“Leon Fleisher, regarded as one of the great classical pianists of the twentieth century, told the coauthor of his 2010 memoir that his ‘greatest wish’ was to be able to improvise. But despite a lifetime of masterful interpretation of notes on the page, he said, ‘I can’t improvise at all.’ ” — David Epstein, Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World
Jazz musician’s are known for their ability to make up a riff on the spot. Classical musicians spend more time mastering established pieces. This quote about riffing randomly as a musician reminded me of myself. There were many years, up until I was in my 40s, that I did not feel like I could improvise, not just in music but in real life interactions. I was great at scripted words and behavior. I excelled as a student in school. I could memorize and regurgitate. I was more classical.
I felt tongue-tied during many large socializing situations. Formal settings and places where I did not know others really had me stupefied.
I’ve reflected on why I had so much trouble speaking off the cuff. There are a few reasons.
I’m an introvert
Introverts are notorious for going blank when asked to speak extemporaneously. There is a legitimate reason for that. We store more information in long-term memory. The introvert’s memory filing system involves more blood flow down longer neural pathways. Retrieving memories and bits of information takes us longer, hence the deer-in-the-headlights look when a teacher called on me randomly.
When I was a kid, my sister and I fought like cats and dogs. She took every opportunity to pounce on my mistakes and misspoken words. I learned to keep quiet rather than risk attack or embarrassment. Having a younger sister belittle me, brought feelings of shame. Shame kept me quiet. That feeling of not feeling safe with others stayed with me.
I had to be sure I had my words well formulated and absolutely bulletproof before I risked speaking. Improvising in the moment was only reserved for my most trusted friends and family, even then I was more comfortable letting others lead the conversations. I added in safe comments like, “I bought the new Prince album” or “I love your new haircut”.
Wanted to impress
In Chicago, where I lived after college, everything is competitive. The job market, finding a parking space, the office where you work. There were a lot of smart, diverse and wealthy people in Chicago. I wanted to be cosmopolitan like them, but did not know how yet. At times, I felt like a country bumpkin from rural Michigan.
Then I married my first husband. His family was financially well-off and intelligent. We socialized with people from top tier schools and top tier socio-economic brackets.
Improvising is doable
Now, I am not so afraid to go unscripted and unformulated. Some of the confidence comes from living almost 50 years on this planet. I’ve had a lot of experiences. I realize I won’t die if I misspeak.
One of the biggest reasons I am able to jump into conversations and play off of other’s comments is that I now know how to relate. All of the experiences I’ve had make it easy to find something in my repertoire that aligns with someone else’s statement. I ask questions until I find something I can relate to. I listen to their answers and then share a similar experience I have had. I do not plan the questions or my relating responses. They just surface spontaneously. It is a joy to riff back and forth sharing stories and experiences.
People who make improvising easy
I have fewer people to impress in my life now. Either I’ve weeded out the pretentious or I’ve become slightly more sophisticated myself, but my circles are more down to earth. Removing the need to impress allows for a lot more freedom of expression.
I also feel safe in my social groups and family. There is no one to critique my word choice or pounce on my errors. I don’t even fear gabbing with my sister.
Interestingly, I feel I may be the one being more critical in conversations sometimes. Perhaps it is my ‘classical’ training in conversations — follow certain etiquette, know the facts, don’t be wrong. I am conscious of this debilitating trait. I will keep it in check because I want those around me to feel free to improvise and be themselves. I want them to feel the freedom of jazz.
How easy is it for your to speak off-the-cuff? Are you able to join in on any conversation? If yes, how do you do it?
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