Improvise on The Fly and Make It Beautiful


    Mastery is the art of responding to the conditions  of the moment in an adaptive manner

    Improvisation is the heart of that.

    Improvisation is a loaded word - full of expectations that are often not warranted. Having lived with this art for an entire lifetime, I find improvisation entirely commonplace, even pedestrian.

    I also find it remarkably unique.

    It is not, however, rare or special.

    Like creativity itself, improvisation is always with us. We are constantly meeting the demands of a changing world even in our most  ordinary moments. Whenever we think we are in a stable environment, that is only because we are focused on some defined limits - the same work routine, the same room, the same people.

    That apparent regularity, however, is located within a much, much larger world of random happenings and random happenings are always possible even in a limited set of relationships. If things are contained and stable, its because somebody is working hard to keep it that way.

    So lets consider improvisation from two apparently divergent views:

    • the stable commonplace and
    • the spur of the moment invention.

    To understand the former, let's begin with the latter.

    A musical performance is a typical setting to see and listen to improvisation. In fact, we go to a musical performance anticipating that we will see something spontaneous and inventive, something fresh and unexpected, something with deep, heart-felt feeling that enriches our experience in that moment.

    As an audience, this is the icing on the cake. We know the performers will perform the music we know and recognize. We know they'll play that song - we love that song but we're waiting to see what they do with it, how it will break into spontaneous jams of surprising melody and rhythm.

    The band knows this. They've rehearsed like crazy. In many cases, they've played that one song hundreds and hundreds of times, so they really know the territory. Its the same old routine to them. It's terra firma. It's ordinary and very commonplace for the band.

    When they break out and explore an improvisation, they actually stay right in that same territory. They continue to play right through the same chords of the song but they take the opportunity to explore how the notes in those chords might go together in other arrangements, in other melodies.

    Once one band member does this, it forms a basis for another musician to respond and they then go off to arrange the notes in a fresh, new way. As this progresses, a conversation emerges.

    If the session is very hot and dynamic, amazing musical inventions can appear. They're not just amazing to us, they're equally amazing to the performers who make them up. It surprises them, delights them as they're playing right at the edge of their musical skills to discover with the audience, what's coming next.

    A Common, Creative Mechanism

    The same creative mechanism is at work in any area where one might improvise and that brings us to the stable, ordinary commonplace. No matter what we are involved with, there is a pattern to doing it. We operate within a sequence of events, a common thread of occurrence.

    Imagine that you go to work each day and always take the same route. You walk the same streets. You go past the same shops. You see the same sights.

    Along the way, however, there are probably more streets that inter-connect with your route that you never venture down or shops you've never stopped in. There are certainly always people present that you never speak to, never acknowledge.

    Its stable and commonplace because you never vary your path, never vary your behavior.

    What If You Take Another Way

    But what if, today, you turn down another street and walk down blocks you've never been on. You haven't really gone astray. You know you'll eventually be able to turn a corner and make your way back to your original route but now that you're here, you see things you've never seen before, houses, shops, people, places. You've become an explorer.

    Or perhaps, you keep on your traditional route but stop to say hello to someone you've never spoken to. Perhaps you stop to buy something in a shop. You go through a door you've never passed through. You're just making this up. Wandering a bit with intent to malinger.Then you return to your route and eventually get to work.

    That small, spontaneous variation was improvisation. Exactly the same art as the horn player uses on the bandstand.

    It can show up everywhere. In the midst of any effort.  Variations are always available.

    Try it. In the midst of whatever you're doing, do something different. If you are sitting at a desk, spontaneously open a drawer, then close it. No reason. Simply variation. Sitting in front of your monitor, turn it off, then turn it back on. Variation. Walking from one place to another. Stop and spin around. Then continue walking.

    Won't people think you crazy. Absolutely. That's how we hold the norm. No one steps out of line to spontaneously spin then re enter the line.

    But we would in a dance. We would in the back line at a New Orleans funeral. Any competent performer lives for the moment when they can step out of line to get back in. They do this to force little variations into the commonplace. The beautiful can appear when we do this.

    Improvisation has no need to call attention to itself. What if in some small mechanical moment you find you're missing one screw. You have to improvise. Will it be another fastener? How about wire? A zip tie? A shoelace?

    One never knows if improvisation will work ahead of time. You simply have to dive in and be there to find out.

    Take Off From Where You Are

    Composer David Amram tells that the Great Trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie once told him that in improvisation you just take off from where you are.

    That's remarkable. That implies you can't play a wrong note.

    If you go off key, go on from there. Work it in and take it back to where you were going. Step out of line to get back in line.

    Creation is always a work in progress. It is never finished. If you wish to master your life as a competent creator, make sure to play around with creation. Its very plastic. You can turn it into all sorts of things. Do that.

    Add something you think will work. Remove something you don't want. Spin it this way. No, that way. Back up and try that again.

    Re-Stacking The Universe In A Different Way

    Creation is a work in progress

    From a lifetime of doing that, I've learned that the whole process of design is merely re-stacking the universe in a new way. At this point, I can now see that is all any of us ever do.

    No matter how much someone tells you it must be this way, that's only one creator's opinion. They may be dominant enough to force the issue. The universe itself, however, is more flexible. It really will let anything happen.

    Two exercises as you go your way:

    • Pay attention to the world around you, wherever you go. How much do you see being made up on-the-fly?
    • Pay attention to the tiniest acts in your own life. Change them up.

    Then ask yourself, how artful can you make this moment? What might you re-stack in the universe? In the endless flow of becoming something, how might you next alter the flow? What beauty might your tiny variation create?

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