On the first Wednesday of every month, a very unique jam session takes place in Station North at Club 1727 on Charles Street in Baltimore. When I first contacted the organizers, Brian Young and Mitch Fishbein (who also work in another project called Bad Karaoke Experience) , I assumed it was an open jam –like with jazz and blues groups. Or perhaps something along the lines of their stand-up comedy bits. However, this was something quite different and unique in some surprising ways.
What I walked into was one of the many teams of the Baltimore Improv Group or BIG community of improvisors, which has been around since 2004. As a musician, improv groups can be very challenging, which stems from its spontaneity. With guitars, percussions and piano, improvising is pretty common –as well as piecing together parts into structured songs. The Baltimore Improv Group does this with simply a piano and tambourine, a troupe of participants, and a component of theatre. Essentially, what I experienced was an organic, impromptu amalgam of complete strangers finding commonalities through random words and winding them into a rhythmic construct with delightful (and sometimes hilarious) song narratives.
In some ways, it is a word game where you have to think quickly, on your feet, and have a tendency to rhyme. The group strings words into coherent phrases and patterns, going from one person to another, in a conga line of unscripted narration. Essentially, this is the inherent beauty of unplanned song formulation, and it remarkably happens in stages. The first stage is merely stating a random word and then throwing an imaginary ball to someone who has to come up with a rhyming word. Sounds simple, but when it’s your turn, you have a split second to think of a rhyming word that hasn’t already been used. Although it is not meant to present a nerve racking situation, it does make for a slightly pressurized moment that earnestly yields thrilling and sometimes funny moments.
The stages evolve until the group reaches whole verses of songs and choruses that have to be created on the spot and having some semblance of connection to the theme one is given. It tends to tell a story, perhaps anecdotal, and remembering your lines after having just invented them is a skill one has to sharpen very quickly or the song simply falls apart. Luckily for me, these kinds of improv song inventions is something I have done throughout my life as a musician in several local bands, so I wasn’t nearly out of my realm of comfort. Like others in the troupe, probably, I found the whole experience creatively arousing to keep things in rhythm. To me, everyone came up with some spur of the moment, fortuitous lyrics and truly copacetic melodies which could very well have evolved into memorable songs.
The final stage of the BIG experience is the improvised musical number. Like in the other stages, a word or theme is given and two participants act out an improvised dialogue, followed by an impromptu song. By this time, all of the butterflies have generally subsided and the musical number simply comes together rather fluidly. It is really an exuberant phenomenon to be a part of. So, why aren’t more of these types of groups around? Mitch Fishbein says, “[Musical] Improv is still in the growth stage.” As it turns out, there are only a handful of Musical Improv Festivals that feature this unique live art form in the USA, mainly in New York, Chicago and the west coast. Fishbein expressed great enthusiasm in starting a Musical Improv Festival in Baltimore. He goes on to say, “The most interesting thing about BIG and Improv is that it brings people together from all walks of life to laugh and have fun 7 days a week.” I agree wholeheartedly. In the Baltimore area, it is a rare opportunity to unleash the inner improvisational singer in all of us.
For more information about the Baltimore Improv Group and the Bad Karaoke Experience, visit their website https://www.bigimprov.org/ and Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/badkaraokeexperience/ . Tell them you are interested in BIG and then show up at Club 1727 the first Wednesday of each month. The best thing is you never know what you will come up with, but Mitch and Brian and the rest of the troupe will surely surprise you.
JV Torres is a freelance writer whose work has been published in Huffington Post, Maryland Theatre Guide, among other publications. He has written several books and is the creator of the podcast audio fiction drama “The Rise of King Asilas” which is on iTunes, Spotify and most podcast platforms.