The Art of Improvisation - Liberating Your Artistic Genius


I want to continue focusing on books that resonated with me. A while back I was doing a mental exercise and thinking about some of my most memorable experiences. I was trying to determine if there was some sort of common thread weaving throughout all of them. I won’t take the time to go into the details of them here but I did realize that there was a theme that seemed to explain the motivation or sense of satisfaction resulting from them. What was it? Improvisation. I came to realize that I get a lot of joy and have a great deal of fun when I am creating on the fly and experiencing life in an improvisational way. Being the curious guy that I am, I decided to do some reading on the subject by reading up on it. I found one book in particular that I found very impactful and it is the focus of the next two weeks’ blog posts. The book is called Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art by Stephen Nachmanovich.

The author is a talented musician, Harvard graduate, William Blake scholar, and quite a deep thinker who explores the subject of improvisation quite thoroughly. I’m a big fan of some of the theories of Carl Jung and it turns out so is Nachmanovich. This resulted in me having a natural inclination to be favorably disposed to his points of view and theoretical construct. Let’s get started.

Improvisation is the Master Key of Creativity

According to Nachmanovich, improv is ultimately about tapping into our unconscious in order to express what is already within us. Think of a sculpture like The David by Michelangelo. The David is in the slab of stone but could only be liberated by an artistic genius like Michelangelo. In a similar vein, it is up to us to tap into the deepest recesses of our psyches to bring forth that which is our true nature. Improv is a master key of creativity and is the free play of consciousness emerging from the unconscious. It is just a matter of unblocking the obstacles to its natural flow like Michelangelo liberated The David.

I have written about the hero’s journey before which captures the pattern that appears in countless stories throughout all cultures and ages. It involves the future hero preparing for the journey, departing on it where he or she experiences innumerable obstacles and challenges but ultimately prevails and returns with the treasure. Similarly, the author applies a similar blueprint for the journey to liberating our souls. According to Nachmanovich, improvisational living is ultimately a journey into the soul that follows a creative life cycle of Innocence (discovery), experience (the fall), and integration (rejuvenation or mastery). We go from the innocence of wonder where our curiosity is alive to life getting the best of us from the school of hard knocks and then finding our purpose again. Another way of describing these phases is birth, blockage, and breakthrough. Breakthrough represents the moment of return and reorganized innocence in which we access our original mind of play and go where our intuition takes us without feeling that there is anything to gain or lose. We just enjoy the journey.

What is Improvisation?

According to the author “[i]mprovisation is intuition in action and intuition is the eternal present.”

I think what he is saying is that when we are operating from our intuition we have a complete presence, focus, and we are in a timeless flow. The ultimate goal is to “find our heart’s voice so we can speak with our own voice…, the voice of our inner knowing.”

What does this involve?

  • Playfulness
  • Love
  • Concentration
  • Practice
  • Skill
  • Using the Power of Limits
  • Power of Mistakes
  • Risk
  • Surrender
  • Patience
  • Courage
  • Trust

The Role of Setbacks and Obstacles

While most people do not like to experience setbacks or have to work through obstacles, it turns out that these are particularly important as they can become our armaments to

“[a]llow us to persevere and bring our desires to fruition.”

Challenges and obstacles are inevitable and one of the benefits is that the limits or constraints posed by them can generate great creativity, focus, and intensity. Equally important, “the mind that is not baffled is not employed.” If we’re not periodically challenging ourselves and inspired to wonder and the need to figure things out, then our minds will atrophy and we will degrade our abilities to access our true selves.

The author uses oysters as a metaphor for the opportunities that may arise from obstacles and challenges and mistakes. Oysters combine grit with their natural constitution and transform them into something new. They end up turning circumstance into creativity. According to the composer Aaron Copland, creative people can find a way to do what needs to be done in spite of the obstacles if they have a sense of humor, sense of style, and some stubbornness. Independent wealth helps too according to the author.

Since the unconscious is the very bread and butter of the artist, the author contends that mistakes and slips (as in Freudian) are to be treasured as priceless information from beyond and within. This is very Jungian in that when we are truly in touch with ourselves the world will speak to us through our dreams, symbols, intuition, and slips since this is how our subconscious communicates and tells us what we need to know, but not in the language we are used to.

Similar to becoming a successful investor it’s vital that we not only become comfortable with uncertainty and the unknown, but we must ultimately surrender to it. I like how the author describes it when he says,

“Being nurtured by the mystery of moments that are dependably surprising, ever fresh.” Ultimately, “[f]or art to appear we have to disappear.”

We have to rid ourselves of the toxic blocks to accesses the recesses of our soul.

“Only unconditional surrender leads to real emptiness to rid ourselves of our blocks which are really delusions, outmoded thought structure, desires, aversions, confusions, half-digested memories, unfulfilled hopes and expectations… From emptiness we can be prolific and free…Only when empty, without entertainment or distracting internal dialog, can we be instantaneously responsive to the sight, the sound, the feel of the work in front of us.”

One of the ways of surrendering and having ourselves disappear (I think he is referring to our ego-centric selves) is to rid ourselves of too much stimulation as it dulls sensitivity.

“A mind caught up in investment and attachment is a mind that has 50 candles burning and will not notice the 51st when it is lit. When we surrender, we can relax into a more subtle, sensitive mind that has few candles burning, or even none.” Once we are open to sensitivity, then “[t]he only road to strength is through vulnerability.”

By leaving everything we have on the court we have experienced the liberation and power of complete creative flow with no blockage and no regrets.

Improvisational Genius is the Byproduct of Blood, Sweat, and Tears

When most people hear the word “improvisation” they understandably think of pure spontaneity. Yet, this is a myth. True improvisational genius is the byproduct of the blood, sweat, and tears expended in endless practice and the ultimate pursuit of mastery. According to the author, “[p]ractice is immensely important because through practice we can actualize or reveal the person who is already there.” And when our true selves are liberated we rid ourselves of so many of the creative blocks that can get in the way of authentic, self-expression. The chain of events starts with wonder, or playful, compulsive experimentation, to a more disciplined approach through practice which ultimately leads to mastery. When we are in the realm of mastery we are much more able to operate from intuition versus reciting facts jammed into us by our educational system, which the author criticizes sharply.

He says that our education system takes the simplicity and power of mind at play and homogenizes it into

“complexity, conformity, and weakness.”

Nachmanovich says that education is the building of the person and the root of the word is educere which “means drawing out the person’s latent capacities for understanding and living, not stuffing a (passive) person full of pre-conceived knowledge. There must be permission to explore and express…Education must teach, reach, and vibrate the whole person rather than merely transfer knowledge.” As I think back on those classes where I felt most stimulated, they in retrospect seemed to really elevate me as a person and left me wanting to learn and experience more about the subject as Nachmanovich states when describing the purpose of education.

Next week I will talk about the blocks that can get in the way of creativity and improvisational living and some of the ways we can overcome them.

Over to you:

What are your thoughts on the art of improvisation and the genius behind it?

One comment on “The Art of Improvisation - Liberating Your Artistic Genius
  1. Improvisation is the nectar of life. I am in the music and sales industry..
    Both disciplines allow me to express and create in a real authentic way.

    Only after you have mastered the skills needed will you be able to create on the spot.
    Artistic Effortless Mastery!

    Love It!

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