Between Thought and Expression: On Creative Improvisation in Classroom Teaching

By Spencer Cawein Pate

[This is a paper I wrote for a graduate course in educational leadership.]

“We work in the dark—we do what we can—we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.”

—from “The Middle Years” by Henry James (1996, p. 354)

“Between thought and expression, lies a lifetime.”

—from “Some Kinda Love” by The Velvet Underground (Reed, 1969)

“One launches forth, hazards an improvisation. But to improvise is to join with the World, or meld with it. One ventures from home on the thread of a tune.”

—from A Thousand Plateaus by Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari (1980, p. 311)

“In any but the most blinkered view of the world’s music, composition looks to be a very rare strain, heretical in both practice in theory. Improvisation is a basic instinct, an essential force in sustaining life. Without it nothing survives.”

—from Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice in Music by Derek Bailey (1993, p. 140)

I. Defining Improvisation

A. Introduction

The intent of this research paper is to define creative improvisation and then to explore thematically the extent to which teaching can be considered a form of disciplined improvisation. The specific question I would like to answer is as follows: Is improvisation an accurate and useful conceptual framework for educational practice?

Before delving into the literature, I would like to briefly discuss my personal experience with improvisation in an educational context. My own relationship with improvisation is a somewhat contradictory one. I cannot act or play an instrument, but my appreciation for and admiration of improvised music and comedy is boundless. On the other hand, as a substitute teacher for three years, I often felt as though I was doing nothing but improvising. Regardless of the level of detail of the lesson plans I was given, there would always be unexpected situations and unfolding complexities with which I would have to contend. Much like live music, teaching is an ephemeral art, leaving no material trace or record other than memories, and subbing is an ephemeral form of teaching: every new day is often completely different from the previous. And in these instances, the best one can do is to improvise, to make the best of one’s prior knowledge and the materials one has at hand. If a lesson plan is something like a map, then it follows that we must remember the map is not the territory, no matter how accurate a representation of reality it is.

In truth, as stressful and exhausting as improvising in a classroom situation can be, many of my proudest moments as a teacher can be found during those times. For example, when I had to take over for a seventh grade language arts teacher for a few weeks on very short notice due to illness—three weeks during which I had to lead students through a major service learning project on which they had already fallen behind due to a succession of unprepared substitutes, a project that incorporated not only an act of community service but also a paper, a poster board, and a presentation—all I really had to go on were the instructions and supplies that other language arts teachers could pull together from their own classrooms.

Between creating a schedule for completion, crafting a rubric, motivating students, giving detailed writing feedback, leading students through the process of editing and revising, grading all of the projects in time for the end of the quarter, and preparing my advisees for student-led conferences, I don’t think I have ever worked harder and longer in my professional life, but the resulting projects were so impressive as to be totally worth it. I felt a great sense of pride and freedom upon the realization that I could teach almost any subject through the use of the strategies of improvisation. It was at this point I became interested in thinking about the syncretic unity of pedagogy and improvisation.

B. Improvisation Studies

Much like the discourse of education itself, improvisation is both an artistic practice and an academic field of study about that practice. The scholarly field of “improvisation studies” (sometimes called “critical improvisation studies”), however, has developed only very recently—improvisation studies journals and readers, as well as the first anthology devoted to improvisation in classroom teaching, have just begun to appear over the past decade (Caines & Heble, 2015; Lewis & Piekut, 2016; Sawyer, 2011). What is novel and unique about improvisation studies is its interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary nature. While previous works on the subject were usually practical manuals or handbooks that focused on the function of improvisation in only one medium, such as music (usually jazz), theater, or dance, the contemporary scholarship is more interested in the essential or syncretic nature of improvisation itself, including its cognitive correlates and phenomenological aspects, across rather than within artistic forms. This latter perspective on improvisation is the one taken by this literature review, which focuses on the qualities of improvisation that are consistent and can be generalized throughout both time and space, instead of describing the elements that are specific to one artist, genre, tradition, or medium. As the improvising guitarist and documentarian Derek Bailey found after conducting a series of interviews with improvisers around the world, “it did become increasingly clear during my contacts with different musicians and their musics that the main characteristics of improvisation could be discerned in all its appearances and roles. What could be said about improvisation in one area could be said about it in another” (1993, p. x).

C. Defining Improvisation

Defining something as rich and variegated as improvisation is both conceptually and empirically difficult; many authors have simply given up, preferring to speak in terms of vague and unhelpful analogies to language, communication, or conversation. On the one hand, a definition would need to be broad, so as to capture the tremendous diversity of improvisational practices in all types of art and media. On the other, a definition ought to be specific, so as to precisely delineate how improvisation is different from other types of creativity. In order to navigate between these two extremes, we might begin by demonstrating how improvisation it is distinct from both free play and rule-bound games. The anthropologist and anarchist scholar David Graeber’s fascinating discussion  (2015) of the inherent tension between play vs. games is particularly salient here:

First of all, what is the relationship between play and games. We play games. So does that mean play and games are really the same thing? It’s certainly true that the English language is somewhat unusual for even making the distinction between the two—in most languages, the same word covers both. (This is true even of most European languages, as with the French jeu or German spiele.) But on another level they seem to be opposites, as one suggests free-form creativity; the other, rules. […]

True, one can play a game; but to speak of “play” does not necessarily imply the existence of rules at all. Play can be purely improvisational. One could simply be playing around. In this sense, play in its pure form, as distinct from games, implies a pure expression of creative energy. In fact, if it were possible to come up with a workable definition of “play” (this is notoriously difficult) it would have to be something along these lines: play can be said to be present when the free expression of creative energies becomes an end in itself. It is freedom for its own sake. But this also makes play in a certain sense a higher-level concept than games: play can create games, it can generate rules—in fact, it inevitably does produce at least tacit ones, since sheer random playing around soon becomes boring—but therefore by definition play cannot itself be intrinsically rule-bound. This is all the more true when play becomes social. (p. 190-192)

Improvisation as such, then, is a form of play, existing in a state of unstable equilibrium that can collapse at any time. It might throw out new rules and arbitrary restrictions by which it is constrained, but only in a temporally contingent and pragmatic sense, because game-like structures are soon dissolved back into the hyperchaos of play. Improvisation is ontologically fundamental, “the free expression of creative energies” as an end in itself. (The work of the jazz / noise improviser and composer John Zorn is also instructive here. Zorn has created a number of collaborative improvisation games with highly complicated rules that take a long time to learn, but once understood, they also contain a great deal of freedom to play within those structures [Bailey, 1993].)

