The best music starts with a “yes,” because this gives license to the creators to chase their muse.
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