Improvisation is the first step in the creative process, the necessary spark of inspiration that individualizes an idea and, if we are lucky, explores new territory. Studies have shown that improvisational capability improves with exposure, and it has unique properties quantifiable through brain scanning technology.
One of the challenges in researching improvisation is that the word tends to be conflated with other creativity synonyms, such as innovation, imagination, extemporization, and spontaneity. The context for this discussion on improvisation is musical, yet we could use the same term for poetry, dance, comedy, drama, theatre, and even business and government.
In Gilbert Ryle’s paper titled “Improvisation” in the journal called Mind, he provides a long list of activities that he considers requiring improvisation, including catching a ball, climbing a ladder, negotiating traffic, and telling a joke (Alperson 2016, Ryle 1976). None of his choices were artistic in any way. A professor of psychology, Ryle may not have been one for aesthetics. And although expressions like jazz improvisation may be widely accepted in the world of music, individuals working in different fields may not appreciate such a focused definition. Improvisation is an important part of everything we do.
The act of true improvisation has been described by many as an ethereal experience–lofty, out-of-body, liberating, transcendent. Academically, terms to describe this detached euphoric feeling of true improvisation have evolved over the years and the most commonly used today is Flow State, a concept developed by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Csikszentmihalyi 1991).
Flow State is sometimes referred to as The Zone, or, in Buddhist expressions describing meditation, it is the “action of inaction,” or “doing without doing,” or “attaining a state of effortless attention.” It is recognized across many fields of study, and it can have a negative connotation, such as in gaming, where being hyper focused in a TV-trance can become part of a gamer’s addiction. But it remains a desirable component for creative activity where inhibitions fall away and ideas are allowed to bubble up without judgment or second thought.
Studies have shown that musical improvisation creates a unique and desirable set of characteristics in our brains. Even more studies have shown that experiencing improvisation in any activity (such as musicking, dancing, preventing senior’s falls, negotiating traffic, telling a joke, juggling, or bouncing a ball) has beneficial effects on improvisational capability in other activities as well. If our desire is to become more creative in every way, not just artistically, then we need more ego-free, uninhibited, zone-inspired activity in our lives.
Our society needs to accept improvisation and all of its experimental and inevitable errors as part of our day to day existence. It is good to experience new things. It is good to make mistakes. It is good to improvise (Rx Music 2020) .