Your body knows stuff you don’t

A few years back I was lucky enough to see the Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Montero perform. She is a classical pianist. And she improvises.

The first thing she did was invite the audience to sit anywhere. Many joined her on stage.  Some even sat under the piano. Then, she asked people to volunteer a start point – she asked them to sing, or hum, or whistle a short melody. Anything would do she said, even a ring tone from a phone. After a short pause, she would then launch herself into a piece of classical style music, with all the variation and complexity that implies. Some pieces lasted up to eight minutes (I timed it) – and it was all improvised.

Her playing was extraordinary of course, but just as interesting to me was the behaviour of the audience. People very quickly started suggesting songs they knew, by title. When they did, even if it was something really obvious (like ‘Happy Birthday’), she still insisted they sing a little of it.

This came to a head when someone suggested, by name, a specific section of a particular piece (by Rachmaninov). He even told her which bars he was interested in. Gabriela looked blank. The man, surprised and sounding like a bit of a smartass went on…

‘But you must know it’ he said. She still looked blank.

‘Can you play the piece?’ she asked in return.

He rather smugly replied that he could, so she asked him up on stage and he took her place at the piano stool. He lifted his hands to play, but before they even hit the keyboard she burst in with ‘oh, that one, yes of course’ and promptly shunted him off the piano stool and played the bars he had in mind.

I thought this was fascinating. I am convinced she didn’t do it to make fun of the man (though he probably deserved it if she had). I think it shows that during this kind of performance she is engaging her somatic, sensory self – she needs to hear the music or see the position of the hands. She is working in a non-intellectual plane, which is why she couldn’t work off the title of a song or a piece, even if she “knew” it.

Which is why Gabriela herself, or at least her cognitive, verbal self, can’t explain how she does it. She is charmingly open about this, saying that she really has no idea what she is doing, that the music just ‘comes’.

But at some level, in a way she cannot articulate, except perhaps through the music itself, she knows exactly what she is doing. It is just a kind of knowledge that is deeply mysterious and cannot be transmitted. The best kind, perhaps?


Start before you’re ready

I have been very struck recently by how productive it can be to start things before you are ‘ready’. It is something improvisers do the whole time. They step on stage before they have an idea, rather than waiting until they have one. They let the idea emerge from the action.

It seems to me that a similar thing happens in other contexts. I don’t mean you shouldn’t prepare but that if everything is determined and decided beforehand – in other words, if you are completely ‘ready’ – then something is lost. The unimagined possibility is eradicted before it even has the chance to occur.

In the month of May I was part of two gatherings where this spirit of ‘unreadiness’ prevailed. The Creative Tapas was one, an extreme example perhaps, but a wonderful reminder of the power of leaving space for people to do what they want. The Praxis Forum was another – as a pilot workshop it made a lot of sense not to ‘finish’ it but it is hard to do. We normal feel obliged to tie things up neatly. In my view, Marshall Young (the Praxis Forum Director) did a masterful job of giving people enough structure to make it work, but to leave enough open or unfinished so that people felt really involved and valued.

This is another good reason not to work so hard. Instead, let people help you. Ask for help. Start before you are ready.




Collaboration in Cambodia

I am in Cambodia this week, working on collaboration.

I was invited only last week, to work with a co-facilitator I hadn’t met, for a client I don’t know in a field I am completely ignorant of (disaster relief management). It has been fascinating. In particular what I am noticing is how the way the invitation was made demonstrated an open-ness, a willingness to let go that made it almost impossible for me not to accept.

Many people might have worried that making a last minute invitation would come across as disorganised. But on the receiving end, it felt incredibly confident and positive and that inspired me to think that this would be something worth doing. So the way I was asked was itself a great example of how to inspire collaboration, the theme of the workshop.


There is always the chance of a fresh start

I had a terrible day on Wednesday. I didn’t get anything like what I wanted to do done. What I did, I didn’t like. Then, in a foul mood, ‘everything’ got worse, mostly because I started interpreting it that way. Which gave me the great displeasure of being right. Which made me bad tempered with the people I love most in the world. Well done Robert.

