Learning to Improvise

Improvisation? What does this mean to us? Well, improvisation to musicians, actors, singers, comedians, dancers, artists, photographers and many others is the process of reacting to the moment and responding to the stimulus of one's immediate environment and inner feelings. It is also how scientists and inventors create wonderful new things that improve the world around us. As for the rest of us, we all use improvisation whether we realize it or not in our day to day lives. Speaking, by its very nature is an exercise in improvisation. When a problem presents itself to us, if we can use the skills involved in improvisation, we can adjust to the situation on the fly and figure out a way to resolve the problem and then move along. We improvise and innovate. If we can become master improvisers in life, we can easily adjust to any problem that presents itself to us, resolve it and then quickly move along.

So how do we improvise either as a musician/artist or in day to day life?

When we improvise, the first and most important thing is to be in a positive mindset (see our article on Being Positive for helpful information here). When we feel positive about ourselves and the world around us, we are more easily able to deal with solving problems. We feel confident (see our article on Confidence for more info) that no matter what presents itself to us, that we can overcome it. When we feel positive and good about ourselves, we are more relaxed, which is a key state during improvisation. Being tense and uptight leads to a sort of paralysis. Our muscles are tight and stiff. We can’t seem to come up with ideas to deal with the situation. The concept of “No” starts to appear in our head, when what we really need is a full dose of “Yes” in that “Yes, I can do a guitar solo over this” or “Yes, I can handle this flat tire as I pull over to the side of the road.”

Mistakes are OK. When we improvise, we must also be comfortable with making mistakes. If you play a wrong note, realize that this OK and par for the course when you improvise and just move on. When dealing with a problem in life, you may not make the best decision at first, but you will quickly realize it and then move onto a better solution. Mistakes are a normal and natural part of life. Accept these as normal when you improvise and you will become a much better improviser.

Use the concept of mushin. Mushin is a Zen Buddhist concept employed by martial artists which literally means “no mind”. When a martial artist is in the moment without being aware of being in the moment their mind is free from thoughts such as anger, fear or ego. There is an absence of judgement or even an awareness of thinking. The martial artist is able to react to any attack without thought and thus is very, very quick and fluid in their movements. If we can employ this concept as musicians (i.e. play the notes without thinking about what notes should be played or what notes should be played next), we can become fabulous spontaneous improvisers. If we can employ this
in day to day life, we will be able to handle problems effortlessly and move on. This is a key skill, especially in our very busy daily lives.

Finally, we must have a strong core of base skills to draw from when we improvise. For us musicians, this means a strong background in scales, chords, rhythms and many other techniques. These are the tools in our toolbox that we use when we improvise. If we have these techniques memorized and can use them without thinking, we can draw them up at any time during the course of our improvisation. Think of a master painter with a palette of many, many different colors. The more colors that you have available to you, the more masterful a painting you can make. This is why we must continually practice so that these skills are burned into our brain. We must practice inorganically so that we are then able to improvise organically. See our article on Practicing for more detail on how to do this.

For those of us who are not musicians, being aware of and familiar with the tools that we can use in any situation makes us better at dealing with problems. In our above example of a flat tire, if we are aware of where the spare tire is and what are the tools needed to change the tire, we are much better able to handle the situation when it occurs. We are able to quickly improvise with the challenges of navigating safely to the side of the road and then set about fixing the problem if we are already familiar with the tools needed to do the job.

Easy exercises to help us be become better improvisers either with our instruments or in our daily lives:

1. Improve your self-talk. If we can feel positive about ourselves we are much more relaxed and able to handle life as it unfolds around us. An easy exercise here is simply to say positive things to yourself to make you feel better about yourself. Try simple things at first like "Great job!", "You're really doing well today!", "Nice work!” You can really say anything to yourself as long as it is positive and it makes you feel good about yourself. Also, try smiling at yourself in the mirror. This last simple exercise can work wonders. For more positive affirmation techniques, see our article on being positive.

2. Practice deep breathing. Learning how to relax is a key factor in improvisation. If we are relaxed when we improvise, we are much better at reacting to things as they come to us. Taking a quick moment periodically throughout the day to take some deep breaths and clear our thoughts works wonders. The simple yogic technique of Sama Vritti or “Equal Breathing” works here. To start, inhale for a count of four, then exhale for a count of four (all through the nose, which adds a natural resistance to the breath). Repeat. Got it? Now you’re relaxing.

3. Improve your skillset. As mentioned earlier, if we have a better tool set available to us when we improvise we are better at handling challenges. Resolve every day to work on improving one thing in your skillset. This can be in your job at work, this can be in the class room or when you are studying or when you are playing guitar at home. Define a list of things that you can improve on. Write it down in a list. Work on one item on the list each day. By improving on just one thing each day, we are practicing, and as noted earlier in this article, if we have more tools at our disposal when problems arise we are much better able to improvise a solution.

We all need to become better improvisers in life. By practicing at becoming a better improviser we will become much better artists, musicians and individuals. You now know the basics here on how to do it, so get started. Improvise!

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