The Musical Clown

Pictured with Vincenzo Tortorici celebrating the Ten Year Aniversary of The Big Apple Circus Clown Care Unit at Children's Health Care of Atlanta in 2011.

Pictured with Vincenzo Tortorici celebrating the Ten Year Aniversary of The Big Apple Circus Clown Care Unit at Children's Health Care of Atlanta in 2011.

I had a great day working in the hospital today. My partner was Reuben Haller, who like me is a musician. Working with Reuben got me thinking about the different ways we use music as clowns in our work in the hospital.

 I've come to see that most of the music by clowns fits under two different styles.  One is an approach that is atmospherical, more prone to be improvised. The second is more structured and routine based.

Here's how these musical approaches effects hospital clowning. 

Atmospherical Music

A lot of my hospital closing work involves music. One of my favorite things to do is to play music as I'm traveling the halls of the hospital. I play catchy, upbeat music. Recently I've been playing some bossa nova tunes. This music serves as a way of introducing ourselves to those around us. I discussed this dynamic in a previous clown fear post on my blog here.

Sometimes we use the term "Musical wash "to describe this. We may travel through an area playing music as we go. It doesn't have to be an actual song; it could be a riff or a tune without words.

 I was working with a clown partner who said that she always felt like she had her own personal musical score as she worked with me. I think this best describes this atmospheric approach of music. I often think of this as a way of musically scoring the dramatic action of our work in

the same way that a composer scores a movie.  Depending on the artistic choice the music may heighten or lower the tension. Various musical approaches can introduce a character or comment on the action as it's happening or anticipate a change of tone. I especially like this style because it makes the music a separate artistic element used to compliment another creative factor. 

Music as a routine

The other form of music which I see in our work is quite different from atmosphere. This form presents the music strictly as a standalone presentation. It's as if you are  present this song by saying, "I am going to play a song for you." You play the song. And you close by saying, "Now I am done with playing this song." This musical approach makes the music itself much more of a standalone routine, in the same way that a magic trick may be presented. At times, I like using songs in this approach as material for this method. One of the ways of doing this is to make the introduction, performance, and close of the song an actual routine onto itself. As with any other type of standalone routine, this approach may take more rehearsal and setup time to create. That said, I've seen this approach work well for a performer who might not be comfortable in a more improvised musical approach mentioned earlier. I've seen many new clowns who are drawn to this approach because it can be rehearsed with planned dramatic beats in the routine. The rehearsal aspect can make some clowns feel "safer" performing this way.

I've found it useful to know which approach you are taking musically. With either of these styles, it's best to be very comfortable with the instrument you're playing and the music you are presenting. Any performance environment will have distractions. The hospital will provide even more distractions with medical staff and family. There is no substitute for truly knowing the musical material and knowing your instrument well. I have seen some musicians, myself included, make a mistake of playing content before it was ready.   Whichever approach you use atmospherical or routine make sure you know your material well.