I worked yesterday. On a beautiful sunny Sunday afternoon. I didn't mind a bit. In fact, I had a blast. I'd been engaged to provide some unusual entertainment at a group's Christmas Party.
The brief was to lead a group of people, who are used to speaking in public, in some "impro". Initially my heart raced. To many people watching any form of improvisation, it can seem like a piece of cake. It is - if you practise and train and hone your craft. It's not something that you just walk up and start doing. Whenever we watch skilled experts doing anything, they make it look easy and we often think we can just start at the same level. (This seems to happen with actors more than musicians).
I've learned that good improvisation has rules (which may seem counter-intuitive) and that there's an essential mindset that must be developed. These rules are quite opposite to how much of the world generally operates: "there are no mistakes", "say 'YES'", "don't edit, go with your instinct" and so on. So what to do with a group of novices for two hours at the Christmas party?
Start simple and emphasise fun and the value of letting go and trying stuff. Before long people were removing - or rearranging - items of clothing, moving wildly to music, creating a barnyard of animals (everything from mosquitos to crocodiles, dogs to pigs and a koala who just hung onto a tree). We created an orchestra where every person was an instrument which had only one sound.
While we were hanging around waiting for everyone to arrive, as they introduced themselves, several people took the opportunity to put caveats on the extent of the participation for the afternoon: "I don't sing." "I like watching, but don't want to do anything." "I'm not funny." "Just don't make me...[insert specific fear here]." As the afternoon progressed, I noticed that as more fun was had, inhibitions faded away and people threw themselves in. There were some genuinely funny moments as self-consciousness slipped away and people were appreciated for their offers.
There were some children also participating and they provided excellent instruction for the adults. Children don't hesitate to throw their bodies and souls into anything imaginative. At one point we were doing a word at a time story. It was pretty whacky already and then one of the children added a word which was unexpected. An adult "corrected" the child and offered the word that most of the group was probably expecting. Disappointment and fear flitted across her face. I asked her for her word again which she offered and that was the word incorporated as I reminded the group that there are no mistakes and the mantra is "yes". The level of discomfort in the group rose and then ebbed as the story progressed anyway.
I started thinking about how exciting the unexpected can be and wondering why our default is often to steer things to be how we expect them. I suppose it's a fear and a desire to control.
At the end of the afternoon, people were singing Christmas carols with the lyrics taken from the "Chairman's Guide to Meetings and Organisations" and "Real Estate Mistakes". Suddenly any idea that "I don't sing solo" had disappeared and people asked to have a go.
This was the perfect place to finish. For a couple of hours, the people had been able to play freely. Working in the beautiful gardens on a sunny Sunday afternoon, playing with people, was the best place I could have been. I love my work.
When was the last time you played?