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The Rules of Improvisation

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


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