Improvisation Is Hard Work

By Kyle Baker

A jazz musician and a church leader walk into a bar.

No wait, the jazz musician walks into a bar, the church leader walks into a church.

The jazz musician walks into a room with a band of misfits who will improvise on standard material. The church leader walks into a room with a team of experts who will play parts they’ve honed for years.

No wait, the church leader has the band of improvising misfits; it’s the jazz musician who has the team of experts.

I had the good fortune to study jazz trombone with Delfeayo Marsalis (yes, that Marsalis) in college. I also happen to serve in the rank-and-file leadership of a local Christian church as a “professional Christian.” From this vantage point, I’d like to call your attention to the overabundance of improvisation that takes place in our churches and share some insights that apply from what I learned studying jazz.

God-given talent is the beginning, not the end.

While it is true God has mercifully blessed each of us with unique gifts and abilities (1 Corinthians 7:7), calls us to use them as members of the local body (Romans 12:4), and is the giver of all good and perfect gifts (James 1:17), there is a misunderstanding about what these gifts are.

I serve as the weekend service coordinator at my church, and I once had a guitarist confess that he didn’t have the “gift of improvisation.” Improvisation is not a gift—it is a skill. I hate to burst that bubble, but folks like the Marsalis family, Stevie Ray Vaughn, or the members of the Second City comedy group have prepared most rigorously for the talent they now display.

In one lesson with Marsalis, I played a riff that I really liked. His response was, “Good start. Now play it in all 12 keys, moving through the circle of fifths. When you get back to where you started, go back through the keys through the circle of fourths. When you get that done, do it all again in minor.”

If that sounds like a lot of work, it’s because it is. Why so much work? So that I could actually use that riff in ANY song in ANY key at ANY time.

If you’d like to learn more about the surprising resemblance between natural talent and a lifetime of hard work, read Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin. (Here’s a one-sentence summary: Every world-class talent from the Beatles to Tiger Woods put in 10,000 hours of practice.)

God-given talent is what you started with. It does not make you a professional. Honing that talent is what makes you a professional. If you lead your team by saying the same things you said when you started, then you need to develop. If you speak to the congregation the same ways and using the same jokes as you did last year, you need to develop. No one is ever done growing, and the world you work in is always changing.

You cannot both improvise and grow.

Somewhere out there is a visual artist who disagrees with my last statement. But I stand by it. You improvise out of the techniques, ideas, and abilities you already have. You cannot improvise a new technique, idea, or ability; you can only recombine what you’ve already done. New inspirations or approaches can only come from the outside.

I coach our worship leaders in what they say during our services. On weeks I don’t offer an outline or thoughts about how to link to the theme or topic, they each fall back into their own default mode. I suspect you do the same thing. I know I do when I pray at our rehearsals, unless I think about it beforehand.

Good orchestration leads to great improvisation.

I’m also our service timing Nazi. I really do keep track of how long our prayers are, how long Communion takes, and precisely when the preacher is (supposed!) to close. But I’ve learned that having good orchestration (a plan that tells which musician does what, and when) makes any improvisation better.

When something happens out of order or we have a technical gaffe, it is only because of the plan that our adept leaders are able to improvise around it well. Because the leaders know the plan, they know the goal, and their improvisations can successfully accomplish that goal, even when they don’t follow the plan.

Incorporating new service elements like testimonies, congregational readings, and Scripture recitations from the stage requires planning. Innovation is rarely improvised. The more you know your material and your options, the more innovative you’ll be able to be, and that includes how you improvise. Ideas you examine and then reject are just as valuable in developing your improvisation as those you execute verbatim. I primarily work in planning our services, but these concepts are just as applicable to how we lead our meetings, teach our classes, and develop our volunteers.

Improvisation can be rehearsed.

That sounds blasphemous, doesn’t it? But yes, the greatest touring jazz combos rehearse. The most famous jazz solos in the world were developed over years of touring. The rehearsals enable the whole team to nail their various elements so that they can combine them in new and interesting ways during the improvisational performance. Without rehearsal, the options are limitless and excellence is impossible. As ministry leaders, rehearsal may look more like trying out material in other ancillary ministries, or talking through the plan with our coleaders, but it is just as vital.

So let’s take the same steps as jazz musician on the way to our roles as leaders. These steps lead to professional improvisation. Hone your talent. Develop your repertoire. Orchestrate well. Rehearse.

See you at the bar. No wait—church.

Kyle Baker is a creator and composer living in Nashville, Tennessee, and serves as creative director at Harpeth Community Church in Franklin, Tennessee. His music can be found at kylejbaker.com; his ideas can be found at thinkingcreator.net.

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3 Comments

  1. John McArthur
    February 7, 2011 at 5:18 pm

    Thank you for your wonderful thoughts. I get tired of preachers saying they wait until Sunday morning and let God give them the words to say in their sermon. That’s not improv – that’s laziness! What I have discovered is that when I plan my sermons out a year in advance it is amazing how the sermon for a particular Sunday is not only timely but the best thing that could have been said that day. I even go a step further and write out in manuscript form what I will preach. I do that for two reasons: to keep me focused on the message and prevent me from rambling. It takes practice to then preach from the heart and not just reading a paper. And God uses that. It is not hampering the Spirit because God is present in my study as well as during the service and it respects the time and structure of the service without necessarily sounding canned.

  2. February 13, 2011 at 9:56 pm

    It must be questioned whether or not church assemblies should be performances. If they are, then surely rehearsals are needed. But a serious look at Paul’s 1st letter to the Corinthian Christians might reveal that their assemblies were not intended to be performances by a few week after week, but by many taking turns using their gifts for God. We have a few performing for the many every week. Do we have it right?

  3. February 15, 2011 at 9:59 am

    Gentlemen, I really do appreciate you taking time out of your week to interact with these ideas.

    John-You are right to prepare in advance, but I do hope you leave your heart open to the spirit’s prompting in the moment. Musicians and psychologists even have a name for it: ” In a state of flow” – it’s wonderful to be fully you, pulling in all your experiences and thoughts and merging them seamlessly with your abilities… In my experiences, there’s been a sense of release, of following a train of thought that’s not my own; In the moment I know what to say next, but afterwards I can’t remember. I’ve played jazz solos that way, and I’ve taught and prayed things I believe were from God that way as well.

    Ray-
    I’m familiar with the heart of the Corinthian letters, but also the dual instructions to maintain an orderly assembly and conduct our assemblies in such a way that unbelievers respond “surely God is in this place”- over the course of christian history, the tension between the two has been navigated by preparing with dedication in advance, and responding to the spirit extemporaneously in the moment. The Greek orthodox church continues to have a position of “protokantor’ the overseer of the cantors, and the coordinator of the elements of the assembly: anyone who celebrates the Havia Sophia’s 3000 voice choir cannot in good conscience argue against rehearsal, planning, and organization (what did those 25 music directors do if not rehearse).

    Secondly, does the fact that we use a rotation of volunteers mean we’re in compliance with your thought?

    Thirdly, is it also your position that those gifted as apostles and teachers should also not rehearse? Is then also errant for teachers to use lesson plans?

    And in closing, I’ll leave you gentlemen with this thought: it’s my belief that there will be no rehearsal in Heaven, because rehearsal is necessitated by our fallen nature. As imperfect humans, we need multiple attempts at any task before we reach our fullest potential, and I think that’s a result of our imperfect and fallen selves.

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