It was a cold, rainy night in upstate New York, and I was snug inside the spacious studio loft that my friends Frank and Mae (names have been changed to protect the guilty) built on their property. Their setup is legit by any standard: a drum kit, keyboards, a bass, a couple of guitars, a good variety of smaller percussion instruments, and many microphones and speakers. I was nervous. We were there to play music, and I hadn’t done anything of the kind in years. But more nerve-wracking still was the fact that we’d be doing all of this without any discussion or direction, let alone rehearsal. We were going to simply pick an instrument, start playing, and decide when and how to join the vocal fray.
Oh, and we’d be recording it.
Following through on such an open-ended activity requires the near-superhuman ability to get over yourself and your insecurities. The actress Rosalind Russell famously said that acting is standing up naked and turning around very slowly. As a former theater major, I agreed with her right up until that evening in the studio. Now I know: acting is acting; a session of musical and vocal improvisation, when one isn’t a frequent musician or singer, is standing up naked and turning around very slowly.
I chose the relative comfort of the keyboard to begin with, having taken piano lessons as a kid. I accompanied Mae and Frank (drums and vocals, and guitar, respectively) while also dying a little on the inside. They’d been doing this kind of recording for the better part of a year and had had time to get right with their self-doubt. Needless to say, I played tentatively, a frozen rictus on my face, while in my head a chorus of voices told me I was terrible and that now these cool people would know the truth about me, blah, blah, blah. But with some encouragement from them (and a bit of liquid courage, it must be said), I slowly got into it. Eventually, Mae and I were riffing effortlessly, trading clever quips in time to the music, making one another laugh. I stopped focusing on what I imagined I was doing wrong, and focused on that most crucial aspect of improvisation: partnership.
The Anatomy of Innovation
Regardless of your vocation, that’s where the innovation happens: when you focus on the partnership. Focusing on the partnership requires staying true to the goals you’ve agreed on, supporting one another’s work to the best of your ability, and remaining open. In that space, you find the freedom to try something you may not have tried on your own, or under different circumstances. You’re able to make connections between seemingly disparate concepts; you draw on your inherent creativity, together, and form something that couldn’t possibly have existed otherwise.
Did I say that’s where the innovation happens? It’s also where the magic happens.
We ended up playing, Frank and Mae and me, for about an hour and a half. There were moments, long ones, during which I felt so exposed that I had to close my eyes as I sang. But I sang. I focused on the partnership, on creating something good, and fun, and entertaining with these two talented people.
Frank took those 90 minutes of recorded improvisation and carved nine songs out of it. Listening objectively to the tracks, ignoring my knee-jerk reaction of horror at hearing my own voice, it didn’t take me long to recognize the sparks of innovation that we’d created. Some parts were better than others, sure, but on the whole what we made is something the three of us feel pretty good about. And we’ve got plans for more.