Singers make it up as they go along

Brian Walter got started in improv because he likes a challenge. And no other type of improv challenges Walter, a professor at The Evergreen State College, as much as improvising a song.

It’s fitting then that Walter is the reigning champion of “Improv Idol,” in which members of the group Improv Robot compete “American Idol” style, but make up the songs as they go along, in collaboration with keyboard player Noah Dassel.

Walter will be competing with other improv artists Friday and Saturday night at the Midnight Sun.

Last time around, Walter’s winning song was “Orange Cucumber,” sung in the style of Bjork. (Audience members suggest the titles.)

“There are two finalists, just like at the end of ‘American Idol,’” said Walter of Olympia. “The other finalist went first, and he sang this amazing song. I thought, wow, that’s impossible to beat. So I decided to just be weird.

“Somehow, I ended up winning. It was insane.”

“Improv Idol” began as part of a 26-hour “improvathon,” said Sam Schroeder, Improv Robot’s founder. “We did a lot of established improv games, and then we created a bunch of our own because we needed to fill a lot of time.

“This turned out to be the most popular part of the show.”

How do you make up a song on the spot? It takes a lot of practice, said Schroeder, who emcees the competitions.

“Some people, when they see really good improv, think: ‘What’s the trick? They must have done this before,’” he said. “They look at it like magic. Really, it’s just a lot of practice. There’s no trick.”

The key is to make quick decisions about what the song will be about, what style it will be in and how the chorus will go, Walter said.

At one “Improv Idol” show – this weekend’s will be the fourth and fifth – one of Walter’s advanced math students suggested the title “Large Cardinal.”

“I guess he was hoping I would sing about set theory,” Walter said. “But instead, I sang about a cardinal in the Catholic Church.”

Not a really big red bird?

“That’s another way you could go,” he said. “That’s a good example. You have to decide right away which way you are going to go.”

There’s some luck involved, too.

“Whatever the audience member suggests, you have to do, and some of the suggestions are awful,” he said. “One time, someone had to improvise a song called ‘I Eat Kids,’ which I thought was a really unkind suggestion.

“I guess anything can work if you can find a way to make it into a story that you want to tell, but I don’t know what I would do with that one.”

Improv Idol

What: Members of the group Improv Robot will improvise songs, starting with titles suggested by audience members, as part of an “American Idol”-inspired competition.

When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday

Where: The Midnight Sun Performance Space, 113 Columbia St. N., Olympia

Tickets: $5-$10 on a sliding scale. Available only at the door.