Improvisation immediately drives me to music. I spent a good deal of my life as a “musician” but I used to always tell my bandmates that I wasn’t a “real musician” like them. They knew stuff. They had (and still have), a deep understanding of the musical “field”-used here in the same way a physicist talks about a Higgs field or an inflaton field, not as in “a vocation.” I play by gut instinct and yes, most of the time I can sniff out a harmony or find a contrapuntal riff that works but I couldn’t readily tell you what the notes were and if you wrote that same riff out on a staff, I would have no connection with it as something I just played. So I suppose that is improvisational-but here is where it led me: improvisation is the practice of being clear about what is present, what the current resources and conditions are, what skills and tools you have at hand with a sense of play all wrapped up in the boundaries of a context that pops into being as a tacit internal narrative.
Maybe you’re diligently adhering to a recipe and a time-honored technique for making tamales. OK, so that’s prescriptive, it’s a formula, there are rules. But more broadly, WHY are you making tamales when you can just buy them? You chose to make them because you joined a narrative in which there was some joy connecting you to other pleasant moments in a kitchen, the sensuality of the feel and smell of corn masa, some bit of music or a Grandmother’s voice patiently reminding you of what to do. In a moment, that story met the exigent present where character-you merged with actual-you and your hands began to move. The recipe and training doesn’t inhibt the improv, it enables it.
I worked for a brilliant, wise man once. Besides being a great executive, Judson Green was a world class musician. He put together a presentation for us once-the best leadership learning experience I ever had in my Disney tenure. He and his band played a tune and he asked us to listen to the three elements-melody, harmony and rhythm. Then, they played it again but this time a horn took off on a wild goose chase, then the bass got funky, pushing the edge of discord and Judson, on the piano, played all kinds of “outside” before everyone came back to the melody line and ended it on the final 4 beat. The music was great but his point was greater-a great band can take off and improvise way outside the chart because they all agree on the key, the melody and the time signature. Without that frame, you could never find your way home so your solos would be timid. Implicit also is the self-awareness of each player’s skill level, mood, energy and the audience.
So, music, but on some level, its ALL improv. In Zen, we spend a lot of time working with The Present. We practice Paying Attention to the Here and the Now with acceptance and equanimity. If improvisation is native to human beings-and I think it is-the real magic of it seems to be how completely and quickly we penetrate the present moment and all it includes. Whether the product is a delicious tamale, an equally tasty theme park attraction or a fresh take on a monologue from Richard III, we are MacGyvering our way through. When we do this with others, then we pump up the play factor and all that the present moment has is brought playfully together with our skills and limitations, set on a foundation of basic agreements and wrapped in a story about what comes next.
Once, there was a sailor…