If I had to make an attempt to define improvisation, I would say that improvisation is any practice in which a person or group uses whatever is at hand to act and react flexibly, in real time, to contingent material and ideological conditions. I will now proceed to examine and clarify each part of this definition in turn:

any practice: Improvisation is fundamentally about contextual / situated praxis and not about the consistency of theory. In this regard, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s maxim that “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds” is something of a romantic credo in favor of the primacy of improvisation over composition. Derek Bailey made a similar point with regard to composition vs. improvisation; he says that if one assumes a global and historical perspective on music, composition is “a very rare strain, heretical in both practice in theory” while improvisation is “a basic instinct, an essential force in sustaining life. Without it nothing survives” (1993, p. 140).

in which a person or group: Improvisation is an example of what we might call the social imagination—the unique capacity of humans to collectively imagine heterotopic possible worlds, to build structures in our minds before we erect them in reality (Graeber, 2015). Although one can improvise by oneself (although one is never truly alone—even without an audience, one could be said to be collaborating with one’s instrument and environment) the social dimension of improvisation, of actively creating and negotiating with others as a group, is ontologically primary. Solo improvisation is perhaps best seen as a foreclosure of the collective substrate of improvisation. As Derek Bailey argues,

[U]ltimately the greatest rewards in free improvisation are to be gained in playing with other people. Whatever the advantages to solo playing, there is a whole side to improvisation; the more exciting, the more magical side, which can only be discovered by people playing together. The essence of improvisation, its intuitive, telepathic foundation, is best explored in a group situation. (1993, p. 112).

Thus, it must be emphasized that teachers are never improvising independently, but are rather co-creating in collaboration with their students, other educators, parents and caregivers, aides, administrators, staff, and community members (Sawyer, 2006, 2011).

uses whatever is at hand: Improvisation is a form of bricolage, which the anthropologist and philosopher Claude Lévi-Strauss defined as the art of making do with what’s around. Like the hero MacGyver in his eponymous television series, the bricoleur works only with the materials to which he or she has direct and immediate access (Lévi-Strauss, 1966; Deleuze & Guattari, 1972). Lévi-Strauss counterposed this notion to the figure of the “engineer” in which technical rationality and planning trumps real time improvisation and intuition.

to act and react flexibly: Improvisation involves a dialectic between being proactive and being reactive, between listening, acting, and reflecting. Of course, the nature and course of one’s actions must be flexible in response to shifting situations; in fact, the idea of flexibility dictates that sometimes inaction or silence or non-listening might be preferable to unnecessary or counterproductive or conventional action (Rowe, 2003).

in real time: The in-the-moment act of improvisation is always live. It cannot be planned out in advance or carried out after the fact, or else it is by definition no longer improvisation—rather, it would become a form of composition. Thus, while improvisers must be flexible with regard to their use of timing or duration, improvisation as a practice will always be temporally bounded by the practicalities of performance or, more prosaically, scheduling.

to contingent: Contingency means that the nature of our world is always changing, not fixed in space and time; it is fluid and mutable and in flux, often surprising and frequently challenging. Therefore, improvisation places a high value on the subjectivity and free will—the human agency—of the individual.

material and ideological conditions: Improvisation in music will be conditioned by the material realities of one’s instrument, acoustic space, collaborators, audience, genre, tradition, etc.; improvisation in education will similarly be conditioned by the political economy of what is made available to us as teachers. Ideological conditions, though, are more subtle. This concept refers to the ideas and emotions that affect the form and content of one’s improvisation. Whether or not the improviser is conscious of this fact, his or her performative practice will always be shaped by the expectations of others (Goffman, 1959). As usual, Karl Marx said it best in his Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon: “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living” (2010, p. 146). The subtlety of improvisation emerges from this productive tension between thought and expression, constraint and creativity, games and play, accommodation and innovation, pragmatism and idealism, negative freedom and positive freedom.

D. Improvisation in the Arts

Absolutely the best work ever written on improvisation is the eponymous book—Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice in Music (1993)—by the late great guitarist Derek Bailey. A companion piece to Bailey’s 1980 BBC documentary on the subject, Improvisation features interviews and quotes from musicians in every conceivable genre and tradition, and Bailey helpfully decided to use each section “not only to present an account of improvisation in that area or idiom but to highlight a characteristic most obviously demonstrated by that area” (p. x). Bailey is the closest personage that an ostensibly egalitarian and anti-hierarchical genre like “free improv” music (incidentally, a term that Bailey and many other musicians hated) has ever come to a patron saint. Feeling that “free improv” had become a genre unto itself, Bailey championed “non-idiomatic improv” by forging his own musical language instead. He was willing to collaborate with one and all—free jazz artists, tap dancers, televised big band orchestras, avant pop singers, noise rockers, even drum-and-bass DJs—while refusing to compromise on the uniqueness of his playful approach to his instrument. Bailey extolled the virtues of unfamiliarity in collaborative improvisation in the following quote from an interview:

There has to be some degree, not just of unfamiliarity, but incompatibility [with a partner]. Otherwise, what are you improvising for? What are you improvising with or around? You’ve got to find somewhere where you can work. If there are no difficulties, it seems to me that there’s pretty much no point in playing. I find that the things that excite me are trying to make something work. And when it does work, it’s the most fantastic thing. Maybe the most obvious analogy would be the grit that produces the pearl in an oyster, or some shit like that. (Lewis & Piekut, 2016, p. 402)

The virtuosity of his technique is unquestionable, but Bailey relished and celebrated the spontaneity of performance above all—he infamously claimed that there is no point in listening to any recording more than once, so as to force the listener to focus all of one’s attention onto the sounds and musical interactions between the players (Watson, 2013). Bailey, however, never loses the awareness that apparently “spontaneous” intuition and non-idiomatic improv can only be cultivated and advanced through strenuous practice and by pushing oneself outside of one’s generic comfort zones. Improvisers know “that there is no musical activity which requires greater skill and devotion, preparation, training, and commitment” (1993, p. xii).

