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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 August 20, 2019

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

    This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

    The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard. Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

    Curiosity

    Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

    People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

    Patience

    Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

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    When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

    Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

    A Feeling for Connectedness

    This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

    A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

    The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

    With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

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    1. Research

    Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

    Learning the Basics

    Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

    Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

    What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

    Hitting the Books

    Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

    Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

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    Long-Term Reference

    While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

    My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

    2. Practice

    Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

    A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

    Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

    3. Network

    One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

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    These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

    Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

    4. Schedule

    For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

    Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

    Final Thoughts

    In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

    If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

    At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

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    Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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