Musical Improv

by Cari Sue Murphy

From ages 9-17 I was a part of a non profit dance and lip sync troupe called the Earth Angels. We performed mostly Motown and Oldies hits with a few modern numbers mixed in. We performed everywhere you could think of from the Woodward Dream Cruise, Retirement Homes, Disney World, and schools. One school we performed at every year was always very meaningful. It was called Cloverdale and it was a school for children who had severe physical and developmental disabilities.

The gymnasium would fill with students, teachers, and parents. Many of the children were in wheelchairs, many were both blind and deaf. How could these children enjoy a show of dancing and music when they couldn’t see us or hear the music? The show started, and that gym was full of more happiness and energy than I knew possible. How?

They could feel it.

They literally FELT the physical vibrations of the music. These kids would dance and smile and at the end of the show they would hug us and not let go. That was one moment of my life where I truly recognized the power of music. It’s powerful enough to transcend disability and connect people through it’s vibrations. Music is incredible, just like the kids at Cloverdale school.

I share that story to emphasize the limitless possibility of music. Song is a language everyone can speak. Even if you don’t understand the words of a song you can feel it, right? You can feel if it’s a happy or heartbreaking song, if it’s intense or chill. Most of us have songs that can take us back to a certain moment of time with just a few notes. We know lyrics that can make us weep and songs that make us feel strong enough to conquer our greatest life battles. Combine the superpower of music with the magic of improv and you have something truly special.

Musical improv only amplifies the “being in the moment” that is so awesome in non-musical improv.

In Musical improv you are thinking of so many things at once. Relationship, lyrics, emotion, rhythm, song structure, harmony, rhyme scheme, give and take, game of the scene and movement. There is even less brain space for self doubt and there is less time to hold back. Some of the best moments I’ve ever experienced on stage have been when my scene partner and I are so in the moment, so connected by music that we sing the same exact lyrics with boldness and energy and in perfect harmony… pure magic. In those moments I feel so connected to not only my scene partner(s), but the whole room.

There is a LOT to think about during musical improv, but I think the beauty of it is how simple it is. Melodies and lyrics don’t have to be very complicated to make a lasting impact on people. Sing simply about something and instead of going wide and creating further plot details go deep into that one simple thing you started your song about. Using very few words, what is the core of the matter? That could be your chorus. Think about the great choruses that everyone knows and how simple they are “Don’t stop believing! Hold on to that feel-leh-ee-eh-in!” …. “Nanananan Hey Jude!” ….. “I- ee - I will always love you!” …. “Who let the dogs out? Who? Who? Who?” …you get the point. Simple, powerful. It is always tempting to wrap something up and move onto what is next but the whole purpose of a song is to stay in what is. Don’t move past a moment because it gets uncomfortable. Go deep in that moment, for that is the exact place where what you “should say” dies and the honesty about that situation, the emotions, the relationship comes out… IN SONG!

If you are interested in doing musical improv I think a great way to get started is to sing throughout your normal day. You can make up your own melody or change the lyrics to songs you already know.

Sing about microwaving your oatmeal! Sing about the day ahead of you or what you notice that you might otherwise overlook. What’s going on around you, how do you feel? Notice it and sing it. The best songs are honest songs. But honesty doesn’t have to be limited to your own perspective. You can sing from a character’s perspective what is true to THEM! As you are driving somewhere instead of turning on the radio, become a character and make up a song from their perspective. Instead of being Julia Schroeder driving to the Recycling Center (which is pretty amazing in and of itself TBH) why not be Marcy Duhampton driving to the edge of a cliff to ponder her identity after she was served divorce papers. What song is inside of Marcy in that moment? Is it in a minor key? Is it dramatic? Is it hopeful? Or pretend like you are 16 year old Camden Crosby driving alone for the first time after getting his license. What’s that stoked dude singing about?! What’s he going to do with his newfound freedom? Try it! In one song you can go deep into a character’s psyche. Pro tip- if you have young children or pets they can be forced to be your audience.

In conclusion, I just want to encourage all the musical improvisers or hope to be musical improvisers out there not to hold back. The world needs whatever song you and your characters have inside you- whether we need the lyrics, the laughter, or simply the vibrations...

It is needed.


Cari comes from a long line of women who made songs up about practically every moment of their life. Some may cringe at the thought of such a life, but Cari hath embraced it to the fullest making it her hobby and passion. Cari began improv classes in 2013 as a New Years Resolution but it has blossomed into her life’s joy and purpose. When not on stage or in rehearsal you can find Cari hanging with her three year old son, Roosevelt, sweating profusely at Orangetheory, or with her headphones on at a coffee shop, journal open, muffin crumbs everywhere, just trying to make sense of it all.

Posted on March 17, 2017 .