“Jazz stands for freedom. It’s supposed to be the voice of freedom. Get out there and improvise, and take chances, and don’t be a perfectionist—leave that to the classical musicians.”— Dave Brubeck
Improvisation is a tool in many artist’s toolboxes. We see it in acting, comedy, and jazz, but it happens in art, dance, and other disciplines as well. Actually, improvisation happens in almost every field. To IMPROVISE means to create and perform spontaneously or without preparation; to produce or make (something) from whatever is available. The Latin improvivso ‘extempore,’ from which we get extemporaneous, means on the spur of the moment, literally ‘out of the time.’ In the arts improvisation is a skill that is learned and mastered. Actor Christopher Walken says, “Improvising is wonderful. But the thing is that you cannot improvise unless you know exactly what you are doing.That’s a kind of paradoxical thing about improvising.”When we heard John Coltrane or Miles Davis doing a riff, or watched Robin Williams perform as Aladdin’s Jeanie; we knew they were already masters at their craft and the FLOW we witnessed came from years of experience.
Improvisation happens in our lives too. You know why? because things don’t always turn out perfectly as we hoped. You start cooking and one of the ingredients you need is not in your cabinet. Your mind scrambles to find an appropriate substitute. You can’t go back to the store now. Or your job lays you off and you have to find a way to feed yourself or your family so you drive Uber or sell dinners. Many a person has jury-rigged an apparatus with a wire, rope, or safety pin to make it work. Jury-rigged is from the French ajurie which means to ‘aid.’ It is often confused with jerry-rigged which means cheaply or poorly made. Both are improvisations. Timing is a big part of improvisation, so is flexibility. We must be willing to see setbacks, inconveniences, shifts, and losses as opportunities to create something new. For intuitive, abstract thinkers, and creative folks this may seem obvious and even easy…but for perfectionists and concrete thinkers, not so much.
Whether in life, music, or art…improvisation requires faith and trust. We believe if we go out on a limb our partners in life, and our God will be with us. As we co-create together, we will the process and the ending will be beautiful and harmonious. In Exodus 2:1-9, Moses’ mother told his sister Miriam to place her baby brother in the Nile River in a papyrus basket lined with pitch and tar. They were saving him from the death decree for all boys under the age of two given by Egypt’s Pharaoh. Miriam watched as Moses was found by Pharaoh’s daughter. Then she started improvising and intuiting—working out the scary situation by her instincts. When Pharaoh’s daughter recognized that Moses was one of the Hebrew’s babies; Miriam, thinking on her feet, offered to get ‘a Hebrew woman’ (her mother) to nurse him. Not only did that allow her family to stay connected, but her mother was PAID to nurse her own baby! who would now be safe, and in Pharaohs house. Maybe you’re in a sticky situation. The answers aren’t laid before you like ducks in a row. Perhaps the faith and freedom you seek involves risk, getting out there on a limb, and improvising.