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Improvise Like a Jazz Musician

Improvise Like a Jazz Musician
Improvise Like a Jazz Musician

    Or: Everything I Need to Know About Productivity I learned from Charles Mingus

    You don’t think of Charles Mingus‘ autobiography Beneath the Underdog as a productivity book, and it’s not, really.  Mingus was one of Jazz’s great composers, as well as a great bass player.  Plagued by depression, Mingus invested himself heavily in psychotherapy, and Beneath the Underdog is a kind of reflection on his life and music through the filter of his therapy.

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    But Mingus had a kind of wisdom in his approach to life and to music that is, I think, of great value in today’s innovation-based culture. He was deeply committed to the art of improvisation, even developing his own music notation system for his compositions so that musicians wouldn’t be limited to playing a specific note for a specific length of time; instead, Mingus’ compositions make suggestions about what approximate note to play and for about how many beats they should play it.

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    We’re called on to improvise all the time. We might sit down and try to brainstorm the solution to a problem, use a tool to do a job it wasn’t intended for, or suddenly be asked to speak to a large group — when these things happen, we have to either improvise, often making things up as we go along, or accept failure.  Assuming the second option is unacceptable, here are a few lessons I’ve picked up from Mingus about thinking fast on your feet:

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    • Go with the flow: Mingus describes the perfect experience in music-making as that moment when everything comes together just right and the right notes, the right phrase, the right everything just comes.  Writers, musicians, artists, and others know this state of flow is hard to get to, but when it happens, everything just works. When you’re improvising, don’t second-guess yourself, don’t obsess over doing the right thing, and don’t worry about what comes next, don’t do anything that gets in the way of the flow. There’ll be time enough to sort out the mistakes when you have solid ground under your feet again.
    • You don’t play alone: Too many people think about the great Jazz geniuses as exemplars of individualism: free minds striving for greatness. Here’s what Mingus would do when a soloist thought too highly of his own genius — he’d direct the band to stop playing, leaving the soloist hanging without any backup, looking like a fool. Improvisation is as much about the relationships between people as it is about our own self-expression; work with the input of those around you instead of trying to stand out against it.
    • Learn the rules so you can break them: It’s hard to explain what the difference between someone who doesn’t know the rules and someone who knows them and breaks them is — but we know it when we hear (or see) it.  Mingus learned to play in the highly structured environment of a classical ensemble; later, he studied the big band compositions of Duke Ellington.  There’s nothing sloppy or naive about his compositions, even when they break all the rules — Mingus knew the rules well enough to know why they had to be broken.
    • Play by ear: Mingus’ classical career came to an end when it was discovered that he wasn’t reading the music but was playing what he felt worked best. If you find yourself playing without sheet music, or according to charts you don’t know how to read, follow your gut instinct and do what “sounds” right. 
    • Embrace limits: There can be no creativity without limits.  Sounds strange, but limits are the cause and reason of creativity.  Consider this: you are standing on a perfectly smooth surface wearing perfectly smooth shoes.  No limits, right? Except you can’t move…Infinite choice is paralyzing; limits give us something to work with — or against — so we can at least get started.
    • Use common structures in creative ways: Some of the best Jazz is based on popular music (e.g. Coltrane’s “Favorite Things”), folk tunes, and blues songs.  These common structures give musicians an “anchor” that imposes limits to work against (see above) but also gives them a set of stock material to throw in when they run out of ideas and need to figure out what to do next. If you ever get a chance to witness a real jam session, you’ll hear snatches of dozens of popular songs that musicians rely on to express certain ideas, give themselves time to think, and even get a laugh.  Don’t be afraid to throw in a cliche or borrow someone else’s phrase when you’re improvising — you might breathe new life into it and find yourself changing it into something else entirely.
    • When you make a mistake, keep playing: It’s not the mistakes that matter, it’s what you make out of them. It may well turn out that your “mistake” takes you in a whole new — and better — direction.

    The essence of improvisation is to churn out ideas and see what sticks. This means that as often as not, you’re going to end up with some real garbage.  Mingus, and every other musician, had terrible nights, when nothing came off well — that’s the risk you take when you put yourself on the edge. The payoff is well worth it, though — when everything comes together just right, you can end up with greatness.

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    Last Updated on March 13, 2019

    How to Get out of a Rut: 12 Useful Ways to Get Unstuck

    How to Get out of a Rut: 12 Useful Ways to Get Unstuck

    Have you gotten into a rut before? Or are you in a rut right now?