Bailey’s writing on improvisation is refreshing in its plainspoken honesty, humor, humility, skepticism, and curiosity. In the first pages of Improvisation, Bailey claims that improvisation exceeds language and cannot ever be fully captured by words, and he denies the value of attempts to theorize about improvisation:

Improvisation is always changing and adjusting, never fixed, too elusive for analysis and precise description; essentially non-academic. And, more than that, any attempt to describe improvisation must be, in some respects, a misrepresentation, for there is something central to the spirit of voluntary improvisation which is opposed to the aims and contradicts the idea of documentation. (p. ix)

I couldn’t imagine a meaningful consideration of improvisation from anything other than a practical and a personal point of view. For there is no general or widely held theory of improvisation and I would have thought it self-evident that improvisation has no existence outside of its practice. Among improvising musicians there is endless speculation about its nature but only an academic would have the temerity to mount a theory of improvisation. (p. x)

Even though Bailey rejects the arrogance of grand theories and is reflexively mistrustful of academia, he does tentatively and implicitly advance many speculations about the nature of teaching and learning improvisation. For example, in the section on Indian music, Bailey argues the following about how students acquire the ability to improvise:

In the face of the possibility that no improvisor anywhere has ever learned to improvise from a book or other documentary source, the argument usually offered to support the publication of these manuals is that while ‘great’ players can somehow suddenly appear fully endowed with every necessary skill, more ordinary players have to find more ordinary means. The truth is probably that improvisation is learned—perhaps acquired would be a better word—in pretty much the same way by everybody who is lucky enough to stumble on the right method. An ability to improvise can’t be forced and it depends, firstly, on an understanding, developed from complete familiarity, of the musical context in which one improvises, or wishes to improvise. As this understanding develops so the ability to improvise can develop. The important thing is to have an objective, the recognition of which can be intuitive, so strongly desired as to be almost a mania. In idiomatic improvisation this objective is usually represented by an admired player whose performance one wishes to emulate. […] Later the path to musical self-development comes through increasing confidence and the inevitable increase in critical awareness.

Most musicians learn to improvise by accident; or by a series of observed accidents; by trial and error. And there is of course an appropriateness about this method, a natural correspondence between improvisation and empiricism. Learning improvisation is a practical matter; there is no exclusively theoretical side to improvisation. Appreciating and understanding how improvisation works is achieved through the failures and successes involved in attempting to do it. (pp. 7-8).

The basic situation of teacher education is in every way identical: no one successfully learns to teach in a classroom situation purely from the independent reading of theoretical books on the subject; rather, one learns from empirical, improvisational, and even accidental practice—through reflecting on trial and error, success and failure—under the guidance or mentorship of experienced master educators. Over time, one will discover and develop one’s own voice as a teacher.

E. Improvisation in Education

The literature on improvisation in the arts is vast, but the literature on improvisation in education is comparatively small, and it is often subsumed under other, less precise descriptors (creativity, innovation, adaptation and adjustment, etc.). Much of this discourse is fundamentally wrongheaded, treating improvisation as an option rather than as a necessity, as a mere pragmatic trick in a teacher’s pedagogical toolkit when instead it is better understood as the basic faculty that allows educators to select between said tools, not to mention the very source or condition of existence of those tools themselves. Likewise, the conversation around improvisation in education tends to suggest that only veteran educators can improvise successfully, whereas in my experience, it is novice teachers who are forced to improvise most frequently (if imperfectly).  Veterans, by contrast, have the luxury of falling back on comfortable routines and proven procedures they have developed and memorized over time; they do not have to start from scratch, as beginners do.

Comparisons between teaching and jazz are as unhelpful as they are ubiquitous in this literature, as they usually fail to draw crucial distinctions between diverse traditions within jazz, which is not a monolithic genre. Improvisation in free jazz / funk or jazz fusion, for example, is different from improvisation in bebop or cool jazz. Moreover, when papers regarding the relationship between teaching and improvisation are published, they usually focus on how improvisation (especially musical improvisation with children or adolescents; see Sawyer, 2006) can be taught successfully, and not the reverse—whether teaching itself is always-already an improvisation. We might call these two topics “teaching improvisation” vs. “improvised teaching.” One of the few pieces that touch on both sides of this dichotomy is the intriguing first-hand account by “recovering composer” Philip Clark (2012) of attending the improvisation workshops given in London by the percussionist Eddie Prévost (formerly of the pioneering British “free improv” collective AMM) that he wrote for The Wire magazine, a British journal of experimental and underground music. Clark is careful to delineate how teaching improvisation is as much a process of unlearning as it is one of learning per se—unlearning ingrained and traditional styles of playing instruments so as to develop one’s own unique voice and musical language (perhaps through the use of instrumental extended technique) while simultaneously relearning to trust and truly collaborate with other musicians through the use of close listening and responding. Conversely, however, there is the risk that improvised teaching will become formalized into mannered ritual, prescribed method, and dull aesthetic and political orthodoxy, a process which many claim has befallen Prévost’s instruction of, and writings on, free improv as a genre (Cowley, 2003). According to Derek Bailey, these inherent tensions in teaching improvisation can only be resolved through improvised teaching:

Adapting the only proven effective way of teaching improvisation, the traditional way as exemplified by the Indian method, to teaching in a classroom raises many problems: maintaining the necessary degree of empiricism, maintaining the non-documentary, purely practical character of the activity, avoiding the establishment of a set of generalised rules and always allowing an individual approach to develop; these are essentials which, in a classroom situation with, perhaps, a large group of people, are in danger of being lost. And the only places where, to my knowledge, improvisation is successfully taught in the classroom is in those classes conducted by practising improvisors (1993, p. 118)

In his work, R. Keith Sawyer describes how improvisation can resolve this set of problems in the context of a constructivist theory of learning: through the educator’s creation and adaptation of loose, guiding structures, one can successfully “scaffold students’ effective learning improvisations” and lead them to deeper, conceptual understandings of content (2011, p. 3).

With regard to both teaching improvisation and improvised teaching, Elliot Eisner’s classic The Educational Imagination (2001) is invaluable, as this great curriculum theorist concurs that teaching is more of an performative, dramatic art than a technical science. Eisner’s view on education rhymes with the seminal work of the social psychologist Erving Goffman (1959), who held that the presentation of oneself to others in social / symbolic interactions is constituted like a theatrical performance—one adapts the presentation of one’s identity to the audience in question. In teaching, of course, the specifically theatrical element of performance is more apparent than in other contexts, because the teacher quite literally has a stage (the classroom), a script (the lesson plan or lecture notes), and an audience (the students). Indeed, many of the best educators are accomplished extemporizers or engaging storytellers, but one must be careful not to conflate performance with mere aesthetic style and flair, with entertainment that is empty of knowledge (Sawyer, 2011). Eisner understood that teaching is an improvised performance, because educators interact with their students; respond creatively, inventively, and adventurously; and make heuristic “judgments based largely on qualities that unfold during the course of action” (2001, p. 176)—which is relatively close to my own definition of creative improvisation. Likewise, Eisner conceived of the enacted curriculum as an improvised co-construction, one whose educational ends are participatory and emergent.

What Eisner found in theory, the researcher Philip W. Jackson discovered in practice in his seminal study Life in Classrooms (1990). From his observations of, and interviews with, classroom teachers, Jackson suggests that distractions are an inherent part of schooling, and he claims that teachers are forced “to approach educational affairs intuitively rather than rationally” as a result. Significantly, Jackson employs musical metaphors and analogies to explain this feature of education:

When called on to justify their professional decisions, for example, by informants often declared that their classroom behavior was based more on impulse and feeling than on reflection and thought. In other words, they were more likely to defend themselves by pointing out that a particular course of action felt like the right thing to do, rather than by claiming that they knew it to be right. As the structure of a teaching session or of a class day unfolds, the teacher frequently behaves like a musician without a score. He ad-libs. (p. 145). 

