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The Rules of Improvisation

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The Rules of Improvisation
In her book Bossy Pants, Tina Fey discusses how her time with Second City—Chicago’s legendary sketch comedy theater group—made her the incredibly successful, confident, sexy ruler of modern media she has become. In her words: “Studying improv literally changed my life.”

Fey dedicates a large section of her book to “the Rules of Improvisation,” which became her personal precept and influenced her destiny by guiding most of her decisions. As I read the Rules of Improvisation, I kept thinking, This is how the best musicians approach their art. Long direct quotes remain the lazy writer’s best friend, so here are some italicized goodies extracted from Fey’s book, served up with light commentary by your humble scribe.

The first rule of improvisation is AGREE. Always agree and SAY YES. When you are improvising, this means you are required to agree with whatever your partner has created. If I say, “Freeze, I have a gun,” and you say, “That’s not a gun, that’s your finger,” our scene has ground to a halt. Start with a YES and see where that will take you.

Have you ever tried to make music with a naysayer? It’s about as much fun as a root canal. Start a slow blues groove and Donnie Downer says something like, “Can we please play something with some changes?” Negative statements like that are the verbal equivalent of a turd in the punch bowl—they kill the party. You can’t really create music when someone makes you doubt your ability or direction.

The best music starts with a “yes,” because this gives license to the creators to chase their muse. Bands usually break up over “direction,” which is a nice way of saying there is a lot of “no” going around the rehearsal hall. Yoko was probably not a “yes” kind of girl when she was destroying the Beatles. Just look at those candid Let It Be video clips, as she sits nearly on top of John, glaring with disapproval at Paul, George, and loveable Ringo. Check out the Beatles’ earlier candid videos or audio outtakes, and you hear four best friends encouraging each other.

The second rule of improvisation is not only to say yes, but to say YES, AND. You are supposed to agree and then add something of your own. If I start a scene with, “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you just say “Yeah,” we’re kind of at a stand still. [But if] you say, “What did you expect? We’re in hell.” Or “I told you we shouldn’t have crawled into this dog’s mouth,” now we’re getting somewhere.

“Yes, and” means you are contributing. Getting back to our jam scenario, if I start a slow blues and the other players leave the stage to get a drink, begin texting on their phones, or just ignore the jam, we are done. But if the drummer comes in with a funky, Chitlin’ Circuit-type groove, and the bass player starts going all Billy Cox, then we have at least 10 minutes of good times with those three simple chords.

The Next Rule is MAKE STATEMENTS. Whatever the problem, be part of the solution. Don’t just sit around raising questions and pointing out obstacles. We’ve all worked with that person. That person is a drag.

Most of us had bands when we were teenagers, but rarely keep bands going as we age. That’s because naive teens with ridiculous haircuts, limited ability, and crap gear make statements and go with them rather than weigh the costs and point out obstacles. Teens say things like, “Let’s combine bluegrass with classic Zep bass lines and Brazilian drums.” The rest of the band responds, “Great idea, let’s make a record.” Will it succeed? If success means having a good time while creating something, then yes, this will be a wildly successful project.

When approached with the same enthusiastic fool’s errand, older players respond with something like, “Brazilian drums are so yesterday. That market is already oversaturated. Besides, we will never get the budget together for a decent recording.” Then everyone slumps home to watch TV and nothing is accomplished. Granted, the GrassZepBrazil thing may sound like a mistake, but this brings us to Fey’s best rule:

THERE ARE NO MISTAKES, only opportunities. Many of the world’s greatest discoveries have been by accident. I mean, look at Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups or Botox.

Some of the most creative and satisfying work stems from what may at first sound like a terrible idea or a full-on mistake. I recently did a track with hick-hop star Cowboy Troy. My cowriter, Dave Goodwin, wanted to add harmonica to the song, but he did not have a harp in the right key for straight or cross harp. I concealed my skepticism, stayed true to Fey’s agree rule, and let the man do his thing. Goodwin ended up playing the coolest, weirdest part that far surpassed any trite blues-harp solo I could have played. It brought the song to a much more exciting place, because we took Fey’s advice to “Start with a YES and see where that takes you.”

Fey explains that, if you’re performing with somebody, it is your responsibility to make your partner look good—and that’ll make you look good in the process. Naysayers take a perverse glee in pointing out what they perceive as other’s mistakes. This accomplishes nothing. “Yes” people merrily take over the world, while the naysayers cynically watch from a distance and bitterly mutter, “That band sucks. I know this for a fact, because I use to play with them. I’m sooo much better than those idiots.”

Fey doesn’t exaggerate when she says these rules changed her life. People who say “yes,” agree, make others look good, contribute, and find opportunities in mistakes just seem to be happier and more fulfilled. Life’s a stage—now get out there and play.


John Bohlinger is a Nashville-based guitarist who works primarily in TV and has recorded and toured with over 30 major-label artists. His songs and playing can be heard in major motion pictures, on major-label releases, and in literally hundreds of television drops. Visit him at youtube.com/user/johnbohlinger or facebook.com/johnbohlinger.
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