The road to improvisation


December 23rd, 2010

I really liked this article about the improvisational brain, based on research of musical improvisation.

A couple of things stood out: we learn words, then phrases and then grammar that eventually enables us to recombine them all to communicate our thoughts. That’s language. And we can learn notes, cords, and progressions that eventually enables us to recombine them all to express musical ideas. That’s music. This is how we learn different forms of literacy.

So far, so good.

Then there’s the Road to Improvisation. Part of the journey is learning new skills with a combination of exposure, a toolbox and practice. If improvisation is part of the journey, then an improvisor’s MINDSET is needed for the next phase. However, the budding improvisor is prone to rely on a safety net, just in case spontaneity lets them down at a crucial moment. At some point (and here’s where it gets fuzzy for me) there’s a decision to CHOOSE improvisation – a conscious choice? – and the necessity to LET GO (I’m reminded here of a trapeze artist letting go of the bar or a skier letting go of fear and leaning down the mountain) which culminates in what Aaron Berkowitz calls the ‘creator/witness phenomenon’.

“At this level of musical cognition, the improviser often achieves a seamless trade-off between his conscious and subconscious knowledge. He knows he’s creating the music and feels very much in control, yet he also feels as if he’s watching himself play, a paradox that Berkowitz calls the creator/witness phenomenon. “They’ll be playing and something happens that they didn’t quite expect,” Berkowitz said. “Then they react to that and it kind of starts this dialogue where the improviser is steering the ship, but is also being steered by the ship.”

Which brings me back to the question of improvisational facilitation. I think one of the greatest skills a facilitator can develop is to be spontaneous – to notice what’s happening and respond in the moment. In other words, to improvise. This is not the same as being unprepared. There’s a solid background of exposure to various forms of facilitation, a toolbox full of methods and techniques, and practice. Lots of practice.

I think just about anyone can learn to be a competent facilitator. My interest is in what does it take to develop an improvisor’s mindset as a facilitator, how to ditch the safety net (the plan, for example) and be always in choice when facilitating to become truly improvisational.

Due to a solid grounding in traditional facilitation plus exposure to improvisation, I’ve developed my own capacity as an improvisational facilitator. The hardest part has been learning to let go. It doesn’t always work, but when it does – wow! My challenge is to unpack how that happens so as I can help others learn how to improvise when facilitating. This is edgy, exciting work that I have a real passion for.

2 Comments so far

  1. Tweets that mention Viv McWaters -- Topsy.com on December 23, 2010 6:17 pm

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Gabe Mercado, Viv McWaters. Viv McWaters said: Some musings about improvisational facilitation [blog] http://bit.ly/ibZcmm […]

  2. Dwight Towers on January 1, 2011 4:56 pm

    Another really helpful post! Vygotsky’s “Zone of Proximal Development” and “scaffolding” is the way I think about this (though it doesn’t take in all what you’ve written above…) Basically, there’s three zones – things that you can do without help, things that you can only do with a mentor and things that are beyond you totally. As you learn, and the mentor builds your skills and confidence, you start to be able to do things without him/her, and things that were completely beyond you become possible with help….

    All best wishes. Gonna pootle around a bit and possibly comment elsewhere if (I think) I have anything useful to contribute…

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