Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The art and science of improvisation


Combos de l'Aula de Jazz
Originally uploaded by barbollaire


If you've been following lately you know that my daughter and I are at jazz camp this week. Yesterday's faculty jam session inspired me to talk about improvisation, one of the key skills of real jazz players, and a technique that has applications from cooking to manufacturing to the MacGuyver-esque escapes we used to see on TV.

Dictionary.com defines "improvise" in this way:

  1. to compose and perform or deliver without previous preparation; extemporize: to improvise an acceptance speech.
  2. to compose, play, recite, or sing (verse, music, etc.) on the spur of the moment.
  3. to make, provide, or arrange from whatever materials are readily available: We improvised a dinner from yesterday's leftovers.

To the untrained ear an improvised solo can sound like the player is just going off on his or her own tangent, playing whatever they want. But that’s not really the case. Improvisation that sounds good requires knowledge of chord structure, so you know the notes that are going to sound right with the rest of the band. It stems from an understanding of the genre and mood of the song and using a rhythm and style of playing that’s compatible with the whole. And when you listen closely to an improvised solo you’ll start to notice patterns and “licks” that are characteristic of the player, and/or tributes to other outstanding players. It’s art with a strong foundation in science.

When playing in a group, improvisation has etiquette. Players take turns with the tune, following the overall structure to do their individual interpretations and then handing it off to the next musician. Dave Gibble, director at Palm Beach County Jazz Camp, says, "It's like a conversation. In any conversation you take turns - nobody likes it when one person talks too much." And when one player takes his turn, he often will echo something from the prior solo, acknowledging the prior player's contribution, and then add his own interpretation to it. He's not just been sitting there awaiting his turn to extemporize - he's been listening to what's come before so he can create continuity - music - in interaction with the other players.

In business and in life effective improvisation can provide a competitive advantage. The ability to think on one’s feet is a gift, delivering the opportunity to be perceived as smart. It can shorten the time between situation and response, sometimes preventing a bad situation from getting out of hand. The ability to improvise can save cost when you can substitute one ingredient or one material for another.

But just as in jazz, to be truly effective improvisation has to be based on some foundation. It’s not doing the first thing that comes into your head without any base of knowledge. Children improvise, but even at their level some science serves as the foundation for their creativity. They don’t, for example, use Scotch tape to make the roof on their tent in the dining room. They don’t try to use an old blanket to try to stick pieces of a project together.

I believe that creativity in work creates the joy in work, not to mention that innovation (an improvisation that's developed into a new standard) can jettison a company into the forefront of an industry. If you want to be more creative and improvise more effectively more often, master the fundamentals of your craft. Once you know the rules and principles you’ll have a zone in which to stretch your creative muscles, knowing you’ll have a predictably good outcome. If you choose to bend the rules or challenge the standing principles you’ll do so with intent. And you'll be more likely to hit a note that's sweet.

1 comment:

Jim Poland said...

I agree that I have been most impressed when this occurs from a leader/present/team member right in front of my eyes and ears: "In business and in life effective improvisation can provide a competitive advantage. The ability to think on one’s feet is a gift, delivering the opportunity to be perceived as smart."