Improvisation, N: the art of thinking and performing music simultaneously
Grove Dictionary of Music
I learned a priceless lesson about jazz from Miles Davis, Diana Krall, Steve Gadd, and Susan Muscarella. (The final name represents my first real combo teacher.)
Know the changes,
Master your instrument,
And listen to others in the group.
Then you can improvise.
Here’s what that means: When I first started improvisation, I labored under the illusion that it meant being completely spontaneous, unstructured, and free. It signified “just playing what you feel.” (I’m a drummer, and you know what that sounds like.) Thankfully—especially for the families that hired me for their wedding receptions—I quickly found out that jazz improv is not energetic chaos. What I’ve also learned instead over the past three decades or so is that improv requires structured chords that offer the backbone of the tune. In jazz terminology, that’s “the changes.” For example, a blues song in the key of F generally follows a twelve-bar pattern, four bars on F, then four on B flat, one on C, one on B flat, then back to F for two bars. Only certain notes sound good when played over an F blues set of chord changes. It also means a dedication to the instrument, a commitment to play your “ax” (in jazz slang), that is, drums, sax, or piano skillfully. And finally, jazz is a community event, played out among the various members, creating a synergy that is (by definition) greater than any one member. When all those come together—knowing the chord progression, mastering your instrument, listening to others in the group—then you can both think and perform music simultaneously. You can improv.
In this sense, life is jazz improvisation. From a commitment to structure and form, extemporaneous expression happens. Put more broadly, good planning and spontaneity together make a beautiful life. There’re the changes over which we can improvise. That is to say, saying No to chaotic ineffectiveness while affirming spontaneous, creative effectiveness implies a Yes to learning our skills, to listening what’s happening around us, and to creating plans.
What’s true in jazz remains critical to succeeding in sports. In my earliest years of life, I played a lot of tennis. I spent summers in a white cotton hat, on hot asphalt courts, drinking from metal Wilson tennis ball cans filled with fuzzy water (tennis ball fuzz, that is). That’s not a bad existence for a California kid. I even managed to improve my overhead, collect a handful of trophies, and get a tan in the process… all by age 8.
Nevertheless, an element of those years was failure, and here’s the worst one I ever experienced experience. It wasn’t losing to an opponent. Or breaking a string. It was this: I had a match to play two hours away. Our family knew it was an 11am. So we all woke up early, my brother and I jumped into the brown bench seats of our Mercury Monterey, and my parents drove us to the match. I arrived a full 20 minutes early, waited ‘til about 15 minutes ahead of schedule—when players checked in with the tournament desk—and didn’t see my opponent. “What’s wrong with this guy? I guess it’s time to tell the desk that I’m the winner because of a no-show.” I arrived triumphantly at the desk with this information. Here’s what I heard:
We already defaulted you. You’re ninety minutes late. Your match was at 9:30. I’m sorry.
(No way, you idiot! Can’t you keep track of the draws? I mean…) I’m not sure I understand you. Are you saying I missed my match? I thought it was scheduled for 11:00.
Check the draw sheet. You’ll see that the match was scheduled earlier.
We consulted the draw sheet, the schedule of all the matches in the tournament. Yes, the match was an hour and a half earlier. After that day, “check the draw sheet” became a Cootsona family motto because we had painfully realized the significance of preparation. (I was still a few years away from learning it via jazz.) We need order because life is a chaotic system.
So check the draw sheet and know what’s coming up. Figure out in advance how to respond to what lies ahead. If you not, you might drive four hours to Clovis, California and never play your tennis match.
I draw several implications. On the one hand, preparation is important and not something just for the tennis “set” (as it were). Unfortunately, I see so many people who have no plans and flit from one impulse to the next (a tendency inflamed by MTV-generated attention spans). And with the Power of No, I’m trying to help you circumvent undirected kinesis, the kind of very active, but essentially unproductive life a speaker once described: “I strapped on my jet pack in the morning, bounced from project to project, and hoped no one got hurt.”
Or to draw another sports analogy: Bill Walsh, football coach during the glory days of the San Francisco 49ers when they took home three Super Bowl titles, developed the concept of “scripting” the first fifteen plays of the game. Here’s what Bill Walsh instituted: Before the chaos of twenty-two bodies flying at each other took over, the ‘Niners would begin with fifteen plays that they had drilled in preparation for the game. That way the Forty-Niners set the agenda. In reality, they never actually did every single play in the script, but it offered a means to start the game well. It’s akin to memorizing the changes and knowing your instrument before the improv begins.
So back to jazz: Each morning I like to prepare my personal daily “chord changes”—that is, to look over the flow of the day’s activities and figure out what tasks I must accomplish, what tasks I’d like to accomplish, and where the spaces are in the day. Then I “script” the day’s changes, offer a prayer for peace and strength, and begin the game! I’ve found that once I’m in the midst of a day in full gear, then I know what to hold onto and what to let go. As the jazzers would say it, I know the changes, listen to the world around me and respond, and then begin to improvise.
