Words! Words! I’m so sick of words!
I get words all day through;
First from him, now from you!
Is that all you blighters can do?
Don’t talk of stars burning above;
If you’re in love, show me!
~ from My Fair Lady (lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner)
Think about the last time you played with a baby.
How enthralled you were. Hypnotized by its cooing, humming and buzzing. By its direct gaze and private language that needed not one iota of your attention and yet held you spellbound.
Baby talk is a vast arena of exploration, curiosity and delight. A universe of tools of engagement – splendid, pure and free. Babies vocalize in volumes, effortlessly sliding scales with their tiny instruments, bending notes up and down, articulating every impulse and sensation as it comes to them. Pure, abandoned, nonsensical gibberish. With no self-consciousness, hence no self-censorship. All this is who we were and what we had at our tongue and fingertips before the first grown-up came along and said: “Ma-ma”, “Pa-pa”.
Can we return to this magical garden?
We can improvise.
Singer Bobby McFerrin built a career around the use of nonsensical sounds to evoke his thoughts and feelings. His language is beyond words. In a 2012 interview with Omega Institute founder Elizabeth Lesser, he said this when asked if it was his conscious choice not to use words: “When I was figuring out how to perform solo, I wanted to move back and forth between bass riffs, melody, and harmony, so I often used sounds instead of—or alongside—the words of a song. I found that if I sang a line using the consonants, vowels, shadings, and inflection we recognize as human language sounds, people responded as if I were talking to them. There is a human connection even though there are no words. If I sing “you broke my heart, you left me flat,” everyone knows exactly what that means—they know the story. But if I sing a line that’s plaintive or wailing, people can experience their own set of emotions and their own story. Each of us might give that phrase a different meaning. It’s open to interpretation, and one song becomes a thousand songs.”
The word improvise comes from the Latin improvisus (not foreseen, unexpected) and providere (to make preparation for). Improvisation is on-the-spot performance, in-the- moment self-expression. Our improvisers in jazz are like our street and subway musicians the world over. They noodle around a theme or phrase, dig into, dip and bend their melodies in a way that sounds like they’re talking. And they are. Words are superfluous. What matters is feeling. One smile of recognition becomes a thousand smiles of recognition. We all know it when we see it, when we hear it. We’re spellbound.
In my Story Chord workshops, I use improvisation tools to loosen the story from the lips of us storytellers. Okay, minus the baby drool. For a few minutes at a time, we release the limits we’ve placed on our expressions and drop into the wordless realm that we, as master improvisers, have known since birth. Alone in a monologue, in dialogue with a partner, or in a playful call and response with another instrument (like drums, accordion, harmonica), this kind of toying brings a fresh focus to our truth-telling.
Freed from finding the right words, our minds make other parts of us move. We gesture more clearly and boldly. Our posture changes. Some of us uncurl as if from a shell, unwind like a spring, or uncork with a burst. Others find the missing puzzle piece that gives new expression to an old idea, or the permission to say something for the very first time. This nonsensical, sing-songy, grunty babble opens a portal in the brain through which thought and feeling flow first. Words and language come later.
Improvisation uncovers the fears in our hiding and holding back. There’s no right or wrong way to do it; no being good or bad at it. In a flash one impulse is gone and another is at hand. The experience of making something up on the spot, something silly or outrageous, something risky or dirty, is liberating. When did making a fool of ourselves become such a bad thing?
It was German-born jazz pianist and composer, Uli Geissendoerfer, who got me improvising around my songs and creativity. He was my first partner in my cabaret act honoring Marlene Dietrich, an homage for which I had a very particular vision, an exact sense of how to enact each song and awareness behind my gesture. It was all well and good until I’d get myself hung up on an idea, or stuck in a corner of the stage, frozen. Uli would stop and have us improvise the tune. Playing around with melody, harmony and storyline without actually singing words was liberating. I found out quickly that I’m lousy at scat singing. But I could open easily into this abandoned sense of play and call forth my inner goofball. We’d improvise until I could detach from what was sticky and not working, make new choices and re-establish my ground.
This tool has stayed with me all these years, releasing me time and again from the trap of self-consciousness and crafting my work too carefully, too mentally. It’s a powerful instrument in our tool chest as creatives. And, might I say, it comes in handy for living life too. Life itself is one long improvisation. Every moment of every day is unscripted and delivers itself to us while we’re there trying to control events and interactions.
In my book, the tool of improvisation is key to authentic storytelling and stagecraft. It knocks out the finite shoulds and brings in the infinite coulds. Nothing has to happen and so anything can. We can follow this impulse and that one, reach out and catch a notion, let an idea simmer or send it scuttling to the sewer. We can stand in silence, we can lay out loud. We can wait. We can go. We can stay. We can flow.
We can trust that the instant we drop the mask, a clear path emerges that teases forth our intuition, vulnerability, resourcefulness and charm. Our one-of-a kind essence that never really left.
It’s amazing to see the transformation sometimes and the fine focus and emotional resonance that emerges after a session of improv. All at once the truth inscribes itself on a singer’s song, a speaker’s script, or an author’s written word. It’s this element of surprise that opens into recognition.
We see ourselves again.
We see and are seen by others again.
We’re back in the crib, giggling, gurgling, gazing. Bound to enthrall.
Bound to connect.