Jackson goes on to note that this behavior is no doubt borne from, and honed by, years of training and practice. His wonderful description of what teachers’ intuition looks like in practice is well worth quoting at length:

As typically conducted, teaching is an opportunistic process. That is to say, neither the teacher nor his students can predict with any certainty exactly what will happen next. Plans are forever going awry and unexpected opportunities for the attainment of educational goals are constantly emerging. The seasoned teacher seizes upon these opportunities and uses them to his and his student’s advantage. […] Although most teachers make plans in advance, they are aware as they make them of the likelihood of change. 

Although gross changes in the teacher’s plans provide the clearest evidence of the unpredictability of classroom events, the same quality is also revealed through a more microscopic analysis of teacher-pupil interaction. Stray thoughts, sudden insights, meandering digressions, irrelevant asides, and other minor disruptions constantly ruffle the smoothness of the instructional dialogue. Experienced teachers accept this state of affairs and come to look upon surprise and uncertainty as natural features of their environment. They know, or come to know, that the path of educational progress more closely resembles the flight of a butterfly than the flight of a bullet. […]

These examples of the complexity of the teacher’s decisions are not offered to impress the reader with the difficulty of the teaching task, although they may have that effect as well. Rather, they are intended to illustrate an inevitable quality of the teacher’s work, a quality that places severe limits on the usefulness of a highly rational model for describing what the teacher does. Given the complexity of his work, the teacher must learn to tolerate a high degree of uncertainty and ambiguity. He must be content with doing not what he knows is right, but what he thinks or feels is the most appropriate action in a particular situation. In short, he must play it by ear. (pp. 166-167)

This tolerance of “a high degree of uncertainty and ambiguity” is reminiscent of what John Keats called “negative capability” in his letters and limned poetically in “Ode to a Nightingale”—the ability or capacity to live with contingency, uncertainty, ambiguity, irony, and doubt.

While certainly not the first educational researcher to speak of educational discourse and practice specifically in terms of improvisation, R. Keith Sawyer is perhaps the pre-eminent modern theorist of improvisation in classroom teaching; he is a respected expert on the subject of group creativity, collaboration, and play. Unlike some academic work on improvisation, Sawyer’s writing is always precise, thoughtful, and empirical, oriented toward practical use rather than abstract philosophizing. For example, in the introduction to the excellent volume he edited, Structure and Improvisation in Creative Teaching (2001), Sawyer enumerates four of the ways with improvisation in teaching is subtly different from artistic improvisation. First, staged improvisation is focused on process, while educational improvisation is about the product—the desired outcome of student learning. Second, the audience in educational improvisation is active rather than passive; students participate in the performance as it occurs. (Elsewhere, he recommends that teachers think of students as fellow ensemble members in a collective improvisation [2004] and claims that the synchrony of “group flow” is an emergent property of collaboration [2006].) Third, teachers are forced to work within a set of institutional structures and expectations over which they have little control, meaning they will be thought of as technicians rather than artists. Fourth, there are fundamental power differentials between a teacher and students, in that the latter’s attendance is compulsory rather than voluntary. These caveats notwithstanding, Sawyer summarizes decades of educational research and cognitive science which has consistently found expert teachers to be better improvisers than novice teachers—not only do they have a larger body of methods, activities, and materials upon which to draw, they are also better positioned to act and reflect metacognitively when deciding how to apply given procedures, standard routines, and mental scripts. “Experienced teachers,” Sawyer writes, “do two apparently contradictory things: They use more structures, and yet they improvise more” (2001, p. 1). This is, of course, no contradiction for anyone acquainted with improvisation in the arts, as it is widely accepted in this discourse that improvisation arises from the dialectic between structure and freedom.

II. Theorizing Improvisation

A. Introduction

One of the most notable aporias of the Western philosophical canon is its resounding silence on the subject of improvisation. Perhaps due to a prevailing Eurocentric bias and Cartesian mind-body dualism, so many classic works of philosophy ignore improvisation in favor of composition (Bailey, 1993; Iyer, 2008). A scored composition, like philosophy itself, is supposedly the product of rational thought and careful reflection rather than pre-conscious feeling and intuition (this is not at all the case, of course, but it is the general perception that matters here), whereas a spontaneously improvised performance is embodied, emergent, and contingent. Moreover, improvisation itself resists being grasped by academic theorizing because of its inherently subjective and phenomenological character. A jazz solo can be transcribed, for example, but written notes on a page tell us very little about the mental and emotional states of the improviser from whence it came, nor can it show us the in-the-moment interplay of multiple musical voices. The map is not the territory, and it would seem that any attempt to describe or capture improvisation in language will thus be a reduction of reality, one that conceals more than it reveals, such as the all-important qualities of emphasis and timing.

I would like to claim otherwise—to argue not only that philosophy is capable of theorizing about improvisation, but also that any philosophy of process that aspires to a complete description of the world must deal with the relation between improvisation and composition. Namely, this paper will explore how the “transcendental empiricism” of the unique and original philosophical ontology of Gilles Deleuze can lead us to a novel, non-reductive theory of improvisation (and of its relationship with consciousness), a theory that naturalizes this practice through four concepts in particular: repetition, the virtual, creativity, and intuition. And in order to properly interpret Deleuze, we must also investigate, at least in passing, his relationships to the thought of the other philosophers of whom he essayed idiosyncratic readings—his allies (Henri Bergson and Alfred North Whitehead), his forbearers (Baruch Spinoza and F.W.J. von Schelling), and his enemies (Plato and G.W.F. Hegel).

B. Repetition and the Virtual

Gilles Deleuze was first and foremost a philosopher of process and becoming; he critiqued unitary identity and sought to understand the nature of change though a metaphysics of flux and flow (as did pre-Socratics like Heraclitus). He defined philosophy as the “creation of concepts” that result from one’s encounter or confrontation with the Real. A concept is not an image of thought or representation of reality—instead, it is a tool that allows one to think about and act on the world (Deleuze, 1968a; Deleuze & Guattari, 1972, 1980). Rather than asking the traditional, ontologically basic question of “why is there something rather than nothing?”, Deleuze reframed this query as “how does the new emerge?” Deleuze’s philosophy therefore requires a theory of the event. His specific answer hinged on the concepts of Difference and Repetition (1968a) which in turn formed the title of his first major book. We will examine each of these ideas in turn.

