I meet a lot of interesting people from around the globe in my job as an ESL instructor. For instance, there’s the electrical engineer from Taiwan who designs light bulbs. You would not believe how interesting light bulbs can be, and yes, I’m completely serious. The prize right now though has to go to the doctoral student from Japan whose area is music—organ music, to be specific. The organ doesn’t come anywhere near any given list of my favorite instruments; it’s probably somewhere just above harpsichord but just below didgeridoo. Yet his research is fairly mind-blowing, at least what I understand of it. His dissertation deals with musical improvisation, you see; used to be many centuries ago every church organist routinely took off on improv flights, riffing like a Baroque John Coltrane minus the heroin (or so I assume, though who knows how wild the church organ crowd was back then). This, my student argues, is because when people were taught to play the organ, their instruction included a closely entwined mix of music theory and performance. Today, however, theory and performance don’t mix at all; theory is the boring thing music students study to pass the test and then instantly forget, and it has almost nothing to do with actually sitting down at an instrument and making music. His dissertation suggests that this is a serious flaw in the teaching of music.
This seemed nothing short of a revelation to me. It’s true we tend to think of improvisation as something that simply springs from the heart. We think you can’t be trained to do that, that formal training is the very antithesis of improv. Perhaps we even subscribe to views promoted by many a popular movie—that formal education stunts our ability to be creative, fresh, and original, that discipline and structure threaten to crush the life out of what makes art and music so meaningful. Carpe harpsichord!
The equivalent in my own field of studies is perhaps linguistics and creative writing. Linguistics is where you study the history of language, its origins, its structures, its blabbetty blah blah yeah whatever I just want to pass this class so I never have to diagram a goddamn sentence ever again. Creative writing, now that’s what it’s all about. We don’t need no stinkin’ rules in creative writing. We write what we want to, man.
Yeah, that’s crap.
I’m a writer, which means I’m creative, or at least I aim to be. I’m also a teacher, which means, at least to me, that I find value in discipline and structure. Those two things are not at odds, believe it or not. The more you know about what’s possible in language, the more you can then launch into what might have formerly seemed impossible. No one is born knowing any language, ever. It has to be acquired, which means that it isn’t really unique for any of us. Of course, from the basic building blocks of language—words, patterns, structures—comes infinite possibility for expression. Give a person nothing to work with, don’t be surprised at the results. Give that person some building blocks, and just see what can happen. Pretty much anything, I would say.
If you think about it, this false dichotomy of structure and improv transcends many aspects of life. After all, despite the fact that a great many of us like to think of ourselves as unique individuals who blaze their own trails, make their own paths, and do a bunch of other stuff that make for great pithy slogans to be posted on facebook, most of what we do is an imitation of what everyone else does. We live in similar dwellings, eat similar food, wear similar clothes, say the same things over and over and over; we sleep, wake, repeat; we make money and spend money; we meet people and lose people; we fall in and out of love.
Gist: We are a lot less original than we’d like to believe.
And yet we are each, of course, complete originals. Nobody is you, or ever will be. Life is improv from start to finish.
Want a connection to running? It seems like an appropriate place in this post to create one, even though running would appear to be one of the least improvisational activities humans do. It requires a limited range of motion, and there isn’t all that much variation involved, certainly not compared to other types of athletic activity. The ultra I ran on Saturday may be one fairly extreme version of a non-improv-ish run. It is called Howl, and the goal is to run as many 3.3-mile loops on a trail through the woods as you can in 8 hours. It sounds hideous, I know, and yet from this basic structure—run around in preset circles for a preset amount of time—comes as pure improvisation as any jazz musician could create. With greater limitations comes a greater push to get through, get around, get by—and get creative. Knowing I’m going to be doing this same loop over and over (a dozen times, as it turned out), I relied upon my speedwork training as a way of controlling my pace even while I improvised a mindset to carry me through. Every loop is different. Every moment is different, because it’s a moment further along the path, further along in time, closer to the goal. The result was that I didn’t just “carry myself through,” but I actually enjoyed those 8 hours immensely. No, really, it was totally fun, I’m not kidding. I know it sounds nuts. It is. That’s the beauty of it.
Structure is not something to rail against. It’s something to learn from, to practice, to work hard at, and then to use as a way to leap into whatever formless space lies ahead, ready to be filled by words or music or bodies in motion.