Improvisation is a topic I’ve been thinking about often lately, partly because it is of perennial interest to me, and partly because I will be giving a talk on the subject a month from now at the CU Water Cooler Symposium. Any time something in the creative realm (it’s all in the creative realm, by the way) get’s mystical attention, I know something’s off. We fawn over Jazz musicians and comedians, some of the more celebrated improvisers, like they are something other. They are not. What they are is fluent.
Think of the last conversation you had with someone at a party. Did you each rehearse it? Were you reading it from a script, or were you each making it up as you went, not knowing what you would say until you had the other’s side of the conversation to inform it? You probably didn’t need ten minutes to prepare your responses. You were improvising.
We do this every day because we are fluent. We have fluency in our native language, and we have contextual fluency in things like the weather, or politics. Linguistic fluency, allowing for the occasional bout of brain flatulence, keeps us from grasping for words, tense and syntax when talking about our favorite detergent. It’s how we know to say, “Dave’s Great Detergent really keeps my shorts white,” rather than, “Gip gap crackers hammer.” Contextual fluency enables us to understand we shouldn’t say “Dave’s Great Detergent really keeps my shorts white,” during our annual performance review (unless, I suppose, you work for Dave).
I’ve studied Blues for roughly a decade and a half now. I know a good bit of the basic language, major and minor pentatonic scales, regional styles, acoustic and electric techniques (though, for a three-chord genre, I feel I’ve just scratched the surface).
If I hear a Blues song playing, I instantly recognize it because I can hear the language. If I want to pick up my guitar and play along, I’m most likely headed for the minor pentatonic scale in whatever key they are playing, and I know where to be in that scale depending on which chord is being played at the time. That’s linguistic fluency.
If I sit down with a group of musicians playing through a few Stevie Ray Vaughan songs, I’m going to reach for a different guitar and play it differently than I would if I was sitting down with some Delta Blues players. While each will likely use the same scales and root chords, their rhythms, use of those scales, and voicing of those chords will be very different. That’s contextual fluency.
So when I improvise a solo with a group of musicians I just met, I’m not performing magic, I’m having a conversation with a group of people with whom I have a shared language. I’m making connections, albeit very quickly and sometimes unexpectedly, based on a strong command of language and context. It’s the same with comedy, drama, business, relationships, you name it.
The stronger the command of language and context, the farther the boundaries can be stretched. That’s a recipe for the extraordinary.
Abiding good improvisers as some kind of higher beings is deceptive because it feels like you’re being complimentary of someone, when you are really subtly saying, “I’m not magic, so I don’t have to try.” It lets you off the hook for making anything interesting because you don’t know where they keep the fairy dust Miles Davis was eating, or, worse yet, you think it was because of the fairy dust he was actually eating. These celebrated improvisers showed up every day and put in the sweat it took to learn their language and context throughly.
In terms of raw materials, there is no appreciable difference between you, a musician, a comedian, or, for that matter, any Marine who has ever lived. If you can speak your native language fluently, you’ve been improvising for years. So, instead of sad-sacking around about not being better at your thing, you may be well served by an evaluation of your fluency in that thing. And I hope you will be encouraged to know that fluency in any language or context can be learned, and 95% of the world’s knowledge is available for free.
Nobody’s magical, and you’re still on the hook.