3 Music-Based Improv Games for Young Actors

Music Is a Great Tool for Building Acting Skills

Tragedy and Comedy Masks
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Most improv exercises are intended to expand actors' comfort with creating characters, interacting in front of an audience, and thinking on their feet. Few exercises, however, are built around musical comedy. There are a few reasons for this:

  • Musical comedy requires music, and few drama teachers have access to a piano and piano player. Sure, you can play around with recorded music -- but that's not as easy as it sounds.
  • Musical comedy requires singing, and a surprising number of young actors are very shy about singing. Those students who are not confident in their singing skills may refuse to take part.
  • Musical comedy doesn't generally require the same level of character development as a straight play or even a non-musical comedy. With music and dance to take up the slack, many musicals have stock characters with little motivation and few personal characteristics.

So why bother with music-related improv? First: almost every high school in America -- and many junior high schools -- produce musicals every spring. If your students plan to take part, they'll need to brush up their musical skills. Second, music is a terrific tool for building internal rhythm and other skills your young actors will need whether or not they ever play a musical lead.

The improv activities described here are music-related, but they don't require participants to read music -- or even to sing!

Theme Music Improv

This improv activity is suitable for 2 – 3 performers. It requires theatrical music to be played while the actors perform. I recommend a simple keyboard and someone who can play impromptu background music. (Nothing fancy is necessary – just music that conveys different emotions.)

Have the audience members suggest a location. For example: library, zoo, kindergarten class, driving school, etc. The actors begin the scene with a normal, everyday exchange:

  • Hey, Bob, did you get that promotion?
  • Son, I got a call from the principal today.
  • Hello, and welcome to jury duty!

Once the conversation is underway, the instructor (or whoever is manning the keyboard) plays background music. The melody can alternate between dramatic, whimsical, suspenseful, western, science-fiction, romantic, and so forth. The actors must then create action and dialogue that matches the mood of the music. Whenever the music changes, the behavior of the characters change.

Emotion Symphony

This drama exercise is terrific for large groups.

One person (perhaps the drama instructor or group leader) serves as the "orchestra conductor." The rest of the performers should sit or stand in rows, as though they were musicians in an orchestra. However, instead of having a string section or a brass section, the conductor will create "emotion sections." Learn more about how your students can create an “Emotion Orchestra.”

Song Spoofs

It’s not easy to compose original melodies. (Just ask 80s band Milli Vanilli!). However, students can take their first step toward a song-writing career by spoofing existing songs.

Form the students into groups (between 2 – 4 people). They should then select a song with which they are each familiar. Note: It doesn’t have to be a show tune – any Top 40 song will do.

The instructor will give the song-writing groups a topic for their song lyrics. Because of the storytelling nature of musical theater, the more conflict, the better. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Getting “dumped” on Prom Night.
  • Being trapped in an elevator.
  • Getting caught shoplifting.
  • Saying goodbye to your dead goldfish.
  • Finding out your grandma is a vampire.

Students collectively write as much of the lyrics as they can, hopefully telling a story, or conveying lyrical dialogue. The song could be delivered by one or more characters. When the students present their work to the rest of the class, they can simply read the lyrics to the class. Or, if they feel brave enough, they can perform the newly created number and sing their hearts out!