It doesn’t have to be funny: Improv and Focus, Creative Friends Post
What Improv Comedy tells us about learning, performing and focus.
Learning and Performing are two different experiences.
Learning involves self-evaluating, critiquing, and analyzing. It is incredibly focused and judgment based. You decide if something works or doesn’t, why, and what to do next.
Performing is the opposite of that. We don’t want to be distracted by our worry about the future or our evaluations of the past. Instead of self-analyzing our playing, we want to be incredibly focused on executing or performing the music you want in real time. That is, we want to stay present or enter flow state.
Both of these states are highly focused and demand a good control over your attention. But they are different types of focus. For more on the different types of practice and how to apply them check out blogs like Bulletproof Musician’s pressure proof. This blog post is about using tools from other arts to help access these mindsets. We want to be able to move between these types of attention purposefully and that only comes with practice. I’ll go over some of my favorite things to learn from improv, and then go over some example exercises/improv games.
Almost any activity from this field can be a productive way to experiment with your focus. As I explain my favorites for this (word association and story circle), an important part of this mindset is being judgement-free.
It doesn’t have to be funny
This is an incredibly liberating principle and it tells us to leave our learning and judgement-based expectations behind. Improv doesn’t have to be funny–it doesn’t have to be anything!
Some might say the point of improv comedy is to be funny and entertain. But the process doesn’t necessarily emphasize that aspect or outcome. The second you focus on the goal, you start thinking instead of being present. If you try to be happy, you’re not experiencing joy (because you aren’t present in joy). If you try to be funny you, you can’t create. If you try to evaluate your product, you aren’t producing in the same way. The best improv and the best performances come from people who are fully engaged with what’s happening rather than trying to achieve anything.
Baggage-Free and Judgement-Free
When you realize you don’t have to be funny, you relieve yourself of a great burden. We need to let go of our expectations or preconceived notions about what our creation should be. Leaving behind that baggage can make the journey easier and lighter.
You cannot fear being wrong when there is no right.
We don’t need to be funny, original, or even logical. Take a moment to remove these and all other expectations from yourself and your product. The only thing I or these exercises ask, is that you have the intention of staying present. You will probably not stay present the first try or every try–that’s okay! Intention is what counts here. When there are truly no expectations about or criteria for the answer, there is no right or better answer. Therefor, you cannot fail at this, and conversely you cannot do it “better” than anyone else. So you have nothing to worry about or evaluate. You just get to create.
No judgement, no expectations, only contributions.
Another fun and important concept of improv is the idea of “yes and,” meaning, “Yes, I agree with your contribution and I add my own.” Within these parameters, all participants agree to accept all contributions as reality or truth–regardless of how funny, unique, or logical they are or aren’t. All participants agree to then support (never undermine or ignore) that reality with a contribution of their own. When performing, we have to work with whatever the group puts forth in that moment. As a performer, we need to agree to support that creation no matter what. If someone plays out of tune, changes a rhythm, or changes something more subtle (e.g phrasing) we adjust to that new reality of the piece. Practicing the concept of “yes and” helps us be ready to stay present no matter what happens in performance mode.
If you successfully stay in this flow state, there is no time for judgement because you are busy reacting to and contributing to the world put forth by the improv or musical performance. We rely on our hard and critical work from the practice room. But in performance, we want to remember, “yes and” and “it doesn’t have to be funny.”
Easier said than done, though, so let’s practice!
Word association circle
Go around in a circle and say the first word that comes into your head based on what the previous person said. Try to keep a steady rhythm and tempo. Remember, It’s okay if it doesn’t make sense (or if it’s not funny or not anything else you normally attach with this). Depending on the size of your circle do these in short bursts of 1-3 minutes (I use a timer)
(Variations: go out of order by throwing a soft ball to the next person after you contribute, work within categories like sports, drinks, colors, etc, or make up your own variation. Just remember: no judgement, don’t be bound by logic)
The main idea is to do this staying present. To give yourself context, let’s do it first with a different goal.
each person choose a first intention (you can all have the same one or mix and match)
- Do this word association with the intention of memorizing the last several answers (you will definitely fail, but that doesn’t matter, this is just where you should direct your attention)
- Do this word association with the goal of imaging what you would say everytime it is someone else’s turn to answer and then notice their answer
- Do this word association with the goal of evaluating how much you like someone’s answer.
How was it? What did you notice?
It was probably really hard and mentally taxing. These mental states correspond with the practice mindset where you remember and analyze or plan what is produced. To do any of these goals, you have to be quite focused. Yet how much do you remember? How did it feel when it was your turn to contribute? It is incredibly difficult to simultaneously create something and to evaluate something. For many of us who struggle with distracted performing, it is because we combine the mental states of practice and of performance.
2) NOW do this with the intention of staying present. Try to just notice what everyone says (not analyze, or remember, or decide if you like it, simply acknowledge it). Use that non-judgmental focus to pull you out of your own head and into the group’s rhythm and answers. When it’s your turn add the first thing you think of with no judgement and no expectations.
How was it? What did you notice?
For most of us, this one is much more fun, and staying present can be a really enjoyable experience.
Yet the first try it is still often difficult. Many people answer the person preceding their neighbor because they start thinking and planning before their turn. Some people get very nervous and judgemental about their own answers because they bring the intention of being funny, correct, etc instead of the intention of staying present. Some people start to look for patterns and get distracted, and some people just have a hard time not thinking of other parts of their busy lives. I have done all of these. There are lots of ways to not be present and it is okay and normal to get pulled from the present. This fun activity is a tool to practice that mental focus.
In a circle add 1 word at a time to a story (you can have someone say “period” to end the sentence with their turn or you can just agree to let someone start a new sentence in a logical place the way we do in speech (without overtly saying punctuation). You can decide to set a timer to stop the exercise, but many groups just like to let the story naturally end.
How did it go?
This is very similar to the previous example, but for many, it is even harder not to bring the baggage of intentions or preconceived notions into your mental state. People may try to mold the story outside their turn (impossible because you can’t know or control what others say). Some try to make their own answers “funny,” “interesting,” “right,” or other subjective things. But the second you make that your intention, you leave the present and often cause your story or contribution to not be those things. Other people are anxious about their answers making sense. I, again, have done all these things 🙂
For a group that is truly focused, the story often is unpredictable, not really sensical, generally entertaining, and sometimes funny. But it doesn’t have to be any of those things. It just has to be a group of rhythmically spoken words.
try not to plan ahead! Just be present and add your word when you are supposed to.
Bonus Activity with just 1 Friend:
Find a friend and ask them to talk to you (for say, 3-6 minutes or any length you decide with a timer). Give them a topic they will have lots to discuss (their favorite band/movie/show/book, why they like music, a hobby, a problem, upcoming goals, etc). During the conversation, try not to react, don’t respond, don’t give advice, don’t imagine what you would do or feel in their situation, don’t let your mind wander to something tangentially related. Instead, simply focus on listening to everything they say. You will probably not succeed in focusing only on them for 5 minutes (I certainly didn’t). But notice how much your mind wants to take action and think!
Thanks for reading and let me know what you think! I also super recommend trying out a local improv class. It’s lots of fun and a great way to explore being creative, present, and artistic. let me know if you like any other improv techniques or find suggestions from other genres/media for finding flow state and focus.
Jessica is a classically-trained clarinetist based out of Florida and Ohio who loves cats, vegan chocolate chip cookies, collaborating with artists of all backgrounds, and helping performers find healthy relationships with practice. She has a BA in psychology and BM in clarinet performance from Northwestern University and began her MM in clarinet performance at BGSU in fall 2017.