Professional improvisers

I’ve just returned from presenting a keynote address at a conference at the University of Padua, in Padua, Italy: the title of the conference was “Improvisation: Between Technique and Spontaneity.”  The core idea of the conference was that the tension between technique and spontaneity is found in just about all expert and professional activity.  Professionals are “experts” because they’ve mastered a large set of routines and “cookbook” solutions to problems.  But that, alone, isn’t enough.  To be a master, you have to be able to improvisationally respond to the unexpected, to weave new cloth out of known solutions and routines.

Jazz musicians know this better than just about everyone.  To play jazz at a high level requires years of hard work and practice.  It’s a myth that jazz improvisation means “anything goes”–the technique, the routines, the shared cultural norms and communication practices are what allow the genius of the group to exceed the brilliance of any one individual.  That’s why the Padua conference had a strong jazz emphasis.  And, unusual for an academic conference, it was collaboratively organized by three different departments: education, philosophy, and linguistic, communication, and performing arts (I know, that last department name is a mouthful!)

In my talk, I described how experienced teachers also blend technique and spontaneity in the classroom.  I cited research that has discovered that experienced teachers improvise more than novice teachers; but, paradoxically, they also have mastered more standard routines than novice teachers.  Professional expertise, like jazz improvisation, requires both mastery of standard solutions and routines as well as improvisational ability.

Other highlights of the conference included talks by Andy Hamilton (a philosopher at Durham University), Tord Gustavsen (an internationally known jazz pianist and now a doctoral student at Oslo University), and Frank Barrett (at the business school at the Naval Postgraduate University).  And later that night, the Tord Gustavsen trio performed to a sold-out crowd of 600 people in the beautiful Auditorium Pollini.

Thanks to Marina Santi, the lead organizer, for this wonderful event!