Deleuze was neither a philosophical pluralist nor a monist; he held that reality is the flowering or unfolding of a self-differentiating substance in time, a singularity-becoming-multiplicity. Thus, pluralism implies monism (as Deleuze believed that being is univocal despite identifying it with difference as such), and monism infers pluralism. (And as Steven Shaviro [2009] has convincingly argued, fellow process philosopher Alfred North Whitehead anticipated many of these salient ideas of Deleuze’s philosophical project, even though Deleuze only briefly engaged with Whitehead’s thought in his own writing.) For Deleuze, difference is ontologically primary and foundational, and identity is but a foreclosure of difference (i.e., two objects—which Deleuze would call bodies—are identical if and only if the difference between them is infinitesimally minimal). The new emerges through an event, the repetition of difference, because nothing can ever be repeated identically—the same thing in the same way—from one moment to the next moment, if only because the spatial-temporal-affective context of that action has changed and is thus makes it different. (Again, Deleuze is following Heraclitus here.) Reality is fundamentally difference all the way down, and the iterative repetition of difference therefore entails change and evolution (Deleuze, 1968a).

It is here that we can see the essential distinction between Deleuzian repetition and the Hegelian dialectic, which is also a theory of process and freedom. (It should be noted as a word of caution, however, that Deleuze’s rather caricatured interpretation of Hegel—like many members of his generation of French thinkers—derived from having studied Hegelian philosophy under Alexandre Kojeve. Countless other valid interpretations of Hegel than Kojeve’s reading are certainly possible.) Deleuze claimed that Hegel’s philosophy was deterministic and directive in its working out of internal contradictions, its synthesis of the multiple into the singular; far from leaving room for contingency and agency, the movement of the dialectic is apparent rather than real, leaving behind a static, totalizing system of thought. Repetition, by contrast, is chaotic, contingent, and non-deterministic—rather than enclosing or collapsing multiplicity within a dialectical triad, it proliferates infinite possibilities (Deleuze, 1968a; Deleuze & Guattari, 1972, 1980). Deleuze, it would seem, identified positively with Hegel’s so-called “bad infinity” of linear endlessness) over his finitely bounded (circular) and eternal recurring “good” or “true infinity.”

This notion of infinite possibility is critical toward understanding Deleuze’s concept of the virtual, through which we will in turn re-conceptualize improvisation. First, let us consider a body as a single moment in a process of repetition, differentiation, and individuation. While that body no longer has a unitary identity in Deleuze’s ontology, it nevertheless possesses the properties of real, material existence, which we will call the actual. Deleuze contrasted the actual with the virtual—the myriad and manifold potentialities of that body, or the immanent, non-abstract ideals that condition, occasion, and affect the material world (1969). These ideals can thus be said to be real in an empirical sense. If the actual defines what a body is, the virtual describes what that body can do. It is important to note that the virtual is not finite and intrinsic to the body itself. For example, any living thing can, physically speaking, do more than what its DNA codes / programs it to carry out; as it interfaces with its environment, the organism’s phenotype exceeds the genotype. However, the virtual does not precede / antedate the body either–the former only comes into being along with the latter, which generates the rules of the game, as it were. This observation has consequences for the philosophy and practice of improvisation, as it means that the improvisational imagination is not simply the unproblematic manifestation of prior immaterial ideas within material reality, as it is the preexisting material body from whence they come, and upon which those imaginative ideas ultimately depend. The electronic musician Mark Fell put this elegantly in an essay on how the technological limits of semi-closed systems can trigger creativity rather than frustrate it:

This difference–between technology as a means of construction and as a means of expression–is important when considering the relationship between musicians, technical systems and music. It means we can redefine technology, not as a tool subservient to creativity or an obstacle to it, but as part of a wider context within which creative activity happens. Recently, the artist Ernest Edmonds brought together several pioneers of computer art for an event at Sheffield’s Site Gallery at which Manfred Mohr described his creative process as “a dialogue between me and the programming language”–not merely a one-way journey from imagination to implementation. I would go one step further. Recent studies in cognitive science refer to this dialogue as “coupling,” where the human agent and the technological environment become an integrated cognitive mechanism. (Fell, 2013)

(This is all contra to naive interpretations of Marx, who seemed to suggest at times that humans build structures in their minds before building them in the world.) As the poet William Carlos Williams once wrote, there are “no ideas but in things.”

In musical terms, a guitar has six strings that, when played with fingers or a plectrum, produce a set number of notes and combinations of chords. But the full virtual potential of a guitar is not encoded in, and exhausted by, the limits of the actual body, as the virtual is infinite and divergent in its multiplicity, exceeding what the body is constructed or has been evolved to do. Musical imagination, which mediates between the actual and the virtual, is the unlearning and overcoming of ingrained habits of repetition (unconscious or otherwise), producing further real difference as a result (Deleuze & Guattari, 1980). Likewise, the sonic capabilities of a guitar extend far beyond what its body is programmed to accomplish: one can slap or beat on its body percussively, play it with slides or glass bottles or tremolo bars or drumsticks, vibrate its strings with portable fans and electric toothbrushes, jam bits and pieces of metallic hardware under its frets, re-wire it to play alternative musical modes and harmonic scales, distort and bend its tone through pedals and produce feedback through amplifiers, process and loop its sounds with computers and other digital technology, etc. As Lou Reed once sang in The Velvet Underground’s “Some Kinda Love,” “the possibilities are endless” (1969).

Deleuze’s philosophical project can thus be conceived as a Kantian inversion or overturning of Plato’s idealism.  For Plato, the bodies of the material world are merely the multiple simulacra of transcendental, unitary, singular originals—his famous archetypal forms. These simulacra are but a play of shadows (cast by the static, unchanging Forms as the intervene in the light of the Good) that our perceptions mistake for reality. For Deleuze (1969), virtualities are multiple potentialities created or posited by the actual; unlike Platonic archetypes, virtualities are immanent, simultaneously ideal and real, and can be studied empirically through the creation of new concepts. And with regard to the actual, there is no longer any such thing as an “original”—only simulacra produced by the repetition of difference (Deleuze, 1968a, 1969).

There is a strong isomorphism between artistic improvisation and Deleuze’s concepts of repetition and the virtual. In music criticism, for example, we often speak of artists improvising upon another’s composition: the improvisation is the cover version—repeated with differences—of a definitive, originary composition. But with Deleuze, we can no longer speak in terms of originals vs. copies; the initial work loses its ontologically-privileged status and becomes a mythic fiction. As with dub reggae, every “version” is always-already an improvisation becoming-other, a moment in a process of translating the virtual into the actual—essentially, a process of remixing and recontextualizing, of recombination, reception, and transmission. As Deleuzian assemblages, versions are connected to each other externally through an overlapping set of similarities, a family resemblance, and internally (within themselves) through a basic holism, a consistence or coherence that prevents them from becoming fully atomized (Deleuze & Guattari, 1980). Repetition means not only that identity is but a foreclosure of metaphysical difference, but also that composition is nothing more than a subset of the ontological substrate of improvisation.

