Skip to main content

Einstein Loved To Improvise - And Here's Why We Should Too

Albert Einstein playing the violin
Article by Jude Treder-Wolff
      Some photographs show Einstein holding a violin, an instrument he loved and studied but often found frustrating. It was piano that he played every day. He improvised as a form of relaxation, and said “when that appears to be going somewhere, I require the clear constructions of Bach to follow it through.” Improvisation is the most inventive musical expression, with a formal structure to which even Einstein surrendered. Creative freedom, in art and in life, requires those clear boundaries within which movement and surprise and spontaneity can flow. If we are going to change the way we think, we can use Einstein at the piano as a model.
      Improvisation in music, theater, or comedy grows out of a dynamic interplay between form and freedom, a “yes-and” way of thinking which we can easily apply to the situations and interaction of daily life. The “yes….and” approach to any given moment means we accept what we have been given to deal with and build on it. The courage to create our day from this open inner space can change everything for us. The truth is that we never did know what is going to happen next, but we are deeply programmed - by both ancient survival needs and the control-and-predictability-focused social world – to search for certainty to optimal decision-making. In the Age of Complexity, those instincts work against our best interests. Improvisation shows us a way to redirect our attention so that we use our skills and energy not to predict the future, but to co-create it.
     We are already living in the Age of Complexity, which is in some ways it is like being flown to foreign country without our consent or any formal preparation.  Of course that makes some of us highly anxious and wrestling for control, but if we instead say “yes” to the premise of the present moment, then we can add to it or change it up in some creative way that heightens the possibility of success in shaping the outcomes we seek.
     “Through spontaneity we are re-formed into ourselves. It creates an explosion that for the moment frees us from handed-down frames of reference, memory choked with old facts and information and undigested theories and techniques of other people's findings,” writes Theater Games originator Viola Spolin.“Spontaneity is the moment of personal freedom when we are faced with a reality and see it, explore it, and act accordingly. In this reality the bits and pieces of ourselves function as an organic whole. It is the time of discovery, of experiencing, of creative expression.”
     “Yes-and” thinking is an open-ended and expansive approach to communication that has gained credibility in business and other realms not specifically artistic in nature. Imagine you’re improvising with a comedy team and someone throws you an idea,” challenges an article on leadership and listening skills in Nonprofit World.“You can’t deny it or ignore it; you have to accept it and add to it to keep the improv going. The end result is better, richer, because of all the different inputs and viewpoints. Practice saying ‘Yes, and.....’ It’s a conversational technique that builds on another person’s ideas. It promotes a sense of real dialogue and shared discussion while sending a message of commitment and positive assertion.”
      The “yes-and” and other spontaneity-enhancing ways of thinking work to make us better thinkers, problem-solvers, and actors on the stage of life because problems in living are very much like the problems encountered in the arts. An example: Early in my career as a creative arts therapist, a sixteen-year old young man with spina bifida attending a school for multiply-handicapped children and adolescents was referred to me by his treatment team for music therapy in the form of guitar and voice lessons. The idea was to strengthen his confidence and sense of self by responding to his desire to play and sing popular songs—and hopefully impress girls. At the same time we hoped to provide a means for him to work through his deepening sadness and alienation over the physical limitations that would be with him for life and support his independence navigating life on crutches or a wheelchair. His natural musicality, singing voice, and great personality made him a pleasure to work with, but the 20 minutes before and after each session were surprisingly important—and agonizing—for both of us.
     His therapeutic plan required that he bring the materials for the lesson to the music room and set them up without my help, while my supervisor and I observed through a two-way mirror just to monitor his progress and safety. It was a noisy, messy process, painful to watch. He tried to carry the guitar, music stand, and books all at once while making his way on crutches, sometimes simply dropping everything out of pure frustration. He used the wheelchair to drag whatever would not fit into his lap, which made an unbelievable racket and usually left a trail of music sheets down the hall. At times anger at his limitations so overwhelmed his desire for the music experience that he would procrastinate so long his lesson was only 10 minutes out of a half hour. It would have been so easy to step in and finish the set-up for him, but it was clear that his psychological development depended on his ability to manage the emotions, process and consequences. And he did gradually learn to pace himself. To organize the tasks. To work within boundaries. To express rather than act out his feelings.
     Then there was the music, his adolescent impatience with the process, his insistence I teach him songs beyond his level of mastery. Forging ahead too fast on his own, he would botch things, feel inadequate, and want to give up. He could not be bothered with learning scales—too boring. But working through each conflict that came up around the music training raised his self-awareness and strengthened his competence to deal with emotional tensions gradually, consciously, and honestly, at the same time that he gained mastery as a musician.
     Dr. Elliott Eisner, author of The Arts andthe Creation of Mind, writes that working out the issues we face when training in an art form prepares us for the uncertainties and ambiguities of life, and perhaps most importantly, teaches through lived experience that “small differences can have large effects.” [vi] The obstacles and issues that arise when we pursue a passion are the same stumbling blocks to psychological maturity we would have to face through any number of harsh and potentially heartrending disappointments. Arts education trains the mind and personality to persist in a visionary process toward an unknowable outcome, as we deal with situations that have no single correct solution and call for a range of perspectives to find a way through. Every play, movie, painting, song, or building was at one time a vision in an artist’s mind, which developed, step-by-step, into material form. In the same way, a desire to change dysfunctional relationships or be a better parent/spouse/friend/citizen or take our life in a new direction begins with the conception of a possible future that exists only in imagination. Perfectionism and its paralyzing fear of mistakes can be replaced with an adventurous search for the interesting, novel, or possible “next steps” that emerge through trying things out. In releasing control over outcomes, we quiet the inner critic so that we can express ourselves with heart and candidness, maybe even defeating its negative judgements about us in other areas as well. Through building upon what we have been given, engaging in co-creation with fellow actors on the stage of life, we become more adept at holding the tension between big-picture, expansive goals and focused concentration on the work at hand.
     “Every musical experience that we have changes who we are,” writes Bennett Reimer, Professor Emeritus of Music at Northwestern University. “As brain research suggests, we are changed by each of our experiences: Our selfness accumulates as our experiences accumulate.” In his testimony to the National Commission on Music Education, songwriter Don Schlitz beautifully described the holistic learning he experienced in Music Appreciation class. “We were learning that songs are a form of communication. We were learning history [through] the songs of the nation....We were learning math, discovering the relationships between parts, and that composition followed mathematical rules. And we were learning to listen; if you don’t listen you can’t learn. This music appreciation connected my entire studies.”