Incidentally, I’m focusing here on managing your own professional performance, but the harmony of form and flexibility is also critical to managing others. If management is central to your work, you can apply the same principles with minor changes. For example, allow others to improvise through personal expression and the particularities of their skills and personality, but also offer structure—through clear guidelines and realizable objectives. Encourage them to hone their skills and respond to their environment.
On the other hand, we need spontaneity. As the legendary jazz guitarist, Joe Pass, phrased it: “If you hit a wrong note, then make it right by what you play afterwards.” Not every note is played perfectly. And not every part is written out. So now I’m speaking to those who have just a slight control issue: We cannot expect our life to play out in a predetermined, classical mode. There are simply too many factors that we would never be able to foresee and over which we have no control. Partly, I take this insight from the startling discoveries of quantum physics, which by the 1920s revolutionized contemporary science through emphasizing the openness of all physical systems, where one step necessarily and inexorably follows what precedes it. In the subatomic (or quantum) world, nothing is absolutely determined and predictable, only probable. Quantum theory threw out the clocklike, deterministic world of Isaac Newton’s 18th physics with its precision and reliability, replacing it with an improvisational universe. In other words, jazz describes the nature of the physical world. And what science knows as the fundamental structure of nature corresponds to our individual lives. It is open-ended, a bit scary, and quite often exhilarating.
What I’ve discovered is that the best parts of the day usually do not result because of planning. Instead they’re gifts. For example, I hate to wait—it still doesn’t make sense to me that when I go to the doctor’s office that they’ve prepared my time with boatloads of magazines because they’re planning on my waiting. But I’ve learned to see waiting as an unexpected gift of time and I always try to bring a book, a pencil, and a place to write notes. Similarly, I also get bothered my interruptions at work. As a pastor, my need to revise the budget may be slightly less important than counseling a member in marital crisis, right? What proper planning for improvisation allows is to see (some) interruptions as serendipities. Henri Nouwen, the spiritual writer I’ve already mentioned glowingly reframed this aspect of work for me: “My whole life I have been complaining that my work was constantly interrupted, until I discovered that my interruptions were my work.”
So there’s a need to harmonize spontaneity with planning, which is the essence of improve. An excellent musician has been “in the woodshed” (a phrase associated with Charlie Parker who used to practice for days on end in—guess what?—a woodshed). Musicians woodshed as they dedicate themselves to their axes. I remember my first piano lesson with Susan Muscarella (after she had taught my combo how to play jazz). She had instructed me, “Learn all the scales on both hands, and then you can start on the piano.” I arrived and knew about seven out of twelve on the right hand and one or two fewer on the left. She looked at me a little astonished and stopped the lesson right there. At that moment, I learned that despite how sweet Susan is, there would no second lesson without those scales in hand. Do you take the time to excel at the skills needed to improvise? Have you learned only half of the basic scales in your profession? How else do you expect to find the freedom to express your individual skills and passion?
Likewise, we master our instrument when we know our own particular style and make-up. Our lives are successful when we allow for “regional variation.” Some need more form. Some need more flexibility. The pianist Bill Charlap, for example, is quite meticulous in preparation: he studies a song’s history, who and how it’s been played, and how they’ve arranged the tune. Others desire more freedom to “be in the Now” (to quote the philosophically sophisticated movie, Wayne’s World). Or as Miles Davis expressed it, “I'll play it first and tell you what it's called later.” In other words, take time to learn your particular voice.
Jazz improvisation illustrates some keys to a successful life. Say No to both over-planning (because life is not fixed and completely predictable), say No to chaos (master your instrument and know the changes). Say yes to improvising a life of spontaneity, creativity, and beauty.
Practicing Your Changes
One final note: Jazz is all about getting your “training your ear,” listening to jazz masters so that you can intuitively hear when it “swings” (that’s good) and when it doesn’t. I close this chapter with ear training—put another way, exercises to improve your improv.
Ponder these quotations on jazz improvisation—and the ones embedded in the previous chapter—and see which best fits your improvisational style. Why? Write down three to five ways you might change or deepen your daily life accordingly.
• “Learn everything, then forget it all.” The “monster” (a positive expression in jazz) of be-bop alto sax, Charlie Parker.
• “Music is your own experience, your thoughts, your wisdom. If you don't live it, it won't come out of your horn.” “One more once” (to quote the great band leader, Count Basie) from Charlie Parker.
• “Don't play what’s there, play what's not there,” from the cryptic and protean trumpet master, Miles Davis
• Next list the essential items daily that constitute the changes for your day and for your week. Ask yourself, “Do these tasks define the way I spend my hours each day? Or when I review a day or week do I see a random variety of impulses?”
• Ask these questions and make adjustments: Do I want more structure of less?
• Each day for four weeks, review the daily “chord changes.” Adjust accordingly.