Improvisation and everyday life

Last week, I attended an exciting research meeting in Canada: a new $4 million research center to study the lessons of jazz improvisation and apply them to everyday life. The center, at the University of Guelph, was funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) through an incredibly competitive review process. Only two grants were given throughout all of Canada, and I am one of 33 international scholars participating in this center . Before you invoke the spirit of Senator Proxmire and his infamous “Golden Fleece” awards, give me a few minutes to convince you that this research grant has incredible potential to change the way we think about community, policy, law, and education.

Take law, for an example. I spoke with three different law professors at the meeting, and it turns out that improvisation raises fairly substantial issues for intellectual property law. Think about it: if you want to get a copyright for a song, you have to prepare a musical score. But you can’t copyright an improvisation. But can’t you copyright a recording of an improvisation? Yes…but then, the concept of the “work” itself has changed. If someone improvises a slight variation, even if it sounds a whole lot like what you did, it’s still a different work and they aren’t violating your copyright. But with a song, any version of the song infringes on your copyright.

It’s about more than music, as well. The Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA) forbids “mods” of computer software, no matter how trivial (you can’t even change the color of the background without infringing). So maybe it could help us, in thinking about the nature of intellectual property in a world of “collective intelligence,” to draw on improvisation, representation, and performance in music.

My involvement with the research grant is in the area of teaching. I have often argued that good teaching has to be improvisational. Not only because good teachers are always responsive to their students, that’s always been true; but because the nature of innovation in our economy today follows an essentially improvisational process (as I show in my book Group Genius). So students need to learn in environments where they have opportunities to participate in improvisational collaboration with others. Studying improvisation has the potential to help us reform schools to align with the future of innovation.

I’m exciting about this grant, and the team of powerhouse researchers coming together, collaboratively, to study these topics. After all, improvisation is the key to innovation, and innovation is the key to the future.

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