There is growing evidence that the arts ... [have] a positive impact on your cognitive life,” neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga said in a taped interview shown to a group of artists, educators and scientists at the “Learning, Arts, and the Brain”
educational summit May 6 in Baltimore.
      All art forms train the brain to focus attention, exercise discipline, and realize gradual gains in skills. To learn scales on the piano, practice, practice, practice. To become an effective stage or film actor, give time and attention to simple, focused acting exercises. To be a writer, spend an hour each day writing even when it seems there is nothing to say. Small actions over time for no immediate pay-off steadily increase our artistic skill level, but the gains translate in ways we can choose to make us better people, able to see things through, and recognize the power of persistent action in the same direction to realize great and meaningful change. Arts experiences have a built-in feedback loop—in music the sounds we create, in theatre the energy and connection to co-actors or audience, in painting the visual image—which completes the experience and at the same time stimulates further action. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi relates both music-making and music listening, as well as other forms of arts-based training, to states of “optimal experience”and “flow” characterized by the following factors:

  • There is a balance between challenges and skills;
  • Action and awareness are merged;
  • Distractions are excluded from consciousness;
  • There is no worry of failure;
  • Self-consciousness disappears.
  • The activity becomes an end in itself.
The feedback loop that makes the creative process such a kick is just as powerful and fulfilling in life and relationships, where there is movement and surprise and transformation as long as we give ourselves over to it. Enter into it completely. Do whatever we must do to play the song that keeps repeating in our head. Because we become the sum of our choices, the expression of the paths we take in life. We are the music we make.

Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, RMT, CGP is a trainer/consultant and writer/performer. Her storytelling show Crazytown: my first psychopath will be performed at The Triad in New York City on May 18, 2014 at 3 pm. To buy tickets click here

[i] Alice Calaprice, ed., The New Quotable Einstein (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005) 131.
[ii] Viola Spolin, Improvisation For The Theater: A Handbook of Teaching and Directing Techniques (Chicago, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1963): 4.
[iii] Spolin: 4.
[iv] Jill Muehrcke, “Go Ahead—Improvise!,” Nonprofit World (1 May 2007): 1. HighBeam Research. 1 July 2007. <>.
[v] Muehrcke, “Go Ahead—Improvise!”: 1.
[vi] Elliott Eisner, The Arts and the Creation of Mind (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002): 71.
[vii] Eisner, The Arts and the Creation of Mind: 75.
[viii] Bennett Reimer, “New Brain Research on Emotion and Feeling: Dramatic Implications for Music Education,” Arts Education Policy Review (November 2004): 27.
[ix] “Growing Up Complete: The Imperative for Music Education,” The Report of The National Commission on Music Education (March 1991): 1 <>.
[x] J. Burton et al, “Learning In and Through the Arts: Curriculum Implications,” Center for Arts Education Research (New York: Columbia University, July 1999): 42.
[xi] Norman Weinberger, “Brain, Behavior, Biology, and Music: Some Research Findings and Their Implications for Educational Policy,” Arts Education Policy Review (1 Jan 1998): 2. HighBeam Research. 11 November 2007. .
[xii] “Music Training and the Brain,” Brain Briefings May 2000, Society for Neuroscience, 5 July 2007 2 February 2008.
[xiii] Gabriella Musacchia et al, “Musicians Have Enhanced Subcortical Auditory and Audiovisual Processing of Speech and Music,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 104.40 (2 October 2007): 15894.
[xiv] Joyce Cheek and Lyle Smith, “Music Training and Mathematics Achievement,” Adolescence (Winter 1999): 1. HighBeam Research. 9 Sept 2006 <>.
[xv] “Neurologist Insists That Music, As Well As Life, Can Begin When One Is 40,” New York Times 13 July 1986: 1 <>.
[xvi] Milahy Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (New York: Harper & Row, 1990): 3.
[xvii] Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: 6.
[xviii] Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: 71.


Popular posts from this blog

Improvisation Games & Exercises For Developing Emotional Intelligence

    Since September Lifestage has been offering a monthly training workshop exploring the use of improvisation to develop Emotional Intelligence . These workshops have been geared toward the work done by clinicians, educators and trainers who guide the process of personal change or professional development, but as it turns out we have enjoyed some interesting diversity among the participants -  managers, business owners with both employees and customers, community activists, and performers.      Below is a collection of the exercises we have used in the workshops, accompanied by some studies that supports their use.  by Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, RMT, CGP       Why Improvisation? Improvisation is a powerful way to become aware of mental habits and patterns. Reflecting on our inner experiences after engaging in an improvisation exercise provides an opportunity to decide whether our mental habits are effective and useful or self-limiting and obsolete.  The tensions of the crea

WARM-UP EXERCISES FOR GROUP WORK - For Therapeutic, Educational or Training Groups

Nicholas Wolff, LCSW, BCD, TEP , Director of Training at Lifestage, Inc and Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, RMT, CGP, Trainer/consultant and writer/performer. Follow on twitter @JuTrWolff         “To begin assembly one must have the right attitude,” goes a Japanese instruction for assembling a particular object, as quoted in Zen and the Art of Motorcyle Maintenance. The "right attitude" is one that best serves the action we are preparing to engage in, j ust as an athlete warms up his/her muscles before using them in the stress of a work-out or game. Psychological and emotional "muscles" that are properly warmed up will perform more effectively and make it less likely that we will experience strain or allow fear to produce a shut-out when things get rolling.     The right warm-up makes everything learned in a training situation or classroom more accessible and immediately useful to the trainee/student. New skills and knowledge - in education, personal growth or a profe

Stories To Light Up The Night: An Interview With International Teacher/Trainer, Storyteller and Author Susan Perrow

        "It is easy to forget how mysterious and mighty stories are. They do their work in silence, invisibly. They work with all the internal materials of the mind and self. They become part of you while changing you." Ben Okri, Birds of Heaven Stories can change your life and when they do you almost never see it coming. The way a story gets into our consciousness is often subtle and suprising. Something about it sticks. And if we allow the story to do its work it sticks exactly where we need it. This is true of both receiving a story and making one. The skills required to weave together character, conflict and color to create a vivid and imagination-grabbing tale that is also transformative takes time, training and experience to develop. It helps to be familiar with the impact of stories on our own inner life, recovery and growth. It helps also to have an inspiring, gifted teacher to guide the process.        Such was my experience in April at a full-day wo