This has changed over the past few months, as I have begun filling in from time to time as the musical accompanist at Theatresports Toronto [later Bad Dog Theatre] improv comedy shows (see photo1, photo2). I am excited at the opportunity to combine my two performance interests, improv and music. At the same time, I have found that improv music is not the same as music, and not the same as improv -- rather, it is something new and different.
Much of improv music consists of providing musical "background", i.e. playing brief musical snippets to set a mood of happy or sad, quick or slow, angry or scared. Particular sounds can evoke particular contexts: slow wailing harmonica for the Wild West; harpsichord music for Shakespeare; steel drum sounds for a Caribbean island. And a well-timed note can punctuate a performer's action, for example by playing a sharp loud chord just as an imaginary object is thrown down.
The musical improviser also sometimes provides sound effects, which can have a more direct impact on an improv scene. A ringing phone, a gun shot, seashore or bird noises, or a helicopter sound can complement the action or even take a scene in a whole new direction.
My favourite moments have come when my music was most closely integrated with the improv scene. I recall a silent scene at Harbourfront, where my "angel choir" sounds lead to a dead character coming back as a ghost. Or a kite-flying scene at the Village Playhouse, where I decided to start off with drum music, and this inspired the improviser to do a sort of modern interpretive kite-flying dance, complete with happy triumphs and sad defeats, all without words. Or a tense stand-off scene at Harbourfront for which I played a rhythmic, pounding minor chord, which caused the characters to aggressively march around each other in time to the music. Or a "should have said" scene at the Poor Alex, where one character sang a song and then the audience called "should have sung", and I just had to start the musical intro over again to get a laugh.
Doing improv music has required a new skill set. Knowing all the words to American Pie is of no help, but being ready with a quick Star Trek riff or horror sound can be crucial. At a recent show, the musician Tiny Tim was mentioned, but unfortunately I didn't know the melody of Tiptoe Through the Tulips -- how could I have known I would need it? So, I am trying to slowly build up my repertoire of Christmas carol introductions, Mission Impossible riffs, Jaws theme music, and more otherwise-useless musical tidbits, with the goal of acquiring a large (if superficial) arsenal of quick, evocative riffs to fit any occasion.
Unlike in a conventional musical performance, it is important in improv to be able to change gears quickly and unexpectedly. Fortunately, I have done a lot of informal musical "jamming" with many different people over the years, which has helped me to be somewhat prepared musically for whatever comes my way. Of course, the results are still unpredictable, and even seemingly clever musical interventions don't guarantee success. For example, at a recent Poor Alex show, an improviser was having difficulty guessing the phrase "solar powered", so I played the song Here Comes the Sun -- but only the show's host noticed!
I am still new at improv music, and still trying to find the right balance of adding to the scene whenever possible, while carefully avoiding overstepping my bounds or drowning out the improvisers' lines. I benefit a lot from watching the true experts, like Matt Reid and Jamie Lamb, who have so much talent and experience. I hope I continue to have opportunities to perform improv music, so that I can keep on improving, and hopefully help the improv scenes more than I harm them.
Update (2010): I went on to become the main Theatresports Toronto musical improviser for much of 2002 and 2003, including regular Saturday night shows at the Poor Alex, the first ever Globehead tournament, etc., and also provided musical accomaniment for many other improv shows too. I then took a break from improv music for a while, but later got back into it, performing musical accompaniment at various shows including at the Bad Dog and SuperLucky and Social Capital and Oakville Improv and more, see e.g. here. I've also done music for a few plays including Chronocide (mp3) and The Mumberley Inheritance (youtube).
To contact Jeffrey Rosenthal see his contact page. See also his Improv Page and Music Page.