Life is one long Improvisation. We plan stuff, then other stuff crops up and we have to think on our feet; as Bob Marley sang “We’re jamming, hope you like jamming too”…
David Nicholls writes in his book US “A great deal of stress is placed on the importance of humour in the modern relationship. Everything will be all right, we are led to believe, as long as you can make each other laugh, rendering a successful marriage as, in effect, fifty years of improv.”
But there is a difference between fire-fighting through our days and improvising. To live an improvised life is to live in the moment, acutely atuned to one’s surroundings, to other people, listening, observing and responding spontaneously without preparation or pre-meditation. It makes everything feel alive, vivid and pin-sharp. There is no sluggishness or panic in this approach, it is quick, responsive and exciting. An improvised life is full of colour and laughter.
I went to a show once called Showstoppers where the performers have a bunch of props and costumes and the audience shouts out suggestions for a title, characters, story and the team improvises a full length musical, stopping every so often for updated plot points thrown in from the audience. It’s an extraordinary and unique way to produce a show; we are on the edge of our seats because we don’t have the faintest idea what will happen next and neither do the performers.
The ability to improvise requires letting go of feeling self-conscious, of your known responses, of what’s right. It uses gut instinct and the ability to act on intuition. It requires you to trust yourself and your abilities. Generally we learn to live in a very prescribed way, it feels safe on the well-worn path. We dampen down the voices that cry out to try something different, from fear of risk or of appearing foolish. Or heaven forbid, from making mistakes. We tread carefully and we reduce the expanse of what life could be.
I learned to play the piano by reading sheet music. I could play Rachmaninov but not without the score in front of me. I was schooled in playing what I could read. I had no sense of music coming from within. I was a musical typist I was later told by a musical improv teacher. Harsh but true. I couldn’t jam on the keys for toffee. I couldn’t let go. The piece of paper with black notes in front of me kept me safe. There would be no toppling off what I knew. Then I met a friend who improvises on the piano to silent films, on stage, in public. The horror. I asked how she could do such a thing without drowning in terror. She said simply, she parks her ego before she sits at the keyboard, watches the film and responds to it. She allows the music to flow out of her.
I thought it was a good recipe that could be applied to other areas of my life. I wanted to be a better film director, to be able to work with actors, using their language. So I braced myself and enrolled in an improvisation class for directors with Showstoppers performer Sean McCann. How excruciatingly uptight we all were to start with, our egos smarting with humiliation at the very thought of playing the fool. But slowly Sean punctured our self-conscious poses with exercises and games, thrusting us out of ourselves, until we could carouse around the room like kids on a sugar-high. We were unburdened and limitless. We listened acutely, we responded to the moment; the other person being paramount in our attention. We were generous, we didn’t block each other, our imaginations were set free, we played and experimented. We laughed, cried and howled to the moon. We performed and our movements, reactions, exploits and intentions felt true, real and natural, because they were. We had learned to tap into the core of ourselves and to trust it.
According to Clayton D. Drinko PhD “Scientists at Johns Hopkins University, for instance, have put jazz improvisers into MRI machines and had them play little keyboards. Then they had the musicians play four different things: a memorized scale, an improvised scale, a memorized song, and an improvised song. The brain scans showed that, even when improvising simple scales, the jazz musicians’ brains were affected differently when improvising than when playing a memorized score. The dorsolateral pre-frontal cortex decreased in activity. This region of the brain has been linked with self-censorship. It’s the little voice that tells you, “No, I wouldn’t say that if I were you.” The part of the brain called the medial pre-frontal cortex increased in activity, and this region has been linked to creativity, self-expression, and intuition. They then stuck rappers into MRI machines in a different study and had similar results. Improvisation, whether with musical notes or words, changes the way the brain works.”
So how do we free ourselves up in everyday life? The art is to get outside of our heads, stop dwelling on the past, stop anticipating the future, focus on the moment, put your full attention on the other person and listen. Don’t block them with ‘No buts’ but encourage with “Yes and…” Roll with it, see where it takes you. Suddenly the world will come into sharp focus, you will notice details that blurred before, you will feel more energetic and enthusiastic. You will be less self-centred and self-censored. The more you do it, the easier it will become. Life will feel more fun and spontaneous and your relationships will improve because what are a few face-plants between friends?
Maybe it’s no coincidence that Improvisation, is made of the word IMPROVE.
Want to learn to enjoy life a bit more? Hook yourself up with a Creative Thinking Coach and have someone who will guide, support and encourage you along the way. Email me on Lou@createlab.co.uk
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