Deleuze also helps us see that the improvisational act occurs when one explores and extracts the virtual potentialities of a body (such as the aforementioned guitar) from the plane of immanence and converts them into the actual, turning ideas into sounds. As Deleuze and Guattari would put it in their collaborative work (1972), improvisation is a form of desiring-production. Desiring-production figures desire figured not as the filling-in of an intrinsic lack that can never be truly satisfied (as with Lacan’s concept of castration—the passage from the imaginary to the symbolic—which remains trapped within the Oedipal triangle) but rather as an adaptive, evolutionary, and above all rhizomatic process of connection and growth, of appropriation and incorporation of the other into the self. Desiring-production creates circuits of desiring-flow into which individual and social desiring-machines are plugged. Composition and improvisation, like the actual and the virtual, are not a dichotomy or a dialectic but rather two stages in a unfolding process of becoming: improvisation becomes composition becomes improvisation, possibilities made physically real.

C. Creativity and Intuition

If we conceive of Deleuze’s ontology as a spectrum from monism to pluralism, with the pluralist dimension of the axis being the affirmation of non-dialectical difference through repetition, then how do we describe the monist pole? I would suggest that for Deleuze (giving an empirical, naturalizing twist to the work of Henri Bergson), the ground of being is implicitly a universal creative principle or generative force, an elan vital (Deleuze, 1966). Deleuzian creativity is an extension of Nietzschean will (and perhaps also of Kantian phenomenological subjectivity) to the realm of the nonliving and nonhuman, imbuing all matter with an inherent agency and motive force (Deluze & Guattari, 1980). This neutral monism or property dualism would seem to resemble panpsychism, the idea that all matter possesses the qualities of consciousness, although it is perhaps better qualified as protopanpsychism (following David Chalmers, who holds that all matter is merely capable of consciousness) or panexperientialism (following Alfred North Whitehead, who believed that substance has both physical and mental aspects, the latter being the characteristic of subjective experience if not sentience) (Chalmers, 1996, 2010; Shaviro, 2009; Whitehead, 1979). An improviser, for example, is not improvising on a guitar; rather, he or she is improvising in collaboration with a guitar, other artists, their audience, an acoustic space or environment, a musical genre or tradition, etc.

The resulting conceptualization of nature resembles that of Baruch Spinoza’s immanent pantheism or F.W.J. von Schelling’s transcendental philosophy, in which the human subject is holistically reincorporated into nature, dissolving (to an extent) Cartesian mind-body dualism. For Schelling, who presciently anticipated many of the tenets of modern ecology, nature is a vibrant metaphysical process; rather than a mere passive object of conscious speculation or reflection, nature is the real from which the ideal springs (which is parallel to Deleuze’s distinction between the actual and the virtual) (Grant, 2008). The process of nature is also playful; life is not defined solely by a struggle for survival, a competition for resources, as in social Darwinism, but rather by cooperation and non-directive, pleasurable, even wasteful action (Graeber, 2014, 2015). In other words, to live is to improvise.

The chaos and movement of nature—the repetition of difference—is constantly forcing bodies to touch and mingle and entangle, producing new Bergsonian affects, intensities, and durations (Deleuze, 1966). As Deleuze (taking inspiration from Spinoza) would have it, the improviser does not gain knowledge of these sensations and qualities through rational (Cartesian) thought and reflection but instead through feeling and more importantly pre-conscious intuition, which gathers and grasps the substance of nature and synthesizes it into one univocal, sensible being (Deleuze, 1968a, 1968b, 1969). Intuition and affect precede thought and emotion; sense-making is a reverse movement from multiplicity to singularity.

The centrality of intuition to improvisation—in that improvisers play what feels right in a given situation, instantaneously bypassing conscious thought and deliberation—would also suggest the concepts of “embodied / extended mind” and “situated cognition” from the philosophy of mind. These ideas suggest that consciousness (including perception) is not something we possess, but rather an action—something we do (Clark, 1997, 2010; Noe, 2004, 2009). Rather than being located entirely within the mind, the locus of consciousness is found in the interactions between the self and the physical world; it is defined by a phenomenological orientation and intentionality toward matter and by the world’s transactions back upon the self. In other words, the subjectivity of consciousness is embedded within the materiality of the body and its senses, particularly that of touch and movement. Indeed, the mind overflows the body itself and spills out into the surrounding environment. The figure most associated with the connections between embodied mind / situated cognition and improvisation in music is the brilliant jazz pianist and professor Vijay Iyer, who wrote his doctoral thesis on this topic. Because of the mind-body dualism implicit in so much Western philosopher, Iyer notes that many theorists and philosophers often focus solely on classical music, because of its privileging of the written / notated score over the enacted performance, to the exclusion of other traditions that privilege becoming over being—such as African-American and non-Western (“groove-based”) musics that foreground the physical expression and experience of rhythm and center on the emergent interactions between the self and the instrument (2008). Musical cognition arises from the tension and vibration of the guitar strings upon the fingertips, the resistance and give of the piano keys under the hands, the resonant thump of the drumbeat in the arms and chest, and not merely from the brain itself.

Unfortunately, Deleuze and Guattari themselves were not wholly free from the Eurocentric prejudice that Iyer identified. In their chapter on music in A Thousand Plateaus (1980), they described musical creativity as a deterritorializing force, with innovation emerging from the continual transgression of limitations like melody, harmony, rhythm, and even tonality itself, while still maintaining consistency as a sonic event. Spontaneous, childlike creativity is a smooth space, with free improvisation as a method of opening up oneself to the chaos of the outside world and of the cosmos as a whole, while genre (which Deleuze and Guattari call a milieu) is a striated one, locked into a kind of assemblage of bad / territorial repetition they term the refrain, like Nietzsche’s “eternal return.” But even if a musical utterance begins as a creative, fluid, playful improvisation (or includes undefined “fuzzy” space for aleatoric / chance elements), however, the evental novelty of its sonic intervention can become overcoded with time and harden into a composition with a determinant structure or a genre with its particular set of expectations and rules. (In a discussion of birdsong and of the incorporation of technology into the composing process, Deleuze and Guattari also note that humans are not the only improvising species of animal, which goes back to their implicit protopanpsychism.)

