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Rehearsing Improv

Rehearsing Improv


It’s not an oxymoron…

It’s wise to practice to a song before you perform to it – even when you plan to improvise.

But the way we practice choreography – running it over and over again – doesn’t work for improv.

Often we settle into stale “defacto choreography”, and stop making fresh decisions in the moment.

How can you prepare without losing improv’s spark?

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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!

One of the nice things about improv is that, if you can improvise, you’re pretty much always prepared. As long as you know the genre conventions in the music that you’re using, you can just go. But sometimes we know we’re going to be using a particular song and we want to practice to it. But the problem is that most people practice this the way they would choreography. They just run the song over and over again. And the problem with doing it that way is that this creates a defacto choreography. You end up doing the same things every time. And that’s not a problem if you like what you come up with. But for me, that tends to create some dancing that feels stale. I end up doing whatever happens by default rather than making the best choices that I can.

So to keep it fresh, I really need to keep making decisions in the moment. And particularly, if you’re going to be dancing with a live band, creating a defacto choreography is exactly what you don’t want to do. Because what they play for you is going to be very different from the recording. The style and even the structure can vary a lot. And so your defacto choreography lulls you into this false sense of security and you’re even less prepared.

So, how do you prepare to improvise to a song that you’ve already selected without getting locked in? Well, here are four tips.

First, I’d recommend that you practice to play lists, not to particular recordings. Gather as many versions of the same song as you can. And, if you’re dancing to a classic, there will be dozens available to you. But even if you’ve picked a pop song, chances are there’s a cover or two out there. Look for versions with a variety of paces, structures, and stylizations to keep you challenged and keep things fresh. Now, if there really only is one version of your song, then try speeding it up or slowing it down. I use an app on my phone called “Audiopo”. This variety and speed variations, both force you to pay more attention to the details of the song and listen more closely. And that can help keep you on your toes.

My second tip is interleave your practice with other songs. So during your practice sessions, mix and match practicing improvising to your song, to improvising with other songs. This will keep you focused on the process of improvising and making decisions on the fly, and not the specifics of that particular song.

Now, my third tip is to give yourself missions. Each time you run the song, I’d like you to give yourself a different thing to emphasize. Let’s say you want to focus on making interesting arm choices in one run. Dancing to the accents on another. Focusing on the melody with one or the rhythm. Using your space, schmoozing with the audience. Each time you run that song, you have a different mission. This encourages you to explore what the song has to offer while keeping you from doing the same thing every time.

Now the fourth tip and maybe the most important is don’t over practice. When we’re practicing choreography, we tend to practice until we feel safe, until we’re confident that every moment is memorized, every detail is perfect. But that is not how improv works. When we’re practicing improvising to a particular song, we just want to make sure that we have the tools that we need to make decisions and interpret the song in the moment. And a most important aspect here is speed. It’s really important to know what you can and cannot execute at the pace of the song. So throw on the song, try out a bunch of material, and see what you can do fairly comfortably, and what feels rushed or is just impossible to do at that pace. That alone is going to help tremendously when it’s time to get up on stage and improvise to that song.

You’ll also want to take a look at the structure. And you can do this just by listening, but I find it helpful to actually do it while dancing. So what sections are in the song? Do they repeat in a particular order usually? And especially, are there any phrases that are not eight counts long that might throw you? Another thing to look at is vocabulary. What aspects of the music are you excited to explore and do you have the movement vocabulary to do it?

All right, let’s summarize. Practicing for improvisation is very different from practicing for choreography because we’re not trying to do the same things. We’re trying to prepare you to make fresh decisions based on what you’re experiencing in the moment, rather than relying on a defacto choreography. So to make that happen, I recommend that you practice to many different versions of the song that you’re going to use, that you interweave practicing improvisation to your song and practicing improv to some other songs, that you give yourself a variety of different missions, so every time you run your song you have a different goal. And especially, don’t over practice. Once you know what you can do comfortably at that pace, the basic structure of the song and what vocabulary is going to work for you, stop.


Your Turn

Have you ever slipped into “defacto choreography”?

Do you have any tips to share with other listeners?

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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