How often do you practice improvisation?

Today is June 29 and the Navigate the Chaos question to consider is “how often do you practice improvisation?” It is wonderful to have life planned out to the smallest detail. Arranging everything to happen in a pre-determined synchronicity would be an excellent strategy to use while navigating the chaos and practicing the art of living well. Predicting every question, issue, and problem that could possibly arise is helpful. But all of this is also highly unlikely since almost no one who has ever translated a dream into reality had it all figured out from the beginning. If they are honest with you, those who navigated the chaos will tell you they improvised, and made it up, as they went along.


Such a strategy is used in film making quite often. For example, in the 1981 film Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark director Steven Spielberg had Harrison Ford fully sparring off with a giant swordsman. The scene took place when Ford felt ill from food poisoning, so they improvised and came up with Ford merely shooting the swordsman. If you are stuck on your path and lack direction, improvisation is one strategy to consider. Practicing improvisation, however, usually requires one to travel outside of their comfort zone since they need to walk forward without knowing the path.

Today’s reflection begins with the etymology of the word improvisation which stems from Latin improviso meaning "unforeseen; not studied or prepared beforehand." It may be difficult to comprehend, but not preparing for a specific task may be the exact strategy you need to navigate the chaos or practice the art of living well. For example, Lolly Daskal identified the following eight ways improvisation can help leaders improve their performance:

  1. You learn to own your power

  2. You learn to embrace your fear

  3. You develop better listening skills

  4. You learn the value of collaboration

  5. You learn to adapt and be agile

  6. You learn to build an ensemble

  7. You learn the value of discovery

  8. You learn to lead--and to follow

Daskal noted the importance of this strategy and wrote “In improvisation, you learn to be who you are, to be bold, to challenge conventions, and to question the rules. When you understand what you have to offer and know how to bring it forward, you own your power. You know your purpose and you can act in a way that's deliberate, focused and grounded in your values.” Remember, life is simply too chaotic for anyone to predict the questions, let alone the answers, one would experience along life’s path.

In a New York Times article "The Ethereal Genius of Craig Taborn" Adam Shatz wrote that Taborn has become one of the best jazz pianists alive by disappearing almost completely into his music. One strategy that Taborn uses to ‘disappear into his music’ is to improvise. Shatz detailed Taborn’s discovery of improvisation and wrote: “In 2003, Taborn made a discovery that helped him to get closer than he’d ever gotten to his own process. While preparing for a solo concert at a club on the Lower East Side, he decided to improvise the entire performance from scratch, rather than on the basis of scores. He recorded the concert and compared it with previous performances of his compositions. What he found was striking: ‘When I was improvising, I was able to really play in the moment, away from any preconceived notions. The improvised performances sounded as organized as any of my composed pieces, and they had so much more life.’”


Now whenever Taborn performs solo piano, he improvises freely, or, to put it another way, he composes in real time, drawing in part on motifs and structures he has developed while practicing. Fellow jazz musician Wynton Marsalis noted “Through improvisation, jazz teaches you about yourself. And through swing, it teaches you that other people are individuals too. It teaches you how to coordinate with them.”


In a Forbes article recognizing the value of improvisation Rob Asghar described two main benefits of improvisation: person-to-person contact and letting you be in the moment. Since our world is now filled with asynchronous communication where we respond to emails, texts, and messages on our own time “this artificiality damages our ability to relate to real human beings in the moment.”


According to Asghar “Improv drags you out of that asynchronous, virtual-reality world, and drops you into that wondrous world of high-energy, immediate, person-to-person interaction.” He went on to explain how improv teaches us to soften our focus and heighten our awareness, so that we can respond well to surprises, get out of your own head, and remain in the moment. Such awareness can help us “listen more patiently and to respond more slowly than we may be accustomed. That allows us to be present to colleagues and friends in ways that we may never before have been.”


This listening, according to Daskal “is a key skill for all actors, allowing them to work off each other. In today's busy world it can be hard to shut out the noise and be aware of the present moment, whether you're in the workplace or on stage. Listening skills help you silence the noise of your own thoughts so you can hear and be present with another--and improvisation helps you build those skills in a creative and innovative way.” How often do you practice improvisation as a strategy to navigate the chaos or practice the art of living well? What is holding you back from improvising a bit more? Must you have a plan for everything step along the way? If so, why do you think that is?