This is true up to a point—Deleuze’s description fits the modernist classical / art music he cited and apparently favored (such as the work of Edgard Varese, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Olivier Messiaen), and contemporary European free improvisation and Japanese onkyo does indeed reject many of these traditional categories of music, reinventing music and sound by liberating noise and texture. But of course there are many equally innovative groove-based forms of musical creativity that rewire the relationships between melody, rhythm, harmony, and tonality without wholly rejecting them, such as jazz, funk, psychedelia, krautrock, global dance musics, and electronica. Neither does song itself have to be inherently imitative; musical innovation can move upwards, from the lowbrow to the highbrow, just as often as the reverse form of cross-pollination from the avant-garde to the populist occurs. But this blindspot of Deleuze and Guattari (much like that of Theodor Adorno in his writings on aesthetics) hardly invalidates the totality of their theoretical project; it simply demands that we extend their ideas in a more multicultural and cosmopolitan direction. For example, one could easily find philosophical justification for emphasizing the rhythmic refrain in music through Deleuze’s own exploration of (good) repetition and difference.

D. Conclusion

The work of Gilles Deleuze, more so than that of any other philosopher, allows us to draw lines of flight from conventional ways of thinking. This explication of his ontology and metaphysics sought to demonstrate how improvisation is an implicit category within nearly all of his most important concepts. If composition, to use Deleuze’s words, is an arborescent space of being—linear, vertical, hierarchical, statist, molar, ends-oriented—then improvisation is a rhizomatic space of becoming: nonlinear, horizontal, egalitarian, nomadic, molecular, open-ended (Deleuze & Guattari, 1980).

Much of the value of Deleuze’s oeuvre is his recovery of an alternative mode of thought within the Western tradition—which he called “minor,” in the sense of disavowed, oppositional, marginal, and hidden. Through his reinterpretations of the minor thought of Spinoza, Bergson, and Whitehead, we can see that improvisation is the constitutive other, the repressed unconscious, of the reductive post-Platonic philosophy that seeks to downplay the importance of process, flux, and change, the essential nature of creativity and intuition. Deleuze’s work, then, is the return of the repressed; it restores creative improvisation to its rightful place in ontology as “a basic instinct, an essential force in sustaining life” (Bailey, 1993, p. 140).

III. Exploring Improvisation

A. Introduction

Now that I have attempted to define improvisation in theoretical and philosophical terms, I will spend the remainder of this literature review exploring the most important tenets of improvisation as a practice. I have tried to reduce the discourse of improvisation to the key elements and precepts with which nearly all critics agree and artists share in common—the themes that wove throughout my review of the literature on both art and education.

B. Improvisation thrives on the tension between structure and freedom, between constraint and invention.

Structure should not be seen as negative or otherwise antithetical to improvisation; rather, structure provides form to formlessness and opens up a space in which freedom can meaningfully occur (Morris, 2000). (Think of all the great jazz music that arises from improvising upon classic pop songs.) In education, structure is unavoidable, from the macro—academic content standards and objectives—to the micro—the form and content of a particular lesson. Standards are object-oriented and linear, whereas educational improvisation is about an unfolding, contingent, and holistic process of discovery. There does not always have to be a goal or destination in mind—the most important requirement is that the journey itself is interesting and meaningful. As Eisner says in his The Educational Imagination (2001), transcendent “ends need not precede means” in education; ends can be immanent to the process and discovered along the way. But since teachers frequently have no choice but to follow the conceptual structure and sequence of the standards and the curriculum map, the best they can do in these situations is to improvise on them in the same manner as a jazz artist upon a standard tune. The most successful plans, then, strike a balance between structure and freedom and allow in advance room for improvisation and differentiation. For the most part, the ordinary, day-to-day lessons contained in textbooks and the accompanying teacher’s manuals tend to be too prescribed and limiting for the teacher to truly improvise; even the manner in which one is supposed to ask questions is already provided for the teacher. The most successful teachers work to create their own flexible structures for the delivery of instruction (Sawyer, 2011). Whenever possible, the improvising educator treats high-stakes mandates, assessments, and evaluations with playful evasion.

C. Improvisation takes practice.

While amateurism or primitivism can make for raw and compelling art—punk, garage rock, outsider music—it is not always sustainable in the long-run. The ability to effectively think on one’s feet can only be learned from practice with thinking on one’s feet. Intuition, spontaneity, and emergence are not marked the absence of careful thought; rather, they result from the unconscious internalization of it (Bailey, 1993; Jackson, 1990). In this sense, veteran teachers are more likely to improvise successfully than novice teachers: veteran teachers know to grasp and seize a teachable moment when they sense one. This is one reason why many educational theorists, like R. Keith Sawyer, always qualify improvisation as “disciplined improvisation” (Beghetto & Kaufman, 2011; Sawyer, 2004, 2011). The musical chemistry and instantaneous improvisation of, say, Miles Davis’s tight groupings of his electric era, the psychedelic funk of the eternally great German band Can, the art-punk of Fugazi, or the minimal techno of Factory Floor, resulted from their relentless hard work (all four groups were known to jam for hours on end) at developing virtuosity on their instruments and establishing a nearly psychic rapport at playing them collectively. Likewise, the ability to teach is not predominantly an innate talent. Reading books on theory and talking to other educators can help, but teaching skill can only be honed through practice and repetition in real-world environments. One learns to teach by engaging in, and then reflecting on, the act of teaching. When one is forced into a contingent situation in which one must act and react in real time, one quickly learns to improvise, to build one’s own repertoire of methods, techniques, strategies, and activities. This in turn has tremendous implications for preservice teacher education and mentorship, in that colleges and universities so often tend to privilege theory over practice, planning over acting, data over narrative observation, justification over experimentation, and the abstract over the concrete, local, and specific—which is precisely the opposite from how it should be, if learning to improvise is the goal. Even nominally constructivist textbooks and curricula ignore improvisation (DeZutter, 2011). Instead, a proper phenomenology of teaching would grasp the immanent unfolding of a process rather than freezing it into a series of static tableaux.

D. Improvisation and composition are not discrete categories but rather endpoints on a spectrum of possibilities.

Contrary to the hyperbolic claims of the most fervent adherents and advocates of composition vs. improvisation, neither method of artistic creation is morally or aesthetically superior to the other. Composition is perhaps best understood as a subset or foreclosure of improvisation. The masterpieces of classical music, no matter how seemingly intricate and overdetermined, do not emerge fully formed from composers’ minds like Athena bursting from the brow of Zeus. Frequently, compositions are back-transcribed and edited from extensive improvisation—in other words, trial and error. On the other hand, many of the best jazz improvisers, such as Dave Brubeck and Thelonious Monk, have chosen to put their own distinct spin on the compositions of both others and themselves by improvising on their melodies, harmonies, and rhythms. In education, we might equate composition to the planned curriculum and improvisation to the actually-existing enacted curriculum. The best planned curricula are the results of the evolutionary processes of improvisation, editing, and revision inherent to enacted curricula—one holds on to what is successful and discards that which is not—and they purposely leave room for further improvisation in the future, because school circumstances and contexts will always be changing over time. Planned and enacted curricula, precisely in the same manner as composition and improvisation, are not a binary, but rather two stages in a dialectic. Improvisation becomes composition becomes improvisation again.

