#14) Spinning the productivity wheel (The Blank Canvas)

In a previous blog post, I described what I call the “productivity wheel”.  I have had a little bit of a cold the past few days, which means no gym and limited hiking, and with the house to myself and no students to teach until 4:30 this afternoon (Thursday, May 19th), and with several possible ways to spend my time productively but not a whole lot of motivation to do so, I decided to spin the wheel.  The number: 9, or “Write blog post.”  Well, since I haven’t been hiking, there’s not much to report on www.nobodyhikesinla.com, and while I’ve been continuing to take a lot of pictures, submit them and have a few of them downloaded, there’s not really a whole lot to add to Nature Pic Mercenary.  I had a few D-theory drafts I was thinking of revising, but instead I thought it would be more fun to “kick it freestyle.”  If KCRW radio dramatist Joe Frank can make a whole hour-long program about how doesn’t have a show, I can do a short blog about how I don’t have anything to write about.

As a music teacher, I’ve noticed how often times, students both young and old, are afraid of improvisation.  In fact, no less than Yo-Yo Ma described his first experience improvising in public as “terrifying.”  The blank canvas represents the unknown; rules can make one’s life easier.   I myself have always enjoyed improvising more than having to read notes; while I often see my stubborn younger self in my students, this is an area in which we differ.  But I can understand why improvisation, be it in music or otherwise, can be tough.

On the Food Network’s show “Chopped”, four chefs are challenged to improvise an appetizer, entree and dessert from “mystery baskets,” which contain food items that you wouldn’t think go together very well.  Goat brains, rattlesnake meat, olive loaf and some kind of fruit whose name I forget which is poisonous if not cooked correctly are a few of the examples of items that have appeared in baskets.  The chefs have only 30 minutes to create their dish.  It’s always interesting to see what the come up with and to see how they handle the tasks of improvisation.

Improv comedy has also been a favorite of mine.  I’ve played in the “house bands” of a few such shows, and on one (I was thankfully in the audience this time around) the band actually helped the actors improvise a musical.  This sort of spontaneity has helped live theater achieve something of a resurgence in Hollywood; it’s also been given as an explanation for the popularity of reality television in that audiences are craving a new experience, something that seems fresh and natural, perhaps a little flawed; not the canned stuff that they’re used to.

The beauty of improvisation in music is that one cannot make a mistake.  I always tell my students that if you play a note that makes you cringe, play it again.  It will help convince your audience that you meant to do it, and you’ll also expand your ears and open your mind to new sounds.  Not everything sounds good the first time we hear it; Beethoven allegedly caught a lot of grief for having the audacity to start one of his symphonic movements with the dominant 7th chord instead of the tonic.  Musical comedian Tom Lehrer described one of his songs as being “in a mode: or, every so often, I play a wrong note.”   I am fond of telling my students that in improvisation, there are no wrong notes; there are just right notes that sound like shit.

And who said that anything is so bad about making a mistake?  In addition to being something from which lessons can be learned, “mistakes” can sometimes result in a better product.  Post-its, basketball and Coke were all mistakes.   If James Naismith’s assistant had followed his directions, Kobe Bryant and D. Wade would be shooting toward a square target.

So whether it’s a question of trial and error, being creative or just letting yourself go, improvisation is important.  Blank canvases are all over the place, just waiting to be filled with something great.

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