My Toastmasters Project 6: Vocal Variety

I’ve been involved in Toastmasters for almost a year.  I attended my first meeting in February 2013 but I didn’t join my current group until May 2013.  I heard about toastmasters a few years before I ever stepped foot in a meeting.  I read a Jeffery Gitomer book titled, “The Little Green Book of Getting Your Way,” where Jeff talked about how important Toastmasters was in his life.  I heard similar comments from many of the successful people I’ve been following over the years.  After my first year in a Toastmasters group, I did not complete as many speeches or tasks as I originally planned when I first started due to my other obligations like the birth of my first child, completing my Master of Science degree, and work.  But I’ve grown tremendously over the last year while giving five of the ten Competent Communication Projects.  The act of showing up to my first meeting and subsequent meetings has helped me get out of my comfort zone.  It forces you to grow in many areas.  First, you need to show up, commit to join, meet a lot of likeminded professionals, to interact, give both prepared and impromptu speeches, and lead with opportunities to run a meeting, lead the group in an officer position, create a special committee, or becoming a mentor to another member. I feel like it’s been one of the best professional decisions I’ve made.  Due to my busy schedule, I’m trying to make a habit of keeping a speech in my back pocket to allow me to be prepared in advance so I’m not forced to cancel a speech opportunity.  I want to get into the habit of practicing my speeches and recording them at least once before I present them at Toastmasters.  I know I should have already been doing this to prepare but I’ve always been rushing to complete them in time before the meeting. It’s why I’m going to post my completed Toastmasters Project Six: Vocal Variety, titled, “My First Improv Class.”

My First Improv Class

Who here has thought they could have always done another career, which many people think is difficult?  My wife’s father is known for always saying he could do almost anything if he had someone telling him what to do.  It doesn’t matter what it is, cutting hair for a living, perform an operation, or flying a 747.  It made me think about what I could do. I have always thought I could do what Will Ferrell or Bill Murray make look easy in their movies.  I believed I could improvise like them or at least I could be good enough to make a movie about some dumb topic with my friends.  I mean, how hard could it be?  You watch these guys on TV and movies acting like idiots with hardly any real plot or storyline.  Don’t get me wrong I love their movies, they’re hilarious, but why couldn’t I do it? It’s a question I’ve been asking myself for about the last ten or fifteen year but I never actually tried performing.  Instead, I decided to do nothing. Finally in 2011 I wanted to perform something on stage.  I played every sport in school but I haven’t acted in anything since elementary school. I made a goal to find a class in either acting, stand up, or improv which would allow me to perform on stage at the end of the class.  After a little bit of searching I found improv classes taught at Steel City Improv.  At the time they were located in the North Side in the basement of an old building were a fencing school would teach classes on the above floor.  You would hear the pounding and shuffling of feet whenever their practice coincided with ours.  The improve class was only on Wednesday nights. When I pulled up to the building I kind of thought I either got ripped off on some online scam or I was about to get jumped because if I say it was not the nicest location in the world it would not be an understatement.  It looked like an abandoned building.  I entered through the side of the building which lead to a hallway.  The door to my left, read Steel City Improv. I looked at the door getting the same feeling I kind of had coming, for the first time, to Toastmasters.  Except our Toastmasters group is in a slightly nicer building. It’s that moment before you really commit to something.  There is definitely a process to creating new habits like coming to Toastmasters or taking improv classes.  I think of it like this.  You’re doing nothing then something or someone comes along and gives you an idea. Improv and acting on stage came to me because I loved movies and comedies and I wondered why have I never tried doing it myself.  The idea of Toastmasters came to me through the Jeffrey Gitmore book titled, “The Little Green Book of Getting Your Way.” In it, he talked about the benefit Toastmasters had on his life. Then you start the debating process of convincing yourself to actually try the thing you thought you’d like to do.  This can take any length of time depending on how uncomfortable the idea will make you.  Like I said earlier, getting the courage to go to an improv class took me about ten to fifteen years from when I first thought about the idea to the time I actually decided to go try it.  I heard about Toastmasters through the book and then it took me about a year to actually come to my first meeting. My point is the hardest part is not deciding to come or thinking it would be fun. It’s not even paying for whatever you want to do. How many people have paid for gym memberships but never used them?  The hardest part is showing up. This was my thought before I was about to open the door of the improv.  I’ve already completed the hardest part. Now is the easy part.  At that moment I opened the door and stepped inside.  After I opened the door I was pleasantly surprised to find a small ticket window which doubled as concessions during their weekend shows, a bathroom, and a stage which was big enough for twenty people to stand in a circle.  There were two rows of wooden chairs in the front and the right side of the stage and a sound booth on the left side.  There was also another bathroom and a changing room for the performers in the back.  The ceiling was low; it was an old Pittsburgh-style basement.  I could reach up and touch the ceiling with my hands. There were a few people sitting nervously in the chairs spaced out in the room like we were about to be called for Jury Duty. You would never know we were there for an improv class and to have fun and to let loose.  None of us really talked until the room slowly began to fill up and our instructor said it was time to start.  It was time to break the ice.  

