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Improvisation as a model of social behavior and cultural navigational technique

by LaDonna Smith

"How do geese know when to fly to the sun? Who tells them the seasons?  How do we, humans, know when it is time to move on? As with the migrant birds, so surely with us, there is a voice within, if only we would listen to it, that tells us so certainly when to go forth into the unknown."

              To share life with every human being on the planet, to acknowledge the common current of survival of every living creature, of making one’s way from birth to maturity, indeed to death itself; we walk the path not knowing really where we come from, or where we will be in the beyond after our death.

Life is a walk that each living entity takes from beginning to end. Each entity, each human being will observe, acknowledge, experience, create, find form and pattern, order and chaos, and make something from it that is uniquely their own. Furthermore, it will be done not so much out of pre-conceived structure, but from a natural progression of action and reaction, discovering and noticing our own life as it unfolds.

This is creating on the fly, as it were. It is the exact principal from which we live that we create our unique expressions. The impulse is the catalyst, improvisation is action and the exploration. Through this process of exploration, the known and the unknown engage in the dance that we have come to know as our reality. It is life. Could we say that improvisation, then, is the art of living?

Acknowledging improvisation as a medium of existence in everyday life, as a principal behavioral pattern for survival, we experience life from one moment to the next. In the progression of events, which we call life, alongside our reaction to these events, many times outcomes are unforeseen. Chance imposes itself on the known, the known reverting again into elements of the unknown. The inevitability of change, by process or disintegration, that gives us a model of reality as an ultimate improvisation. Who is to say, life is pre-planned?

One moment, one line, one page at a time. Indeed we can even divide our lives into chapters as we age, and obtain retrospect. We can then see the development and growth, the linear aspect of our own lives. It is then that we may be gifted with the knowledge that comes from age, with the experiential wisdom, recognizing our path, where we’ve been, and where it may lead. Our own existence becomes a grand prototype for our artistic behaviors, which in fact is most similar to our very survival behavior.

Surely as we, humans, develop the art of improvisation, we insure our success. Our ability to meet demand as it is presented, or even another dimension: the ability to access our subconscious knowledge, or our involuntary self-defense mechanism, or capture a moment of inspiration through one’s self expression as it is revealed to us, is a natural process of the universe. Developing one’s talent or skills through action and reaction, is an art developed by the fittest in survival, the most strategic in success, and the unencumbered flow of the imagination of the creative artist. Improvisation is the interaction with the creative spark (or the inspiration) that becomes the form.

It is the survival kit of nature. It has come to light as one of the most common of human behavioral patterns. It crosses all borders of cultural relationship. It bridges geographic, social-economic, institutional, racial, or other boundaries. To bring improvisation into light as a common human behavioral pattern brings about acknowledging the working process by which we all progress through our existence. Through improvisation in the arts, we can enact a model of life processing itself through expression. Expression is the communicating vessel of humanity.

It’s not about where we started from, or where we are going to; it’s about how we got there. Even though all processes vary, many times, change or significant discovery can be without thought, or effort; but through a mere participation in the natural flow. Other times it occurs with much calculation and plan, an empiric directive of steps or procedures, which lead us from point to point. But the process we are affected by is the part that we give our attention to, that which we notice, that which we feel, and fully experience to be real in the moment of transitions. There is always the gray area of the unknown, of the groping for answers or direction, or the territory of process. That is the territory of improvisation.

A powerful presence of self-awareness, not absentia, but the complete abandon of the ego, serves us well. If we open our eyes and notice, we give our attention to that which is, which is beyond ourselves, but present; intersecting with our awareness in the reality of time as it parades before us in the moment, we develop simultaneously the technique. Improvisation is a natural technique that we employ to create our world, real or imaginary, or indeed to navigate through life.

We have a commonality of human experience. All people, in every sphere and hemisphere, are born into conditions in which they must adapt. They are born out of the safety and darkness of the womb, into a reality of action and reaction, sound and light. Reaction is the normal process of life. From the time we inhale our first breath, utter our first cry, open our eyes for the first time, hear sound affecting us from birth, reach out with our own hand to grab our mothers hand, we are improvising. From birth, all beings react to their unique environmental conditions, and thus develop their own patterns for survival, indeed, for living. There is no school for this journey, only the innate abilities to adapt, to experiment with the moment and notice its result. And to use that experience as a basis for further development in the art of action and reaction, we learn as we create our own life.

