Reflecting on the "Way of Improvisation" / by Charlie Christenson

Every year when I teach our advanced Vocal Improvisation Techniques class, we start by watching and reflecting on the following video by improvisor, Dave Morris.

Here are Dave's seven rules of improvisation:

  1. Play - engage in something for the joy of it.
  2. Let yourself fail - failing does not make you a failure.
  3. Listen - "Listening is the willingness to change."
  4. Say "Yes" - keep the story going.
  5. Say "And" - "yes" men don't add to the conversation.
  6. Play the Game - games have rules and goals (it's within these rules that we play)
  7. Relax and have Fun - don't get in your head (this leads to the concept of Zen, its own post)

Musicians, or any collaborative artists, reading these rules will likely recognize them. These are the requirements of the job. If you try to imagine or happen to remember a collaborator or bandmate that displayed the opposite qualities - they say no to your ideas, quit when something doesn't work, and are not willing to listen and/or change - you will undoubtably feel pretty turned-off by the partnership.

So what can we do to improve?

Though it is, general speaking, difficult to pick out the most important rule, depending on the situation, one rule might be more productive to focus on over the others. For example:

Play the Game (rule 6)

Because many of the other rules are quite abstract, I like to start with Play the Game. We have all played in (or at least seen) a sandbox before. A sandbox, being a box, has four well-defined walls, some sand and, hopefully, a few toys thrown in (otherwise it's just sand for days). If you were anything like me as a child, in addition to these "rules" there was also a time component, hence play time. These few rules: the size of the sandbox, the sand, a few potential toys like a shovel and bucket and the amount of time allotted to play defined our game. And this defining gave us (as the children in this story) the freedom to let go and play creatively.

When a child feels bored what they are often actually feeling is overwhelmed by too many (or in some cases too few) options. When you can literally do anything it can be difficult to pick the one thing to do first or next (for adults read: time management). Well chosen rules can remove this anxiety. "Go play with your new legos in your room for 45 minutes and then we're going to have some peanut butter." Bam, I know what to do and it sounds pretty wonderful.

Artists behave just like this in many respects. How many of you work better with a deadline? With a defined set of tools? With a predetermined goal? Perhaps not always, but I bet if we let you loose in a full-stocked, state-of-the-art studio and said "go for it" you might be shutdown for a while. Or at least until you set some rules for yourself.

This is how we approach the concept in my improvisation course: I draw a box on the whiteboard and inside of the box I write the rules for our first improvisation together. I also say something along the lines of "we are going to do this many times, so try not to worry about this first try defining who you are as an improvisor." Sheer quantity of attempts reduces the stress level a bit - as with anything.


  1. We will improvise for 1 minute at a time (I secretly measure the time, but the group needs to feel the time and try to end after about a minute has elapsed)
  2. We will improvise with our voices
  3. We will improvise together as a group at the same time

And that's it (to start).

As the game progresses, I introduce new and slightly more complex or interesting (depending on how you look at it) rules to the scenario. These rules typically take the form of additional stimuli - the other toys thrown in the sandbox. First, we improvise while all looking at the same color, then simple shapes, then images and finally video. The time rule changes as we progress and finally can be eliminated entirely and replaced by a more highly developed sense of when a song or piece has been organically completed.

This semester, the class culminated its study of free improvisation by improvising a soundtrack to a small portion of the film 2001: A Space Odyssey live on campus.

Here's the video of that performance:

This is just one example of one rule listed above. There are literally unlimited creative applications of this information and I encourage any teachers, students or artists reading this post to experiment with these concepts. And, if and when you do come up with something cool, or if you just have a question, please share in the comments below or find me on Twitter or Facebook and continue the conversation. 


For more on improvisation check out this interview of jazz pianist, Keith Jarrett:

And follow Dave Morris on twitter @davemorrisisa