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Lean Into Uncertainty: Applied Improvisation Can Help

by Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, CGP, MT
As a classically trained musician and music therapist, I internalized structure, form, and technique that offered clear guidelines for how to sing or perform a piece of music properly. "Getting it right" meant playing what the composer intended with emotional interpretation entirely personal but heavily influenced by what is written into the piece. The formal structures of classical music clearly lay out the order of a piece of music, tell us what notes to play, how loud or soft to play them and even which passages to repeat. It becomes comfortable with practice, and these musical "habits" are reliable under stress. Improvisation in music is something entirely different and much scarier. It builds on those structures while at the same time breaking them up. Experimenting with notes, phrasing and dynamics in a highly-individual way can be a tough transition for a classically-trained musican to make. In the same way, improvising our professional lives is claiming freedom from roles that are no longer working or fulfilling, from overly structured ways of thinking that block innovation. Creative freedom, in art and in life, is an energy we discover through pushing boundaries in even small ways.
Discomfort is often unavoidable as part of the creative process, because it is all about experimentation.  This can be especially difficult if we tend to like a great deal of structure and predictability, but even free-lancers and independent contractors who choose the unpaved path can struggle with the resiliency necessary to respond to unknowable and uncontrollable forces. The good news is that we can channel the discomfort of uncertainty to creativity and innovation, and the capacity to do this can be learned.  Just as a musician experiments, makes mistakes, learns from that, discovers something new and goes from there, we can develop the capacity to tolerate the discomfort of uncertainty through experimentation within existing structures, then going beyond them. We can develop the psychological strength to stick with it long enough for a new idea to take root.  This is especially important when we are putting an innovative, pioneering idea into action, because there might be a great deal of resistance to it. We will need to have sufficient internal resilience to keep going, to let the innovation find its momentum. This is an emotional and psychological skill set that is best developed through experiences like Applied Improvisation, which are structured to elicit a mental state of readiness and openness and to provide a space for us to act without knowing what will happen next.
Because improvisation is a combination of form and freedom, we can always ground ourselves in familiar structures if we get a brain freeze, are overcome with self-consciousness or just run out of inventive ideas. Getting to a dead end or running out of ideas is part of any honest exploration. Reaching for something new in ourselves and expanding our repertoire of responses can be perceived as a signficant threat by mental structures of which we only beome aware when we go down a new road. Hitting a defensive wall is a good sign that we have pushed beyond the tried and true, that we have gone into new psychological and creative territory. What helps diminish the sense of threat - and helps sustain the momentum - is to focus on the “yes-and” way of thinking. "Yes...and" means not needing to know what will happen next because what is right in front of us demands our full attention.
Improvisation is defined by uncertainty. Practice in improvisation shapes our thinking to make us more empowered in the face of the unexpected challenge, more adept at working with what is before us even when there is no way to know how things will play out. Buddhist writer Shunryu Suzuki, author of Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind  writes that "the secret is just to say 'Yes!' and jump off from here. Then there is no problem. It means to be yourself in the present moment, always yourself, without sticking to an old self. You forget all about yourself and are refreshed. You are a new self, and before that self becomes an old self, you say 'Yes! and you walk to the kitchen for breakfast. So the point of each moment is to forget the point and extend your practice." 
The important thing is to try. The clear constructs and programs with which we are safe and familiar are still there to return to until we are ready to try again. Accepting and leaning into the discomfort of uncertainty for the sake of creative growth will pay off in an enduring psychological resiliency. And it will lead to breakthroughs that have benefits beyond imagining.
Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, CGP, MT is a trainer/consultant and writer/performer. Her company Lifestage, Inc is a New York State- approved provider of continuing education for social workers. For a complete list of scheduled workshops go to She is host/creator of (mostly) TRUE THINGS, a show that features true stories, with a twist.


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