It thereby follows that in the natural order of the development of music that the first and primary music of all people were products of a series of discoveries made through the act of improvisation, the impulse being the driving force in the development of music, then action and reaction. It follows that the common thread of all music would be the kinship of improvisation. That not only is improvisation the first music, but it is the precursor of form.


From the discovery of the movements of the voice to the primal pulse evolving beat and rhythm, individual expression of this innate process gives rise to the characteristics of cultural discrepancies, as musical languages formed and developed independently in the evolution of human tribal tendencies. All world music is born from common impulse and physiology—the breath and the pulse.

The pulse is physically integrated into the human anatomical system by the very heartbeat, and even in the movement of the lungs. It is the variation in the rate of the nervous system that gives rise to rhythmic variation in music. The driving force is unseen, but felt. It happens to us. The converse is powerfully true in reverse--that the rhythmic structure in music, elements of tempo and beat forms, conversely affect the nervous system. Synergistically the human organism is tied to rhythm, affected by it, and is inseparable from it. It is the organic structure of the physical makeup of not only human beings; but all life as we know it. Indeed, all movement is rhythm. Through the organs of perception we receive, react and respond. We have even charted the movements of the heavens, both ordered and chaotic. And let that be an analogy to the workings of the mind. The known which we have learned to process through repetitions, and the unknown which we process through adaptability, or improvisation.


Invoke, Imagine, Improvise

Now, because the improvisational characteristic of life is analogous to the creative process in the arts, all humanity may find a common language in the arts. As various cultures all over the world have developed their own cultural identities through their music, visual art, language, and survival skills, or customs, it follows that the outcomes are very different even though the process is the same. It is therefore probable, that with the simple collaborative process employing improvisation as a basic facilitator, a new common language could be reached, and the boundaries between the racial or cultural entities bridged and cultivated into a common expressive exchange.

One human being reaching for another human being, via the language of artistic medium, reaching for the depths, and going for something real. The improvisatory language is so common to humanity that it goes beyond the boundaries of form, or medium. Regardless of the medium, the process is the same. We are always facing choices, and we have the capacity to choose as we explore and transform our lives. As we create art or music, we are shifting, and changing, our position. In dropping our pre-conceptions, we become open to the force within and beyond us, manifesting the creation. If one is of the open mindset, and through the mutual recognition of the creative spark that is always present, we can easily shift between any medium, using the same process of discovery, and gently draw new concepts, contexts, or shapes of energies. Going into the subconscious becomes a human ritual, which we all can access. Noticing what happens in that process, and allowing the unhampered flow of the energy, will help us bring into our awareness the archetypes that dominate us, and even to create new ones.

Already, we are seeing the crossing-over of cultural lines in the area of music improvisation. Jazz is frequently now melding with the musical influences of world music; from Pakistan and India, to ritual Eskimo singing, Tuvan chant, from classical concepts of polyphony and sound layering, to a return to recognizing the same complexities in the sounds of nature. Just point to some of the diversity that has infiltrated the forms of jazz, and its palette of possibilities, and its creation of new forms. Without the necessity of adhering to form, form can be found in freedom. Without a pre-conceived notion of how a music should be styled, musicians who improvise meet on equal footing, on the blank precipice, poised to leap, without judgement. Improvisation is a perfect medium for bringing together our diverse languages, and creating one common language from it. –a musical language that everyone can understand….

From our own personal backgrounds and cultural heritages, we bring a unique palette of colors and custom, the very tools for our creation. Personal preferences and pre-dilections contribute to the absolute character that will ultimately prevail in the musical discourse. The next most basic element is that of the listening procedure, the ability to turn on attention, and to recognize flow. To watch with open minds and ears that which presents itself in the moment. Is the flow a doing, or a non-doing? It is both. It is presence and action, an automatism, a connecting, an allowing. Flow is being present with time, in total engagement with the moment. One moment melts and merges with the next, accessing an energy that has a life of its own.

By giving attention to the phenomena of musical improvisation, by observing and participating in its practice, opens a new avenue of interpersonal and intercultural relationship. Music improvisation can become an ultimate recreational form for human beings to share, to exchange, to appreciate and enjoy. The outcome is not so important as the process itself, but it may well produce phenomenal and surprising results. As an art form of depth, expression, and reflection, of sheer abandon, of digging into the deep void of the mystery of our life’s existence, musical improvisation can give us a technique for a deeper human connection from the source of our subconscious mind. It’s practice and appreciation may facilitate a greater consciousness, and indeed the fostering of respect and love among the peoples of the world, for what is greater than sharing one’s soul?

Music is a staple of our common languages; it is a litmus of the mystery of life.