Definition of Spontaneous Improvisation
Spontaneous: performed or occurring as a result of a sudden impulse or inclination and without premeditation or external stimulus.
Improvisation: something that is improvised, in particular a piece of music, drama, etc. created spontaneously or without preparation.
I am often asked “What is the definition of spontaneous improvisation?” and it always surprises me that these two words should be put together at all. If I were being totally honest I would define spontaneous improvisation as improvisation that happens suddenly and unexpectedly such as suddenly slipping into a character and riffing at the dinner table with the family, or finding yourself for no apparent reason conducting half a conversation with a generic regional accent to the bewilderment of those around you. Just as ‘spontaneous laughter’ is laughter that just erupts unplanned and perhaps without an obvious external stimulus like someone telling a joke.
By Joe Samuel
Which leads me to muse that the improvisation I spend most of my life engaged with is premeditated improvisation. Improvisation that I intended to do and then went ahead and did. The goal of many of the training sessions that we run is for people to feel more comfortable with expansive ideas, listening and trusting work colleagues, being able to disagree with assertiveness not fear, and stepping into the unknown with the knowledge that you have practised the skills you need to fly. So it is only by practising premeditated improvisation that we can prepare for the moments of spontaneous improvisation that will occur in situations where we do not expect it. In a meeting that starts to veer off course, during a pitch that not going as planned or dealing with a new piece of information that could derail a deal.
In the definition of spontaneous improvisation above there is a dangerous assumption in the words “created spontaneously or without preparation”. You find me a single example of a musician, actor, lawyer, public speaker, footballer or surgeon that improvises without preparation. Improvisation is the moment when we draw on our experiences, our practice, our muscle memory to be able to succeed at the task in hand without being obstructed by doubt or insecurity. It is the dedication to practice that allows us to be working at a higher cognitive level, to strategise and see the bigger picture while our instincts take care of the details.
Definition: Musical improvisation is the act of creating music in the moment without following a musical score.
As a musician who has made my living out of improvisation I know only too well the pitfalls of jumping into situation with massive enthusiasm only to find out I didn’t know the parameters I was working in. Although I have studied the piano and music my whole life, there is no way I could second guess the chords or melody for a tune if I didn’t know the tune! Improvisation works best within restrictions. In the case of music, those restrictions are the structure of the piece, the chords or key of each section and the scale that will best fit with the chords. That is how jazz improvisation can work – each player knows when to improvise and in what way to improvise. Even if the music is indulging in ‘free improvisation’ with absolutely no preset structure, it is still crucial to know that it is free improvisation and therefore to look out for the structure, key and forms as they emerge.
Theatrical Improvisation (impro or improv)
Definition: Dramatic improvisation is the act of creating characters, scenarios and dialogue in the moment and without a script to create a piece of theatre.
Theatrical improvisation relies on the actors’ abilities to listen, trust, lead and follow an idea that is spontaneously created. A typical scene in improv will not start with an actor stating exactly who they are, where they are and what they are doing as this is not at all realistic. More likely a scene will start with an opening line of dialogue that hints at some of these things. It is up to the other players in the scene to coax out an idea between them. This involves a highly deft and subtle interplay with each actor feeling whether they need to lead the scene, follow the other actors or collaborate fully in the creative process. Without rehearsal and a deep knowledge and trust of the other people on stage with you, this can easily turn into a farcical series of miscommunication and pushy idea generation. The learning points for working as a team in a business environment are directly applicable and can be practised in the same way.
Definition: The ability to think swiftly and respond to new situations calmly and clearly. The art of conversation, debate and the ability to sell and idea or product.
We are all improvising all the time. Life does not have a script, and when it seems to it always veers off in unexpected directions. Most of the time we are unaware of the vast amount of processing that is going on just to hold a conversation but all the while our brains are making connections, reading body language and tone of voice, recalling previous encounters and trying to maneuver ourselves into getting what we want out of the encounter. All this comes naturally to us as a result of countless hours of practise. Arguing, playing, winning and losing as children all help to hone our conversational and interpersonal skills. We often banter, use accents and slip into role-play situations when having conversations. We are all prolific and expert improvisers!
The good news is that improvisation itself can be practised. We can improve our ability to create ideas, words, music and movement in the moment by training. Not only that, but it does not take long before that training starts to support our everyday lives, not just at work, but at home and in our spare time activities also. So find a local improvisation session or get some experts in to your work to show you the ropes and to give you the chance to practise flexibility, versatility, agile thinking and dare I say it, even spontaneity.
If you like the sound of practising improvisation in your organisation, contact us and see how we can transform the way you work.
Joe Samuel is the musical director of The Maydays and their renowned improvisational pianist. Find out more about Joe here.