Friday, January 8, 2010

Life is one Big Improvisation

It's my motto, because I believe this is the most important point that any advocate of improvisation can make. It directly contradicts the predominant cultural meme that says improvisation is some mysterious, abstract, and hopelessly complicated act, most often committed by an elitist group of weirdos. Oddly, this meme is not just held by people who have never thought much about improvising, it is also accepted by many improvisers, and for some it is even a point of pride.

Life is one big improvisation, and every human is a master improviser. It’s simple and it’s true, and like any simple truth about our basic nature, it extends into every part of our lives. Everything we do, everything we learn, and everything we create is a part of our ongoing improvisation with the world. Like thinking, or remembering, or feeling, it’s both the most incredible magic, and the most pedestrian exercise of a basic human faculty.

It’s a simple truth. Improvisation is a basic part of human existence, something that everyone does all the time, and intuitively understands. I want everyone to know that they are improvisers. I want everyone to feel free to have fun improvising whatever it is they enjoy doing. I want everyone to assume they will enjoy the experience of other people improvising. After a recent show, the father of one of students said “I didn’t think I would like this, but I was really surprised. I could understand what you were doing!”

I consider that to be a great compliment.


  1. Interesting.

    Would you agree though, that humans in their daily lives throughout their lives, improvise to a sort of internal script, rather than pull something out of the air so to speak?

  2. mmarton,

    This comment got me thinking in a couple different directions.

    I've always thought that humans were fascinating because not only do they improvise their lives, they improvise the selves that are improvising their lives. I don't think that's quite what you are talking about, though - perhaps that's a topic for another day!

    If we accept my definition of improvising ("the process of combining the knowledge and skills we possess with the possibilities and materials available in the moment, and spontaneously creating something") then we could say the "air" that we are pulling something out of is the sum of our conscious and unconscious awareness, knowledge and skills. That "something" is a creative impulse or inspiration that is triggered by what is before us in this particular moment (that we can then use to create).

    (Whew - a lot of words, but it's an important concept in my theory of how improv works, and it applies very simply to most everything!)

    But the other thing your comment brings to mind is self-consciousness, which is something I hadn't thought about in this way before. The question of other animals and improvisation has always kinda bugged me. Using that same definition, other animals can improvise, but obviously human improvisation and creation are different. I was thinking about your comment and Ding! the light bulb when on! Now it seems so obvious! Thank you!!

    Self-consciousness, of course! It means we not only have the ability to improvise with the world, we also have the ability to improvise with ourselves. It's the improvisers greatest blessing and greatest curse.

    But perhaps that's not you are referring to either - your comment also brings to mind the whole topic of acting habitually and improvisation. We all have sets of habitual actions - it could be something as simple as how you put your socks and shoes on, or it could be vastly more complex. I am fascinated by this whole topic, because it touches on so many areas - the relationship of improvisation to creativity, to learning, what kinds of habitual behavior are useful, and what kinds get in the way of freely improvising and learning... but perhaps that should be another blog, for another day (or several)!

  3. Thanks Tom,

    Yes, the improvised life is most definitely an interesting concept, and one which, the more one examines, seems to have underlying problematic areas which need to be resolved.

    By way of throwing something else into the mix, what about "the unexamined life is not worth living" - Socrates.

    How does improvised life stand examination? By definition, improvisation where you've aligned it with life itself, can't really be improvisation in the sense with which we apply it to artforms like music or painting.

    To be truly improvising in our personal lives, we'd need to exist on the same level as that in which we perceive music - perceiving, interpretation, reacting, acting. It's a minefield.

    We follow the inner script, we discover circumstance, we react, then learn. We call this process "experience" and we file it away in our script. Interesting isn't it?

  4. I believe improvisation is a process, and no matter what we are improvising (music, painting or other parts of our lives) this process works the same way: we combine the knowledge and skills we possess with the materials and possibilities available in the moment, and spontaneously create something.

    What we improvise is subject to examination in exactly the same way as anything else. Rational examination and improvisation are two vital human processes, and one does not exclude the other. In fact, I think they are entirely co-dependent. Examination gives us new materials and possibilities to improvise with, and what we create in this new improvisation guides us in our further examination. It is a wonderful cycle of discovery and creation!

    Do we really exist differently when playing music than in other parts of our lives?

  5. "Do we really exist differently when playing music than in other parts of our lives?"

    Absolutely we do.

    To get right to the point - I disagree with you entirely.

    What you've done is intellectualise a process, and thus, reduced it to something which can best be described as "academic"

    This is very much a problem, and occurs usually within the confines of universities and other learning institutions. In other words, it all becomes a little removed from the realities of ordinary and mundane life.

    No sir, in so called real life, we improvise as little as possible. But when we pick up a horn or any other instrument of expression, we are freed.

  6. We may disagree, but not entirely. One of the greatest joys in life is that experience you describe as picking up a horn, or other instrument of expression, and being freed. I’m sure you would agree!

    At those moments when I understand that my true instrument is myself, and my life is my expression, I am freed, in exactly the same way.

    As for the dreaded "A" word, that has come up before, so I think I'll address that in a separate posting. For now I'll say I believe thinking and talking about things is fun, and as long as one does not confuse the talking with the thing itself, there is no problem.

  7. "One of the greatest joys in life is that experience you describe as picking up a horn, or other instrument of expression, and being freed. I’m sure you would agree!

    At those moments when I understand that my true instrument is myself, and my life is my expression, I am freed, in exactly the same way."

    Agreed - with qualifications :-)

    Good conversation Tom. I've gained some insight into the improvisation process itself through this little back and forth.