The thought of taking a singing improv class brought up feelings of both exhilaration and trepidation. Exhilaration because I’ve always wanted to perform as a singer, and trepidation because I’ve always feared I could not really sing. The trepidation faded after my experience in Improvised Singing 101 with Susan Pickover.
While I have some background in music, I’ve never progressed beyond an intermediate level of musicianship as a guitarist and singer. But looking back, that was definitely enough for this class. Also, the class provides the support of a highly skilled musician on keyboard. At first I couldn’t imagine how I might sing an unrehearsed song while making up lyrics on the fly, but somehow it happened. Susan’s repeated assurances that spontaneous song writing was not as hard as you might imagine turned out to be true, at least for me.
Having taken several regular improv classes helped a lot, as did my basic understanding of song structure, which turned out to be part of our training. Like regular improv, understanding some basics concepts goes a long way. For example, Susan covered concepts like chorus, verse, and bridge, which provide a structure and means to visualize a particular form your improvised voice can take. Add to this the accompaniment of an experienced musician and you have what I would call a reliable vessel in which to pour your improvised voice.
The first time I put this to the test happened on the second night of Susan’s class. Believe it or not, she had the audacity to ask us to perform a solo. Immediately my mind started to seize up with fear of the unknown. Fortunately, a few brave souls in the class volunteered to precede me. When my turn came up I had only a tiny idea of what I could do. Susan had asked us to request a prompt from the audience (i.e., Susan and the 7 or 8 other class members). Her suggestion for a prompt: name something that doesn’t exist. My response to the audience: “Give me the name of a children’s cereal that doesn’t exist.” Susan readily replied, “Yummy Times.” That was good, a place to anchor my imagination. Then the musician started to play something jazzy and slow.
While I didn’t know it at the time, my mind latched onto the tune of “Summer Time,” a song composed in 1934 by George Gershwin. I’d been listening to a recording of “Summer Time” by Kat Edmondson, a vocalist from Houston who specializes in “popular music from bygone eras” [Kat’s words]. Not that what I sang sounded much like Gershwin’s tune, as I’m sure it didn’t, but it gave me a place to start and a mood to emulate. For lyrics, I started to tell the story of a young boy longing for his “Yummy Times” at breakfast, and his distracted mother who’d forgotten to buy her son’s favorite cereal. Somehow it worked; that is, I was fully engaged in the moment, mining by subconscious for precious stones. Self-consciousness disappeared long enough for me to sing my song and tell my story. It was, as I had imagined, exhilarating.