Accepting the Rhyme
Rob Schiffmann

People have told me over time that they feel I have a strong facility with rhyme. While that is flattering and I do appreciate the compliment, I have to disagree. I don’t necessarily feel that I am ‘good at rhyming’ as much as that I am good at ACCEPTING the rhyme.

As with anything in improvisation, and in art in general for that matter, the best work comes when the improviser/artist comes from a place of discovery. We must put ourselves in that open and vulnerable place with as little expectation as possible in order to access those gifts that, while seemingly random, hold the power to become poetry. Once we are there, anything is possible. It is from that place that my ‘rhyming gift’ begins. I used to preach that the best way to rhyme within a song was to set up your punch in the previous line. In other words, if I want to say “I love cats”, I would set up cats in the previous line with a rhyming word, such as hats. While I do still enjoy using that method, particularly if I have a funny joke or reference, it has become more of a parlor trick to me over time and while it is a powerful one, it is a bit too intellectual an approach for my taste. Plus, when used to often, it can feel like too great a peak behind the curtain for the audience member who can then say “oh, so THAT’S how they do it”. I prefer to state my intentions in a line and, if my ear says to rhyme with it, I pick whatever word comes to me right away that rhymes with it and then, by being consistently truthful emotionally and in that slightly heightened performance headspace, I will find the reason why that rhyme word is the perfect one to choose.

The lyrics below came from a song I improvised with Broadway’s Next Hit Musical, with the help of the excellent musician / pianist, Eric March. The title had been suggested by the audience and I had said in my set up that it was from a musical about a guy who had cheated in a marathon by taking the train part of the way and the musical was the story of his redemption and how he eventually decided to run again. This song came early in the musical as I was talking to my brother, played by Robert Z. Grant, about how I have now become a bit of a shut in who only drinks and thinks about the past. Click here to hear the song.

“Down the tracks I went runnin’
I was gunnin’ for the gold
I had women, I had money
Damn it was not funny
Had so much I couldn’t hold
But now I lost everything damn nearly everything
From money to love to my daughter
All I got in this place, it sure ain’t a race
It’s beer, wine and water”

If you analyze these lyrics, line 1 is simply stating what was in my head. My ear then told me that I had to rhyme ‘runnin’’ quickly and what came to my head was ‘gunnin’. So, I was able to justify that as ‘gunnin’ for the gold’, which may or may not be an expression but it certainly sounds like one!! Then I did the same thing with ‘money’ and ‘funny’ in lines 3&4. Then I had to pull out the parlor trick because it was time to set up the chorus. What came to my head to rhyme with ‘water’, the last line of the title, was ‘daughter’. When you consider the emotional logic of a man who is down on himself and life because he cheated and got caught and you marry that with the word ‘daughter’, the link is simple: he lost his daughter in the process (which, by the way, gives birth to a whole slew of narrative possibilities later on). Thus lines 5&6 were born to set up lines 7&8 on both an emotional and a rhyme level.

I don’t have a gift of rhyme. As I often do with my students as we start down the path of rhyme, I can say to anyone above the age of 3 or 4, “what rhymes with cat” and they don’t have to think to know to say ‘bat’ or ‘hat’ or ‘splat’. It just comes. What I DO have a gift for is trusting my ear to know that it’s time to rhyme (see what I did there) and trusting myself to lean in to the word that shows up, however random it may seem.

Want to learn to do this? Email me with your interest and I will make sure you know when the next class is starting!

If you want to hear a SERIOUS rhyme-athon song, check out this one with Kobi Libbi as my son and Gary Adler on piano.