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Improvise Like a Jazz Musician

Improvise Like a Jazz Musician
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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 November 18, 2020

    15 Tips to Restart the Exercise Habit (and How to Keep It)

    15 Tips to Restart the Exercise Habit (and How to Keep It)
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    It’s okay, you can finally admit it. It’s been two months since you’ve seen the inside of the gym. Getting sick, family crisis, overtime at work and school papers that needed to get finished all kept you for exercising. Now, the question is: how do you start again?
    Once you have an exercise habit, it becomes automatic. You just go to the gym, there is no force involved. But after a month, two months or possibly a year off, it can be hard to get started again. Here are some tips to climb back on that treadmill after you’ve fallen off.

    1. Don’t Break the Habit – The easiest way to keep things going is simply not to stop. Avoid long breaks in exercising or rebuilding the habit will take some effort. This may be advice a little too late for some people. But if you have an exercise habit going, don’t drop it at the first sign of trouble.
    2. Reward Showing Up – Woody Allen once said that, “Half of life is showing up.” I’d argue that 90% of making a habit is just making the effort to get there. You can worry about your weight, amount of laps you run or the amount you can bench press later.
    3. Commit for Thirty Days – Make a commitment to go every day (even just for 20 minutes) for one month. This will solidify the exercise habit. By making a commitment you also take pressure off yourself in the first weeks back of deciding whether to go.
    4. Make it Fun – If you don’t enjoy yourself at the gym, it is going to be hard to keep it a habit. There are thousands of ways you can move your body and exercise, so don’t give up if you’ve decided lifting weights or doing crunches isn’t for you. Many large fitness centers will offer a range of programs that can suit your tastes.
    5. Schedule During Quiet Hours – Don’t put exercise time in a place where it will easily be pushed aside by something more important. Right after work or first thing in the morning are often good places to put it. Lunch-hour workouts might be too easy to skip if work demands start mounting.
    6. Get a Buddy – Grab a friend to join you. Having a social aspect to exercising can boost your commitment to the exercise habit.
    7. X Your Calendar – One person I know has the habit of drawing a red “X” through any day on the calendar he goes to the gym. The benefit of this is it quickly shows how long it has been since you’ve gone to the gym. Keeping a steady amount of X’s on your calendar is an easy way to motivate yourself.
    8. Enjoyment Before Effort – After you finish any work out, ask yourself what parts you enjoyed and what parts you did not. As a rule, the enjoyable aspects of your workout will get done and the rest will be avoided. By focusing on how you can make workouts more enjoyable, you can make sure you want to keep going to the gym.
    9. Create a Ritual – Your workout routine should become so ingrained that it becomes a ritual. This means that the time of day, place or cue automatically starts you towards grabbing your bag and heading out. If your workout times are completely random, it will be harder to benefit from the momentum of a ritual.
    10. Stress Relief – What do you do when your stressed? Chances are it isn’t running. But exercise can be a great way to relieve stress, releasing endorphin which will improve your mood. The next time you feel stressed or tired, try doing an exercise you enjoy. When stress relief is linked to exercise, it is easy to regain the habit even after a leave of absence.
    11. Measure Fitness – Weight isn’t always the best number to track. Increase in muscle can offset decreases in fat so the scale doesn’t change even if your body is. But fitness improvements are a great way to stay motivated. Recording simple numbers such as the number of push-ups, sit-ups or speed you can run can help you see that the exercise is making you stronger and faster.
    12. Habits First, Equipment Later – Fancy equipment doesn’t create a habit for exercise. Despite this, some people still believe that buying a thousand dollar machine will make up for their inactivity. It won’t. Start building the exercise habit first, only afterwards should you worry about having a personal gym.
    13. Isolate Your Weakness – If falling off the exercise wagon is a common occurrence for you, find out why. Do you not enjoy exercising? Is it a lack of time? Is it feeling self-conscious at the gym? Is it a lack of fitness know-how? As soon as you can isolate your weakness, you can make steps to improve the situation.
    14. Start Small – Trying to run fifteen miles your first workout isn’t a good way to build a habit. Work below your capacity for the first few weeks to build the habit. Otherwise you might scare yourself off after a brutal workout.
    15. Go for Yourself, Not to Impress – Going to the gym with the only goal of looking great is like starting a business with only the goal to make money. The effort can’t justify the results. But if you go to the gym to push yourself, gain energy and have a good time, then you can keep going even when results are slow.

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