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Liberation Through Improvisation and Imperfection:
Stephen Nachmanovitch on PYP 444

Stephen Nachmanovitch is an improvisational musician, and long-time teacher of improvisational arts. His 2019 book, The Art of Is, explores how we can use principles and practices of improv in our everyday lives.

As a long-time student (and occasional performer) of improv, I have first-hand knowledge of how these principles can enrich our experience and create opportunities for exploration, growth, and fun. What I didn't realize until reading The Art of Is is that improv can help us weave community, fight injustice, stay the course in the face of great odds, and heal ourselves and our planet.

In this episode, Stephen and I improvise a conversation (that's the only way to do it!) that explores some fundamental understandings of human potential. I come at it with an interest in how we can apply improv to be healthier in our everyday lives.

For example, many of my clients resist meal planning because they insist on spontaneity; the outcome, too often, of that spontaneity is unfortunate food choices made in the heat of the moment. Stephen highlights the Japanese tea ceremony as a delicate and robust balance of the intricately planned (the ritual) and the spontaneous (attention to the unique present circumstances).

We talk about how in improv, as in life, mistakes are opportunities for learning, and for new possibilities for action and connection.

And since the mantra of improvisational theater is “Yes, and…”, we explore how you can maintain an improvisational mindset when you refuse an offer – whether a piece of cheesecake, or as in the story of Shotaku and the Paper Sword of the Heart, a physical assault. Stephen helps us understand “how to refuse while remembering who you are.”

We cover the subtle art and science of cybernetics – essentially, course correcting through the interplay of a goal and attention to feedback. This is crucial in musical improvisation, especially on analog instruments like the violin, where there are infinite notes between the notes, and the fingers are always sliding, searching for accuracy. This relates to the challenge of self-regulation that all of us face as we navigate a world rife with unhealthy temptations. Stephen uses the metaphor of driving a car, constantly adjusting our steering, and not beating ourselves up for the myriad “mistakes” that we continually correct.

We explore the lessons of some of the heroes of The Art of Is, including Herbert Zipper, a holocaust survivor who wrote music for and conducted a clandestine orchestra at Buchenwald concentration camp, and John Cage, who composed a musical piece with a duration of 639 years.

We end the conversation with some concrete suggestions for bringing the benefits of improv to life, including practicing breathing in the supermarket, performing 1-minute pieces, and drawing a picture and then throwing it away in an artistic fashion.

Links

The Art of Is, by Stephen Nachmanovitch

Free Play, by Stephen Nachmanovitch

Stephen's latest album: A Hermitage of Thrushes (improvisations with birds)

Searching for Sugarman – documentary

Csardas performance (not by me – the note that I could never hit comes it at 1:01)

Never Give Up – documentary about Herbert Zipper

John Cage, “As Slow As Possible” performance – 4 minutes worth, anyway

The Long Now Foundation

Hun Huur Tu Concert

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Music

The Plant Yourself Podcast theme music, “Dance of Peace (Sabali Don),” is generously provided by Will Ridenour, a kora player from North Carolina who has trained with top Senegalese musicians.

It can be found on his first CD, titled Will Ridenour.

You can learn about Will, listen to more tracks, and buy music on his website, WillRidenour.com.

Gratitudes

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