcement.

What advice would you give a new improviser?

I’d give the same advice I’d give to anyone entering any artistic field. Emulate the people who are doing what you wish you could do. Eventually you will find your own voice emerging from the patchwork. 

What’s something you are passionate about that has nothing to do with improv?

Literature. Many’s the time I’ve dreamed a little dream of running off to a cabin in the middle of nowhere, building a modest recording studio in it, filling the shelves with any and every book I could lay my grubby little paws on, having groceries trucked in once every six months and dropping completely off the grid to read, think, write and record undisturbed. 

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About Shana Merlin

Merlin Works is the brainchild of Shana Merlin: improviser, teacher, and performer. Since 1996, she’s been leading classes that stretch people’s imaginations, push them out of their comfort zones, and make them laugh out loud for hours at a time.

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