E. Improvisation thrives on limitations.

Material limitations are not always a bad thing, because they force us to be creative. One thinks of how Pina Bausch choreographed her remarkable dances around physical obstacles, as documented in Wim Wender’s eponymous 2011 film, or how the Oulipo writers thrived on arbitrary constraints, such as Georges Perec’s novel A Void in which he never once uses any word containing the letter e. Similarly, great music has often come from limited and heterogeneous materials. Whether it takes the form of the plastic instruments of free jazz pioneers like Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry; the prepared tabletop guitar of Keith Rowe; the “three chords and a tune” mentality of punk rock; or the cracked electronics and feedback of noise, glitch electronica, and Japanese onkyo, limitation can force the artist to use prosaic, conventional items in surprising and creative ways. In improvisational comedy, the lack of stage sets, props, and scripts other than prompts from the audience is an advantage, not a hindrance. Through the interactions that result, both performers and spectators must fill in the blanks with nothing but their imaginations, making improv an active, participatory form of theater. Classroom teaching is similar, as having access to all of the educational technology and manipulatives one desires can lead one to rely upon them as a crutch far more so than one would otherwise. Limitations, by contrast, force one to be innovative and imaginative, crafty and thrifty.

F. Collaboration is at the heart of improvisation.

The best improvised music, both on record and live, usually involves two or more musicians. Solos can be fascinating, but they rarely push the artist into new realms of innovation as duos often do. When multiple artists play together, though, they are forced to engage in a dialogue, bouncing ideas back and forth and changing their form and content in the process (Bailey, 1993; Sawyer, 2006; Sylvian, 2009). Humor, surprise, and invention can emerge from the unexpected collisions between differing mindsets and styles, meaning that the best collaborative improvisations are greater than the sum of their individual parts. Many improvisers even go so far as to consider their practices, which place value on pragmatism and compromise, as a model of egalitarian dialogue or as a model of democracy as such; improvisation can reflect collective dreams of utopian spaces and societies. Improvisation in the classroom is not located solely within the reflective minds of teachers, but rather in the collaborative give-and-take between teachers and students (or in the collaboration between co-teachers with complimentary approaches, who can produce superior results together compared to that which one teacher can accomplish alone). In terms of educational philosophy, improvisation is neither entirely teacher-centered nor purely student-centered. It is the grey area in between, where there is freedom within structure, that allows for a truly equitable transference, sharing, and celebration of knowledge.

G. The meaning of success vs. failure must be rethought with reference to improvisation.

To teach is to become intimately acquainted with the raw stuff of failure. Teachers will fail to engage the hearts and minds of their students; students will fail to try regardless; policy-makers, administrators, and parents will fail to support teachers; and society will fail to act in the interest of its children’s futures. Even if a state approaching perfection were achievable in any of these spheres of influence, we must also accept that teaching and learning are delicate things. Like an iridescent soap bubble, the subtle, ephemeral magic of education can burst and evaporate at any moment, for almost any reason: a knock on the door or an announcement over the intercom heralds distraction, technology breaks down, the attention wanders and boredom sets in, and teacher and student fail to connect (Jackson, 1990). By standardizing curricula to within an inch of their life, by scripting lesson plans down to the tiniest detail, and by scheduling the school day into rigid and immovable blocks of time, the American education reform movement—which is of course a misnomer—has boldly (some might say hubristically) attempted to failure-proof education. All it will take to fix schools, they say, is the application of universal consistency and accountability. But by mandating these sweeping, totalizing changes in order to prevent the ever-present possibility of failure, reform movements have also inadvertently ensured the impossibility of success. One is reminded of Brian Eno’s advice inOblique Strategiesto “Honor thy error as a hidden intention” or of a similar quote from James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922): “A man of genius makes no mistakes. His errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery” (p. 190). But in order to pass through those portals of discovery, one must first accept the possibility that one will fall off the high-wire act that is teaching. Failure is, in fact, always an option. In improvisation, “success” and “failure” no longer refer to relative states of (im)perfection. Instead, greater importance is accorded to how one responds to mistakes—ideally, one treats them as productive opportunities, as “portals of discovery.” In philosophy, one might identify this perspective with the Hegelian dialectic, in which truth emerges through an evolutionary process of error (Roberts, 2011). One of the major influences on contemporary improvisation is the composer and conceptual artist John Cage (who, ironically, distrusted improvisation), and his emphasis on trusting to aleatoric / chance / non-deterministic processes can expand our definition not only of aesthetic quality, but also of educational ability. Instead of evaluating teachers based on how their students match up with object-oriented standards assessments, perhaps we might try to evaluate them on how they respond—how they improvise—to novel situations (DeZutter, 2011). Success is something one can only approach asymptotically, so we must accept and even invite the possibility of failure along the way. As Samuel Becker wrote movingly in his late novel Nohow On (1995): “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better” (p. 89).

H. Conclusion

To close, I would like to consider a quote from the first stanza of Wallace Stevens’ great long poem, “The Man With the Blue Guitar.” Stevens writes:

The man bent over his guitar,

A shearsman of sorts. The day was green.

They said, “You have a blue guitar,

You do not play things as they are.”

The man replied, “Things as they are

Are changed upon the blue guitar.” (Stevens, 1997)

Composition, especially in education, will always remain a way of playing things as they are; it takes place within the status quo without altering the boundaries of the possible. It seems to me that improvisation, then, is like the blue guitar in Stevens’ poem: to many, it will seem unusual and threatening precisely because of its transformative nature: when played, it confronts, challenges, and changes things as they are. Improvisation invites, delights in, and dances with the unexpected.

IV. Works Cited

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Beckett, S. (1995). Nohow On: Company, Ill Seen Ill Said, Worstward Ho: Three novels. New York, NY: Grove Press.

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Deleuze, G., & Guattari, F. (1980). A thousand plateaus: Capitalism and schizophrenia volume 2. (B. Massumi, Trans.). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

DeZutter , S. (2011). Professional improvisation and teacher education: Opening the conversation. In Sawyer, R.K. (Ed.), Structure and improvisation in creative teaching (27-50). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Eisner, E.W. (2001). The educational imagination: On the design and evaluation of school programs.  (3rd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

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Graeber, D. (2015). The utopia of rules: On technology, stupidity, and the secret joys of bureaucracy. New York, NY: Melville House.

Grant, I.H. (2008). Philosophies of nature after Schelling. London, UK: Continuum.

Iyer, V. (2008). On improvisation, temporality, and embodied experience. In P.D. Miller (Ed.), Sound unbound: Sampling digital music and culture (pp. 263-282). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Jackson, P.W. (1990). Life in classrooms. (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

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