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Improv Training Wheels

Improv Training Wheels


6 ways to add improvisation to your performances – at any level.

My aunt is a Spanish professor. She told me that, without fail, the students who start speaking right away are the ones who are the most fluent by the end of the semester – even if they stink at first!

The same is true for improv.

The only way to learn it is to put yourself out there and do it.
So the best time to start incorporating improv is NOW.

I usually share tips for how to learn improv in your practice time. But the holiday season brings winter recitals, holiday haflas, and New Years Eve gigs.

So this time, I’m focusing on ways you can start incorporating improv in PERFORMANCE, not just in the studio.

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This was professionally transcribed, but it probably still has some errors. If you catch any, drop me a line at I’d love to hear from you!

I went to my cousin’s wedding over the summer, and I spent some time catching up with my Aunt Cathy. Now, she’s a Spanish professor, and I’m a polyglot, so we got to talking about languages. One thing that she was telling me is that every single year, she sees that the students who start speaking right away in class are the ones who can speak with the most fluency by the end of the semester. This is true even if they weren’t very good. By the end of the semester, the students who started speaking right away did considerably better even than students who came in with previous experience.

The same thing is true when it comes to improv. The only way to learn it is to put yourself out there and just do it. So, the best time to start incorporating improv is now. But that can be a scary process, so how do you make it easier on yourself?

A lot of the work that I do is creating exercises that you can do in your practice time to learn the skills behind improvisation step by step, but since we’re in performance season, with winter recitals, holiday shows, and New Year’s gigs coming up, I thought I would focus on ways that you can start incorporating improv in your performances. Here are six ways that you can start doing that right now. Whether you’re a newbie doing your first recital solo, or a seasoned pro who wants to break out of a choreography rut, these options can be helpful for you right away. I’m introducing them from the easiest to the hardest so you can pick and choose.

The first option is a choose your own adventure choreography. This is when you choreograph your piece like you usually would, but for one section, you create several different options. You rehearse each one of them, and then when you perform it, you choose which one you’re going to do in the moment. This is not exactly improv, but it does help you learn how to make decisive decisions on the fly.

The second technique is a partial choreography. This is when you choreograph most of your dance, but leave one section unplanned and open for improv. As you get more experienced, you can add more sections.

The third option is what I call a plug and play choreography. This is when you have some parts of your dance completely choreographed, but in other sections, you give yourself a specific mission to direct your improvisation. That might be something like follow the accents, or play with circles. I find this technique to be particularly helpful, so I’ve included it on both of my improvisation tool kit DVDs. In those programs, we do planned combinations for the choruses, and then specific missions for the verses.

If you’re a little bit more experienced, you might want to try option number three, a skeleton choreography. This is when no part of your dance is choreographed, but for each section of the song, you have a specific mission planned. You will have to do some rehearsal to make sure that you memorize what your mission is for each section.

The fourth option is the oasis technique. This is when you improvise most of your piece, but you choreograph a couple of specific moments throughout the song. This can help keep the panic at bay, because you know that you have safe planned moments coming up, and so you’re able to approach the rest of the improvisation with more calm and more confidence.

The fifth technique is to have one intention for the entire piece. That might be a mission, like schmooze with the audience, or emphasize beautiful arms. Your intention might be something like a character, like Alice in Wonderland, or Katniss, or it might be an image that creates an abstract concept behind the whole piece, like falling leaves, or incense smoke.

How do you choose which technique to try? I say just pick the one that appeals to you the most. If something feels cheesy to you, or just isn’t your thing, it’s not a great place to start. You can always come back if your tastes evolve, or if you have greater skills in the future. It is good to push yourself, but make sure that you’re not overwhelming yourself. If you’re newer to improv, you want to choose a strategy that has more built-in certainty, particularly at first, but feel free to use the others in practice. They’re great for that. It’s just that for your first improvised performances, you want to have something that you’re more capable of executing well. Whichever you choose, make sure that you practice using that technique. Unplanned does not mean unprepared.

Let’s summarize what we’ve learned. Improv is not a gift, it’s a skill, and like any other skill, the only way to learn it is to do it, and so the sooner you start, the better. You can ease yourself into this process by using any of the six approaches I outlined above. Choose your own adventure choreography, partial choreography, plug and play choreography, skeleton choreography, the oasis technique, or a single intention. Pick something that appeals to you, and feels like an appropriate challenge. Practice that technique as you rehearse your piece, and then give it a try at your next performance, because the sooner you start using these skills, the sooner you’ll be able to improvise fluently.


Your Turn

Have you tried any of these approaches before?

How did they work for you?

Got a question or topic that you’d like me to talk about on the show?

I would love to hear from you.

Leave a comment below, or better yet, leave me a short voice message. Maybe I’ll even play it on the air!


Want More?

If you’d like to build your improv skills step-by-step, check out my instructional video series, The Improvisation Toolkit, available on DVD and as a digital download.

Check It Out 



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