From a certain perspective, there is no such thing as a mistake.
In order for something to be considered a mistake, it must be framed within a context where some choices are “right” and others are “wrong.” Such a context is completely at odds with the world of the improviser.
Early in my study of music, when I was learning to solo on the guitar, my teacher assured me that “wrong notes” do not exist. If a note sounds sour, he would say, the note that will redeem it is always only one fret up or down from the note. Not only that, he told me, but if you can “own” the sour note, make it sound as if you meant to play it, even do it again on purpose, this will often provide the doorway to your finest creative moments.
He was absolutely right.
This is true in theater improv as well. The conscious mind, in order to feel safe, continually constructs agendas and expectations for a scene. We enter a scene with an idea of what is going to happen, what is going to be funny…and then our scene partner makes us an offer that completely obliterates that agenda. These moments call on us to be truly humble. They ask us to abandon the set of expectations and assumptions which only a moment before seemed so appealing to us and to trade these in for the unknown.
The extent to which we cling to the original agenda is the extent to which this challenging development will feel like a “mistake.” Inversely, the extent to which we can surrender to the new reality is the extent to which we allow the door to open to something entirely new, something we never would have planned, something that can stretch our brains in a direction they would’ve never gone on their own.
To live life in this way is to embrace every disappointment, every turn of our fate, as an offer from our cosmic scene partner, the Muse, our Daemon. Each moment, we are presented with a choice. We may choose to block the offer with which we are presented, to judge it as a mistake, to long for something different. Or, we may embrace it fully and engage our curiosity: how will this seemingly sour note be made beautiful by the larger context of the entire melody?
Editor: Brianna Bemel
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