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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 June 20, 2019

    50 Businesses You Can Start In Your Spare Time

    50 Businesses You Can Start In Your Spare Time

    Most people want a few more dollars in their wallets. But between an employer and family, the time most of us can devote to a second job is severely limited. Running a small side business can provide a few more options: you don’t have to show up at a set time and you can use skills you already have. Not all will be perfect for everyone, of course, and I’m sure that you’ll have a few ideas of your own after reading this list. If you’d like to share any other business ideas, please add them in the comments.

    1. Selling collectibles — From antique books to teddy bears, there are plenty of opportunities to buy and sell collectibles. It’s important to familiarize yourself with the collectible of your choice but if you choose something that you’ve been collecting for a while, you’ve got a head start.
    2. Locating apartments — It can take time to sort through apartment listings, but you can make some money by finding the perfect apartment for a renter.
    3. Baby proofing — New parents often prefer to bring in an expert to make sure their home is safe for a new baby.
    4. Calligraphic writing — If you’ve got elegant handwriting, you can pick up gigs writing or addressing wedding invitations, holiday cards and more.
    5. Selling coupons — Search on eBay for coupons right now and you’ll see thousands of listings for coupons. It’s just a matter of clipping and listing what you find in your Sunday newspaper.
    6. Pet training — A surprising number of people don’t know where to start in training a pet. Even teaching Rover simple commands like ‘Sit’ and ‘Stay’ can bring in a few dollars.
    7. Running errands — A wide variety of people want to outsource their errands, from those folks who aren’t able to leave their homes easily to those who have a busy schedule.
    8. Researching family trees — Amateur genealogists often call in experts, especially to handle research that has to be done in person in a far off place. If you’re willing to go to a local church and copy a few records, you can handle many family tree research requests.
    9. Supplying firewood — The prerequisite for selling firewood is having a source of wood; if you’ve got some land where you can cut down a few trees, you’ve got a head start.
    10. Hauling — As more people trade in their SUVs for compact cars, hauling is becoming more important: people have to rent a truck or hire a hauler for even small loads.
    11. Image consulting — Image consultants provide a wide variety of services, ranging from offering advice on appearance to teaching etiquette.
    12. Menu planning — For many people, the trip up in eating home-cooked or healthy meals is knowing what to prepare. Meal planners set a schedule to solve certain dietary problems.
    13. Microfarming — Cultivating food and flowers on small plots of land allows you to sell produce easily.
    14. Offering notary public services — Notary publics can witness and authenticate documents: a service needed for all sorts of official documents.
    15. Teaching music — If you’re skilled with a musical instrument, you can earn money by offering lessons.
    16. Mystery shopping — Mystery shoppers check the conditions and service at a store and report back to the store’s higher-ups.
    17. Offering research services — Just by reading up on a topic and compiling a report on it can earn you money.
    18. Personal shopping — Personal shoppers typically select gifts, apparel and other products for clients, helping them save time.
    19. Pet breeding — Purebred pets can be quite value, especially if you can verify their pedigree.
    20. Removing snow — During the winter months, shoveling walks can still be a reliable way to earn money. You might be asked to take care of the driveway too.
    21. Utility auditing — As people become environmentally-concious, they want to know just how efficient their homes are. With some simple testing, you can tell them.
    22. Offering web hosting services — Providing server space can be lucrative, particularly if you can provide tech support to your clients.
    23. Cutting lawns — An old standby, cutting lawns and other landscaping services can provide a second income in the summer.
    24. Auctioning items on eBay — Want to get rid of all your old stuff? Stick it up on eBay and auction it off.
    25. Babysitting — Child care of all kinds, from babysitting to nannying, can offer constant opportunities.
    26. Freelance writing — If you’ve got the skills to write clearly, you can sell your pen for everything from blogs to advertising copy.
    27. Selling blog and website themes — Do a little designing on the side? Customers that don’t want to pay full price for a website will often pay for a template or theme.
    28. Offering computer help — Particularly with people new to computers, you can earn money by providing in-home computer help.
    29. Designing websites — It may require a little skilled effort, but designing websites remains a reliable source of income.
    30. Selling stock photography — For shutterbugs, an easy way to put a photography collection to work is to post it to a stock photography site.
    31. Freelance designing — Check with local businesses: you can provide brochures, business cards and other design work and get paid a good fee.
    32. Tutoring — Math and languages reamin the easiest subjects to find tutoring gigs for, but there is demand for other fields as well.
    33. Housesitting / petsitting — Stopping in to check on a house or pet can earn you some money, and maybe even a place to stay.
    34. Building niche websites — If you can put together a site on a very specific topic, you can put targeted ads on it and make money quickly.
    35. Translating — The variety of translating work available is huge: written word, on the spot and more is easy to find even on a part-time basis.
    36. Creating custom crafts — No matter what kind of crafts you make, there’s likely a market for it. Etsy remains one of the easiest places to sell crafts.
    37. Setting up a wi-fi hotspot — With a little bit of equipment, you can set up a wi-fi hotspot and charge your neighbors for the access they’ve been ‘borrowing.’
    38. Selling an e-book — You can write an e-book about almost anything and put it up for sale online.
    39. Affiliate marketing — If you’re willing to market other companies’ products, you can earn a cut of the sales.
    40. Renting out your spare room — From looking for a long-term roommate to listing your guest room on couch surfing sites, that spare room can make you money.
    41. Offering handy man services — Handling small household tasks can provide you with plenty of work, although you’ll probably be expected to have your own tools.
    42. Teaching an online class — Share your expertise through a website, an online seminar or variety of other methods.
    43. Building furniture — For those with the skill to create handmade furniture, selling their creations is often just a matter of advertising.
    44. Providing personal chef services — Personal chefs prepare meals ahead of time for customers, leaving their customers with a full freezer and no mess.
    45. Event planning — From planning corporate events to bar mitzvahs, an event planning business can require plenty of work and offer plenty of pay.
    46. Installing home safety products — Particularly as Baby Boomers age, people able to install handrails and other home safety products are in demand.
    47. Altering / tailoring — If your sewing skills are up to par, altering garments is coming back as people try to stretch more wear out of their clothing.
    48. Offering in-home beauty services — Hair cuts, makeup and other beauty services that can be performed at home have a growing demand.
    49. Business coaching — Helping others to establish and develop their businesses can provide many opportunities to earn money.
    50. Writing resumes — Writing resumes can provide a reliable income, especially if you can put a polish on a client’s credentials.

    There are plenty of offers that claim to provide you with the opportunity to make thousands of dollars a week. Unfortunately, none of these businesses will provide that sort of income, but they aren’t scams either. They were chosen because they all require a minimum investment to get started — some require nothing more than a flyer advertising your business. Even better, if you do enjoy any of these businesses, there is a potential with most of them to continue to expand — perhaps even to the point of going full time.

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    Featured photo credit: Omar Prestwich via unsplash.com

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