Improvisation For Art and Life
Improvisation for art and life is a requirement. Resist, and you will be pummeled. Adapt, and you will find opportunity. You may even find joy in the journey. It is true for your art, your life and your vocation. Great art, great careers and spectacular lives are made from thousands of unpredictable moments. Contrary to common definitions, surprises are the rule, not the exception. From the child that hugs you without warning, to the flock of birds nesting over your freshly washed car. It is futile to resist.
Improv has changed my life
A dear friend recently told me, “Improv changed my life.” He is studying improv and stand-up comedy here in Los Angeles. He is a writer who is learning how to think on his toes, to adapt quickly, and get beyond his fear of saying and doing the wrong thing. Then he shared with me how it changed the way he talks to friends as well as strangers. He has a new confidence and joy that comes from facing his fears and being willing to take chances.
Art mirrors life, and life mirrors art, yet we don’t always apply our hard-earned lessons from one sphere to the other. To help us resist this compartmentalization, let’s take a look at how our spiritual walk, our careers, and our creative outlets thrive on the same fuel.
We tend to think of our spiritual life as something radically different from the rest of life, but it isn’t. Just like any other aspect of our career, education or recreation, we tend to run into obstacles that stem from our assumptions and the assumptions of those around us.
King Saul, in the Old Testament, was a successful warrior and king. He knew what it took to be king and to win wars. When David was ready to fight Goliath, it was only natural Saul would encourage David to use the same armor that gave Saul such success. The problem was David’s technique, and style didn’t match that of Saul. What works for one man doesn’t automatically work for another. This is true of leadership styles, devotional habits, and spiritual growth.
What gave your body strength last year or last decade is not what it needs today. When you are a baby, milk is all you need. As a young adult and teenager, you need more. In fact, you can consume tremendous amounts of food and nutrients to help your body develop and grow, especially if you are living an active life. Later in life, your body has another set of needs as your body and metabolism change. Ignore these changes, and your body will not be healthy.
Your spirit has unique needs that change throughout your life. What fed you as a baby believer is not enough to give you the strength to grow into a mature believer. The challenge we all must accept is this:
“To continue growing and resist complacency, you must improvise.”
You need improvisation for art and life. Ask what God is teaching you through your circumstances today. Seek out men and women who can help you grow deeper in the faith. In a previous blog I pointed out the best ‘devotionals’ are often not designed to be devotionals. Take time to read something deeper than ‘pick me up’, easily accessible devotionals. I often recommend Long Obedience in the Same Direction (paid link) by Eugene Peterson, as well as the books I list in this blog. There is no single answer. Do what it takes to keep developing your heart for God, your heart for others, savor all the beauty God has blessed you with, and thereby nurture your soul.
Self Feeding Christian
By the way, If your pastor doesn’t push you to grow, and the sermons aren’t challenging you to grow deeper in the knowledge of Christ, whether you stay in that church or not, do the mature thing and find sources online that will push you to grow. If you are reading this blog you are old enough to be a self-feeding Christian. There are plenty of podcasts, online sermons and books.
Spiritual improvisation is the ability to adapt to each stage of life by finding new ways to pray, new ways to examine your own heart, and get involved in deep community with others. If you are not growing, your spiritual muscles will atrophy.
Improvisation changed my life in college. That is not hyperbole. As a classically trained musician, I was so afraid to play a wrong note in my improvisation clinics, it was nearly paralyzing. My mentor, Dr. John Rapson, pulled me aside after a solo at a club in downtown Santa Barbara, he could feel my fear of playing the wrong note. The next day in the improvisation clinic he did an exercise that unlocked something that held me captive to a fear of playing the wrong note.
That day he had the rhythm section (Drums, Keys, and Bass) setup a tight 12 bar blues like he had done in weeks before, but then he told us something surprising. He looked at me and said I want you to play a note you know is not in the scale that fits this chord progression, and then find a way to make it work.
At first it sounded ‘off’, but soon I realized that any note can fit into the song if you know how to transition from that awkward tension back into the groove. Then, as I listened to Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, and other great jazz musicians I began to see the beauty of improvisation. Sure, there are parts mapped out perfectly in the songs, but like life there are parts that surprise you – notes you played, or rhythms the percussionist played that inspire you to take the melody somewhere else. All of the sudden, instead of gripped with fear, I saw these ‘other notes’ as wonderful accidents and invitations to explore new ways to hear and express what is happening in that moment.
All great art requires improvisation. Filmmakers have countless surprises on every shoot and are forced to improvise. Actors are surprised by what other actors do and say that present new opportunities to improvise. Novelists and visual artists often talk of how their final product is quite different than what they had envisioned in the beginning. Wonderful accidents are an opportunity to embrace something new, to see where the next rabbit hole may lead, and to find joy through improvisation.
The feature film department of Kodak was as stable as they get. I have a friend who worked there for over 30 years. Then in 2012 Kodak filed for bankruptcy. The giant had fallen. One reason: They failed to improvise. In 1975 Kodak had invented the digital camera. As my friend shared over lunch, the executives instructed the team to put the camera in the closet because they would never make as much money on film if people migrated to the digital technology. Though that was true, the failure to improvise and see where the new technology leads cost them dearly.
You must improvise. You cannot expect anyone to acknowledge your gifts and give you the perfect job. Seth Godin is the probably the best evangelist of this idea. You have to create your own opportunities and treat your life and your art as any other entrepreneur. Remember, improvisation for art and life is now a requirement. Rest on your laurels and past accomplishments and you will miss the opportunities like that of Kodak. They could have dominated the market and led the way. Instead, their final last attempt to stay afloat was simply suing other companies such as Apple for stealing their technology.
Most people today will have a host of careers and jobs. We can move and adapt quickly, and the market now anticipates that. If you do not learn to improvise in your art and your career, your heart will become weary as you experience repeated frustration. So avoid that end, and learn to improvise.
To live life fully, and create generative, life-giving art, you must improvise. Improvisation is the one ability that never loses its power. Life will always present challenges and opportunities we cannot anticipate. Even military leaders and strategists know the first casualty of any war is the plan. Your life is the same. The plan for this year, or next year will never work out exactly as expected. Don’t give up on plans, but expect the surprises and start to consider them wonderful accidents and invitations to something new.
My jazz professor changed my life because I realized whether I am playing solo on my tenor sax, preaching on Sunday morning, or moderating a business gathering, the surprises can be the very thing that brings joy, and something wonderful that was never anticipated. May your life be lived in that freedom, and may you see that Christ’s love and grace have provided the room for you to improvise over and over. Remember, God is for you. He loves you. There is no mistake you cannot recover from. Improvise!
Copyright © 2019 Joel & Michelle Pelsue. All Rights Reserved. Used with Permission.
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