What struck me, at 6am on Thursday as I got up to write, was the power of a fresh start. Consulting with the pillow (as we say here in Spain) makes that easier, but what I noticed was how, if we choose, we can make a fresh start at any point, at any level of scale. Not just each day, but each hour, each minute, each moment.

It doesn’t require an overnight sleep, it just requires you to let go of the emotional energy you are dragging from the past moments or hours, into the current moment. It takes a certain power of observation and will to do this, but that’s all. That fresh start is always there (like one of Gary’s robots) waiting for you. If you really want it, all you have to do is accept it.


Jam today

Today I got a birthday present from thirteen virtual strangers. In the form of an Improv Jam organised by Steve Chapman and Caryn Vanstone based on that wonderful premise of inviting an interesting group of people simply to explore and learn together with no specific objective. For me, since it was my birthday, it was a lovely present. I think the favourite idea I came across during the day (thanks Fabiola) was the notion of ‘found improv’.  Of uncovering or revealing improvisation behaviour that is already there, like the unwitting poems that people ‘find’ on signposts.

Improv in ten

Dave Morrison does a wonderful and quick explanation of the improvisational way.

Makes me realise that the twenty minutes I got at the Do Lectures was a luxury.

Also, I particularly liked how he demonstrated ‘Yes And’ though, as normal, I do take issue a little with the implication that you should always say ‘yes’ (I bang on about this at some length in ‘Safekeeping’, Chapter 6′ of ‘Everything’s an Offer’).


Leonardo da Vindication

I saw the Leonardo exhibition at the National Gallery in London over the holidays, which was fabulous, though reminiscent of looking at great art on a rush hour tube, so crowded was the space.

I was struck by how significant two pieces of improv practice were in the masters work – collaboration and being willing to be changed.  All of Leonardo’s major works (with the exception of ‘The Last Supper’) have at various times, been attributed to his pupils. And even though the Madonna Litta, for example, is (currently) attributed to him, it really would seem to be a collaborative work, as the studies by Boltraffio that surround it so beautifully demonstrate.

The other thing was a comment by the gallery’s restorer, Larry Keith, on the audio commentary (which I would highly recommend if you go). He mentions that despite doing a lot of preparatory work, Leonardo was very willing to let the final work change as he painted it, even if it meant the original ideas were transformed beyond recognition. He wrote about this and encouraged his pupils not to get stuck on what they had prepared.

My favourite piece was the ‘cartoon’.  I am not the only one. Apparently people flocked to see it when it was first displayed.  It makes me think that ‘finishing’ things is over-rated.


How are things?

Where I live people are really struggling. There is little work and less prospect of work.  And yet I have had a good year. Which is a bit tricky.

For most of the year I have tried to be positive (without gloating) and to do what little I can to spend money locally and employ local people. Whilst being sensitive to what’s happening around me, it also seemed important not slip into negativity myself.

And yet now, as the year draws to a close, I find myself doing so anyway. I have noticed that I am starting to interpret the (completely normal) end of year slow down negatively, and even misrepresent the prospects for next year to myself! It’s reminscent of the something Keith Johnstone (improv guru) calls ‘joining’ where two actors, if they don’t make an effort, end up doing exactly the same thing.

I am wondering why this happens. I suspect it is partly because I am much more permeable than I imagine, much less an individual and much more a node in a web and so when the web to which I am physically connected is suffering, I interpret things in such a way that I suffer too. Sustaining a different interpretation is hard because it creates too much cognitive dissonance perhaps? Maybe it’s a time of year thing, the year drawing to a close, onset of winter and so on? Maybe its because in the last few months I have seen people lose hope that it will get any better soon?

Whatever the explanation, I find it striking that reason and knowledge have little power over my emotional state. I have plenty of reasons to feel positive, at least for myself, but I don’t. It reminds me of visual illusions. The fact that you know (because you have been shown) that two lines are, say, the same length, doesn’t help you overcome the impression that one is longer than the other.

Which I suppose is what people mean when they say ‘context is everything’.

So, where’s the offer in this eh?  Well, I think it is to start to ask creative questions. If this isn’t working, or, if it feels like it isn’t working, what could I do or make that would feel better. And interestingly, merely articulating that possibility seems to make a difference….