2016-07-06 Improvisation

How do we improvise? What have different kinds of improvisation in common? How do we become better at improvising?

Improvisation is a skill, that we can practise, in different way. When looking at improvisation across domains it seems to have the following in common: A setting/environment, a skill, and a toolbox of phrases and structures. I believe formulating, and being more aware of these aspects, might make me a better improviser.

  • The setting/environment is the playground to play within. These are rules that have to be followed.
  • The skill is the core expertise. The ability you can practise for hours and hours, to master.
  • The phrases are small prepared pieces or blocks, that we are totally comfortable with, and that can be used to bootstrap the improvisation, or as a fallback if you go blank.
  • The structures are knowledge or heuristics of how to combine and change the improvisational elements, and knowledge of how to make it feel complete.

If you know a couple of phrases and structure, we can often improvise well, even with a mediocre level of skill. Or, as the saying says:

“Structure and preparation,
is the key to improvisation”

In music: The setting is genre, and optionally chord progression, melody or bass-line. The skill is your fluency on the instrument, knowledge of the scales, etc. The phrases can be small melodic themes or bass patterns. And the structure, can be repetitions of themes, different kinds of alterations etc.

I have played with total beginners, and we have had super fun jam sessions, with only the skill of a basic scale, and a rigid chord progression.
I have improvised with musicians with a much higher skill level than me, where having some ideas of phrases and structures, really kept me going and safe.

In role playing game mastering: The setting is the game rules, and also the world and the players. The skill is the mastering of the story telling, knowing the game rules, balancing the social aspects, juggling everything at the same time. The phrases can be preprepared characters and encounter, and storylines. And the stuctures, can be tricks like leaving random clues to stories to create, keeping track of that all players act/talk, and a set of plot devices.

When I was game mastering a while ago, I transitioned from less and less preparation, and more and more improvisation, – though it didn’t felt improvised. The trick was to have phrases and structures in place, so the semi-random NPCs pulled out of the hat, already had personalities and agendas, random clues left in earlier session where picked up, rounding off stories etc.

In dancing: The setting is the music, and the kind of dance. The skill is you body, and dance experience and vocabulary. The phrases might be movements that you body knows thoroughly. And the structure may be dynamics increasing/decreasing intensity, being open/close, focussing the focus on the movement, the music, the dialog, etc.

You can lead a tango, without any advanced dance skills, – if your body really knows the two simple phrases of making the weight shift, and walking forward. And if you use some of the structure, like making the dance a story with a journey through open/close, slow/fast, soft/hard, etc. it can be a truely wonderful dance.

In public speaking / impromptu speaking: The setting is topic, form and context. The skills is your speaking practise. The phrases may be to have prepared some parts or points beforehand. And the structure is of the tools of for putting together a good speech.

There is an interesting story about Winston Churchill, who gave a very good impromptu speech. Somebody asked how he did it, and his response was he had used the preceeding week to prepare it.