Rules and Insiders

I saw an improv comedy show this weekend, and it left me reflecting on rules and insiders.

Improv has a lot of rules guiding the behavior for participants. (Here’s Del Close’s 11 Commandments). Until you really know the rules, you might feel in the dark. You will be entertained by good improv, but until you understand the rules – until you’re an insider – you won’t be able to really speak to why certain performances are better than others.

The same is true in many fields, particularly insular ones with avid insiders. Consider vocal jazz. There are a lot of specific rules to effective jazz vocal group singing. Many of them are rarely made clear in advance: they’re learned through participation. That’s fine – sing in a good vocal jazz group and I’ll guarantee that (a) you’ll learn these rules, and (b) you’ll want to do it again.

But it leaves uninitiated people feeling a little clueless – makes it difficult for them to join in.

It was when Del Close and others started teaching classes in improv that it really took off – because actors and others could learn the rules, which were then further clarified and written down. He made outsiders into insiders, and they helped spread it further.

We in the vocal jazz world need to do a better job of the same.