Musician vs Scene Partner


by Joe Samuel

If you are going to have a live musician in your improvised show then be prepared for them to play a far more important role than just observer and part time under-scorer.  Clearly if you are improvising songs in your show then your musician will be a key part in cueing the songs and setting the style, but there is far more going on in an underscored scene than some may think.  I want to look at some scene partner/musician comparisons…

The Offer

Whether it is a song offer, or an emotional offer with under-scoring, when the musician comes into a scene they are making an offer.  It could be as simple as heightening the emotion of a love scene with some soft music or it could be revealing that one of the characters has a dark side with some menacing chords.  It may be a specific sound effect or fanfare.  Whatever the offer, it cannot be ignored in the same way that a scene-partner’s offer cannot be ignored.  The audience has heard the offer and they want to see you react to it.


I remember in class one time we were doing Oscar-winning-moment with musical underscoring.  The improvisers would play a base scene and then have their “Oscar winning moment” called out.  I make a musical offer – usually highly suggestive of an emotion.  In this case there was a scene in which one of the improviser was playing a pregnant woman.  Her moment came around and I came in with some sci-fi horror type music.  That was my offer.  In return she performed a monologue about how wonderful it was to be pregnant and how amazing it would be to have a child.  Horrendous blocking and it resulted in a very odd scene.  Although she may not have agreed with my offer, ignoring it does not make it go away.  It would be exactly the same if a scene partner came on and said “Oh my God you’re going to have an alien baby!” and she totally ignored it and carried on.

Follow me

So take the offer and run with it!  Once musician and improviser are performing together, the mood can always be changed by either participant as long as they are both listening well.  I have no problem in turning a nostalgic or remorseful underscore into a triumphant processional proclaiming the rebirth a of a character – in fact I love it when the music maps the action, and vice versa.  Again, this is no different to just letting a scene partner gently unroll their idea in a scene.  Supporting and listening will allow the scene to grow.

Yes and…

Music seems to have the ability to bypass much of the conscious part of the brain and dive straight into the emotional centres.  When I make a musical offer, it can often be to highlight the emotional state of one of the characters.  I can’t very well call out who that is so I have to rely on the character picking up the sentiment and running with it.  A lovely way to keep that particular ball rolling is by heightening.  If I come in with a sad underscore then it gives the opportunity to take the idea nd make it bigger.  Then I can respond and who knows where we will end up?


One of the easiest ways to pimp the improvisers on stage is to come in with a clear song offer just after an interesting line of dialogue.  This usually results in a laugh of recognition from the audience.  John Cremer has still not forgiven me for doing this right after the immortal words, “This is my dick”.  Suffice to say the song was hilarious even though John spent most of it with a pained expressions as he tried to suppress the shame and laughter.  However, it is just as easy to pimp your musician.  I remember a show in Edinburgh when Heather said she would “put some  music on” in a scene.  I dutifully responded by playing some generic jazz.  A while later, Heather’s character walked over to the radio and said “OH I don’t like this” and turned me off.

Another one I recall was Jason trying to play a church organ in a scene – a dangerous move by any standards.  I was admittedly caught on the hop and didn’t come in the first time.  He said something like “Oh I must have forgotten to turn it on” and the next time he went for it, I came in – albeit with something totally inappropriate of course.

So in conclusion, your musician is on stage with you, you could even say that they have more control over the direction of the scenes than you do.  Ignore us and we will get our revenge – badly timed doorbells, phone rings, songs that you never wanted to sing, a musician never forgets.