    You know you’re in a rut when you run out of ideas and inspiration. I personally see a rut as a productivity vacuum. It might very well be a reason why you aren’t getting results. Even as you spend more time on your work, you can’t seem to get anything constructive done. While I’m normally productive, I get into occasional ruts (especially when I’ve been working back-to-back without rest). During those times, I can spend an entire day in front of the computer and get nothing done. It can be quite frustrating.

    Over time, I have tried and found several methods that are helpful to pull me out of a rut. If you experience ruts too, whether as a working professional, a writer, a blogger, a student or other work, you will find these useful. Here are 12 of my personal tips to get out of ruts:

    1. Work on the small tasks.

    When you are in a rut, tackle it by starting small. Clear away your smaller tasks which have been piling up. Reply to your emails, organize your documents, declutter your work space, and reply to private messages.

    Whenever I finish doing that, I generate a positive momentum which I bring forward to my work.

    2. Take a break from your work desk.

    Get yourself away from your desk and go take a walk. Go to the washroom, walk around the office, go out and get a snack.

    Your mind is too bogged down and needs some airing. Sometimes I get new ideas right after I walk away from my computer.

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    3. Upgrade yourself

    Take the down time to upgrade yourself. Go to a seminar. Read up on new materials (#7). Pick up a new language. Or any of the 42 ways here to improve yourself.

    The modern computer uses different typefaces because Steve Jobs dropped in on a calligraphy class back in college. How’s that for inspiration?

    4. Talk to a friend.

    Talk to someone and get your mind off work for a while.

    Talk about anything, from casual chatting to a deep conversation about something you really care about. You will be surprised at how the short encounter can be rejuvenating in its own way.

    5. Forget about trying to be perfect.

    If you are in a rut, the last thing you want to do is step on your own toes with perfectionist tendencies.

    Just start small. Do what you can, at your own pace. Let yourself make mistakes.

    Soon, a little trickle of inspiration will come. And then it’ll build up with more trickles. Before you know it, you have a whole stream of ideas.

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    6. Paint a vision to work towards.

    If you are continuously getting in a rut with your work, maybe there’s no vision inspiring you to move forward.

    Think about why you are doing this, and what you are doing it for. What is the end vision in mind?

    Make it as vivid as possible. Make sure it’s a vision that inspires you and use that to trigger you to action.

    7. Read a book (or blog).

    The things we read are like food to our brain. If you are out of ideas, it’s time to feed your brain with great materials.

    Here’s a list of 40 books you can start off with. Stock your browser with only the feeds of high quality blogs, such as Lifehack.org, DumbLittleMan, Seth Godin’s Blog, Tim Ferris’ Blog, Zen Habits or The Personal Excellence Blog.

    Check out the best selling books; those are generally packed with great wisdom.

    8. Have a quick nap.

    If you are at home, take a quick nap for about 20-30 minutes. This clears up your mind and gives you a quick boost. Nothing quite like starting off on a fresh start after catching up on sleep.

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    9. Remember why you are doing this.

    Sometimes we lose sight of why we do what we do, and after a while we become jaded. A quick refresher on why you even started on this project will help.

    What were you thinking when you thought of doing this? Retrace your thoughts back to that moment. Recall why you are doing this. Then reconnect with your muse.

    10. Find some competition.

    Nothing quite like healthy competition to spur us forward. If you are out of ideas, then check up on what people are doing in your space.

    Colleagues at work, competitors in the industry, competitors’ products and websites, networking conventions.. you get the drill.

    11. Go exercise.

    Since you are not making headway at work, might as well spend the time shaping yourself up.

    Sometimes we work so much that we neglect our health and fitness. Go jog, swim, cycle, whichever exercise you prefer.

    As you improve your physical health, your mental health will improve, too. The different facets of ourselves are all interlinked.

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    Here’re 15 Tips to Restart the Exercise Habit (and How to Keep It).

    12. Take a good break.

    Ruts are usually signs that you have been working too long and too hard. It’s time to get a break.

    Beyond the quick tips above, arrange for a 1-day or 2-days of break from your work. Don’t check your (work) emails or do anything work-related. Relax and do your favorite activities. You will return to your work recharged and ready to start.

    Contrary to popular belief, the world will not end from taking a break from your work. In fact, you will be much more ready to make an impact after proper rest. My best ideas and inspiration always hit me whenever I’m away from my work.

    Take a look at this to learn the importance of rest: The Importance of Scheduling Downtime

    More Resources About Getting out of a Rut

    Featured photo credit: Joshua Earle via unsplash.com

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