There are a few things that are important when you start an improv class.  It’s important to warm up and learn everyone’s name in the class.  I’ve always considered myself not great at remembering names even though I was a bartender for a brief time in my twenties and learning people’s names was one of the main aspects of the job.  In the first improv class we spent about the whole class practicing some warm-up games which we’d do at the beginning of each class we introduced ourselves and played games to learn each other’s names.  At beginning of our first class we got in a big circle to loosen up.  Each person stated their name, something about themselves, why they decided to take the class, and then a stretch the class would do like touch your toes, roll your shoulders, or stretch your arms. Then we did some breathing exercises were we breathed in and then made a funny noise or shout. We’d shake our arms and legs to get all the stiffness out of our body. We practiced some tongue twisters to practice our pronunciation.  We also did a few more mental exercises to get us thinking on our feet which were basically an adult version of the telephone game. Each person would add a word until we had a long statement when it reached the end of the circle.  We practiced quick-thinking by playing a few games like giving each other high-fives around a circle almost like a small version of the wave but then the instructor would yell out reverse and we’d have to send it in the other direction or pass it across the room to another student. Later we played games to memorize everyone’s name.  For someone who’s always felt particularly poor with remembering names, after playing name games for over a half an hour it’s pretty hard not to remember someone’s name.  We stood in a circle and passed an imaginary ball while saying the person’s name before passing the ball. We played a few variations of this game for the rest of class.  At the end we got back into a circle and finished with a few cool-down exercises which usually put us on the spot to do something like make a weird nose or striking a pose.  

All of this was meant to teach us the beginnings of learning to work together.  Improv is all about acting as one.  In the beginning it’s important to realize you can’t go off on your own. When I thought about improv, I thought about the comedies I enjoyed and the famous Saturday Night Live characters like Bill Murray, Chevy Chase, Chris Farley, and Jim Bulshi.  Always having fun and telling jokes but improv is not always about being funny.  Being funny is only the goal after you learn the basics.  Improv is all about learning to work as a group and learning to tell a story. By the end I was exhilarated.  I just spent an hour doing things I’ve never done.  Completely ridiculous things I felt loose and I knew twenty new names that I didn’t know before I opened the door.  It was amazing, similar to how I felt about my first Toastmasters meeting. I couldn’t wait for next week.

At the end of my first Steel City Improv class our instructor taught us the Steel City Improv Motto: Listen, Commit, Play.  I think it’s a great motto for any creative endeavor but especially to Toastmasters.  It’s important to listen in Improv because everything you are doing is based on what other people are saying to you.  If you don’t listen then it’s impossible to perform improv. At Toastmasters, it’s important to listen to other members during the meetings and evaluations. Additionally, you must listen to the  grammarian, timer, and mentors because they’re all here to help you get better.  Once you decide a direction to take your improv you need to commit to the idea otherwise it won’t work, it’s similar to the way you need to commit to the Toastmasters by participating at meetings, writing speeches, performing roles, and volunteering for table topics. Lastly, it’s important to play at improv and have fun with the ideas you’ve committed to. At Toastmasters, it’s important to speeches, take a chance with table topics, complete a role, and mentors another member.  Improv and Toastmasters are both similar in what they want you to achieve. They want you to grow and have fun.  Listen, Commit, Play. Mister (or Madam) Toastmaster.