Improvisation: that's when you have an idea and you make up the next bit based on what you just did a moment ago, right?
I bet you do this a lot. We all do. But often people mistake improvisation for "making it up as you go along". No doubt there are elements of this in all improvisation, but artists know something intuitively that onlookers may discount. Lots of practice making things up leads to better results when you've got to perform.
We're heading into presidential debate season and no matter which side you support, keep one small corner of your brain open to the inevitable display of improvisational footwork from both candidates. They've both practiced prior to the debates; we all know that. They both have their standard buzz lines and tropes and stylistic flourishes; we know that too. But we don't know precisely what they're going to say to the inevitably unexpected events that arise and neither do they. They will improvise.
Each of us improvises when we reach the next moment in our lives. Do you think every surgeon knows precisely what they're going to see when they cut someone open just because they've had twenty years of training? Does every NASCAR driver know what's going to happen on lap 217, even though the job can be reduced to "drive fast and turn left"?
So, what's not improvisation? I could argue that all things fit the improvisational spirit, considering that life will eternally provoke unexpected moments for "making it up as you go along". But some things aren't so fluid. Some things are genuinely predictable. Monthly bills to pay, nightly dishes to wash, weekly reports to write for your boss: none of these fit the spirit of improvisation very much. But sometimes moments of inspiration springing from deep understanding of these tasks leads to invention and innovation, and the first time you try them out…voila: improvisation. Things only become codified, even ossified, after they've been done a million times.
When you give a speech, you're not improvising. You're presenting something that's gone through revision, trial, testing, and rehearsal (and if you're not, you definitely want to call us, 'cause we provide all sorts of great coaching services!) When you're building a model rocket from a balsa and cardboard kit, you're not improvising either. But the moment you're not sure what to do at the podium when one of the spotlights inexplicably goes out, or you discover that the rocket kit came with a cracked stabilizer, you've suddenly been thrust into the realm of improvisation.
This is not comfortable for everyone. Not everyone likes to riff on a theme. Some people feel much, much better working from a set of known data, from a cookbook, or a sheet of printed music. This is not only okay, it's valuable. I rely on concrete thinkers to do concrete things. I demand it of myself, in fact. Cooking, writing a novel, flowcharting the architecture for new software all require disciplined thinking and rigorous labor. They cannot be done well without a focused mind. But focused thinking is not the same as rigid thinking. The value of improvisation is being able to notice an unexpected opportunity, seize it, and not get tripped up by the inevitable surprises.
Undisciplined improvisation is just making it up and you go along. The difference in being a good improviser is the ability to impose the ballast of discipline even as you tack with ungovernable winds. Good improvisation is being able to take cues from known rules, briefly experienced inputs, precedents and even accidents, and not get thrown. Great improvisation is being able to take those elements and turn them into something breathtaking. Done well it's effortless; it just flows.
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