“Life is a lot like jazz. . .it's best when you improvise.”
I have found through the years of teaching piano (improvisation, jazz, blues, etc.) that the biggest problem most people have is the ability to break away from the traditional rules they were taught about playing the piano.
Many students that come to me from prior lessons have a list a mile long of things to accomplish before they can enjoy playing music. They have been taught that scales, reading, technique, etc., are mandatory skills they must master to play music “correctly.” All these things are good in their place but actually destructive when emphasized over creativity. It is the creative impulse itself that needs to be the impetus to learn the linear skills of playing music and life.
It's ironic that most great composers of the last 300 years were known in their time as great improvisers before they were acknowledged as great composers. What's interesting is we will never hear the spontaneous music of Bach, Chopin, Handel, Scarlatti and others who came from the tradition of piano improvisation.
George Sands. the novelist and girlfriend of Chopin said, “His compositions paled beside his improvisations.” Isn't it noteworthy that traditional piano lessons emphasize learning the music of the great masters yet somehow usually neglect any attention of their skills as improvisers, the very essence of their creative spirit?
In writing about the top most successful companies in the U.S. and what makes them great, Jim Collins—in his book Good to Great—makes the point that it is more important to get the right people on the bus than it is to know where the bus is going. In other words, people who are creative, spontaneous and who can improvise are a successful company’s most valuable asset. In my book Fearless Public Speaking, I mention that if there is anything to prepare in giving a great speaking performance, it is the preparation to improvise.
As of this writing I'm helping a friend build a beautiful deck on our house. We have decided that rather than plan out everything in detail, we’ll proceed only with materials that are immediately available, without having to buy anything additional, and work only with a basic plan drawn on a napkin.
Unforeseen possibilities have shown up everywhere, resulting in a deck more structurally sound and aesthetically appealing than imagined at the beginning. Because we are not glued to a definite outcome and by leaving room for the creative process to take place, we are witnesses to something more original and beautiful than initially planned. As in music, speaking, business and building, so in life. . .
With layoffs, economic craziness, global “weirding,” raising children (not to mention raising ourselves), it's crazy to live by the rules. Many people are waking up to the fact that the rules they were taught about success, relationships and health are not working to bring them a happy life.
The improvised life is about living from power, from your idea of what makes you happy. Improvisation is not about throwing out all the rules and rebelling against of the established order, however. It is about expanding the rules and regulations. It is about going outside of the perimeters of set ways. It complements structure by redefining it in the moment. It is about taking your base of knowledge and surrendering it to a higher power so something can be created with it. It is about you and what you want to create.