Phil Lunn’s top Musical Improv warm up exercises

Hoopla teacher Phil Lunn shares his favourite warm up exercises for musical improvisers and how they are helpful. 

  1. Diddly dum.

The phrase is “Diddly dum diddly dum diddly diddly diddly dum”, and we pass it around the circle, one person saying a word at a time. Once that’s sorted, we walk around the room and pass to the next person with our eyes. For added variation, each time we start the pattern, we build a new one e.g. “fiddly dee fiddly dee fiddly fiddly fiddly dee

This is a great exercise for calming down, focusing, getting in to a rhythm, and practising passing and receiving. I particularly like the fact that it’s not a game where we’re continually on the edge of failure, like a lot of warm-up exercises. It’s eminently doable if we focus, and very quickly, we do.

  1. Pass an arpeggio around the circle.

An arpeggio can also be called a ‘broken chord’, and it’s where we sing the notes of a chord sequentially, rather than all together. Think of the piano underneath “Unchained Melody”, “Everybody Hurts”, or “Walking in Memphis”. It’s hard to describe in writing! The first four notes of “I Could Have Danced… all night” are an arpeggio of a major chord.

We stand in a circle and together sing an major arpeggio up the octave and down the octave, all together, with “ah”s. We then pass it around the circle, one note at a time. Every time we complete the pattern, we do it all together once, before starting again with the next person.

This is quite challenging, and unless everyone has a great musical ear then it will take a long time to do it correctly (and that may never happen). Regardless of how much success we achieve, it’s an excellent way to really, really, really, focus on what we’re hearing from our partners.

  1. What’s Going On?

This is an exercise I developed during a lovely afternoon being shown around Stockholm with my improviser friend Kerstin Höglund. It’s loosely based on the song “What’s Up” by 4 Non-Blondes, which is better known by the yelled tagline “What’s Going On?”.

Again we stand in a circle. Someone chooses a location, for example “vampire castle”. Each person in turn sings a rhyming couplet that describes the environment that fits the melody, e.g.:

    There’s a statue before me dripping with blood
    Don’t know what it means but it can’t be good

And the whole group sings:

    I said hey—what’s going on?

And we continue around the circle.

What I like about this is that as well as practising setting up rhymes (which there’s loads of exercises for), this really tests our skill to follow a rhythm. The lines are quite long, and with quite rigid timing if you do it well. Improvising within rhythm is a hugely important skill, more important than rhyming.

  1. Circle Adjustment

This isn’t an exercise but because I’ve talked a lot about standing in circles, I feel a need to share this gem that I learnt from Aden and Eric Nepom. If you’re standing in a circle and the circle is a bit misshapen, don’t despair. It’s happened to all of us. Everyone takes three steps clockwise, then anti-clockwise. Tada! A better circle. I think I know why this works, but explaining it would take away the magic.

  1. Plak!

A non-musical exercise. This is best played with a small group (6 max). We stand close together. Our aim is to come up with a slogan that you might see on a fridge magnet or car window sticker.

One person says a word: for example, “Badgers”. Anyone can go next: “please”. And then anyone again: “apologise”. If you think we’ve completed our slogan (which clearly, we have, because badgers clearly need to apologise), then we push our palms into the circle and say “Plak!”. Hopefully, we all say “Plak!” together because we’re all building the same group mind. And then we create more slogans.

This is a great exercise for getting out of your head with your own ideas and joining in with the group instead. I learnt it from Emma Wessleus who used to live in the Netherlands, and “Plak” is Dutch for “stick” (as in sticking a car sticker to a car). Even in the UK, I prefer to say “plak!” as it’s a good word.

Phil’s next musical improv course start soon.  Phil travels to lots of improv festivals around the world to perform and teach.  He regularly performs at Hoopla Impro with his show Phil Lunn is…

Share this article