Improvise Over the Beat of Life

Lately, I’ve been thinking about rhythm.

Brimming over with ideas for work projects and collaboration, I tend to get impatient with the relaxed pace of August in New York, when everyone’s on vacation and business slows down.

At the same time, I’ve been learning about jazz improvisation from a flutist friend (daunting for a classical musician used to having every note and tempo marking spelled out by the composer). As a newcomer to jazz, I started off playing awkward and amateurish rhythmic patterns with the chords of the tune and yet, whatever I played, my friend was able to freely improvise around it, alternating between long, sustained melodies and more elaborate, filigree passages.

Which got me thinking: what if we had a similar approach to our daily routine, taking the different rhythms that occur — in our conversations, our work flow, the economy, even – and improvising around them rather than resisting or being dictated by them?

Here are a few ways I do it:
• Breathe deeper. Yeah, that ol’ chestnut. But your breath is one of the few rhythms you can control – and conscious attention to deeply inhaling and exhaling can provide powerful counterpoint to a day that feels rushed and frantic.

• Pause more. Have you ever been in conversation with someone who speaks at an uncomfortably fast pace? If it’s causing you to feel breathless and frazzled, don’t feel obligated to keep up the same pace – make a conscious effort to respond at a more comfortable speed and pause an extra beat or two before and after you make a point. As music-lovers know, a well-timed silence or syncopated rhythm can be just as tantalizing as a beautiful harmony.

• Oscillate between stress and recovery. Too often we take a linear approach to work, thinking the more effort we expend, the better the result. In their Harvard Business Review article “The Making of a Corporate Athlete,” authors Jim Loehr and Tony Schwarz point out that, actually, we best maximize our energy levels when we allow rhythmic movement, or oscillation, between energy expenditure (stress) and energy renewal (recovery). “The real enemy of high performance is not stress, which, paradoxical as it may seem, is the stimulus for growth. The problem is the absence of disciplined intermittent recovery.” Weight-training is a prime example of this: first, the muscle is stressed to the point where the fibers literally break down. With one or two days of recovery, the muscle not only heals but comes back stronger. Your energy “muscle” works the same way.

Breathing, pausing, oscillating — whatever the underlying beat of a situation, there’s always a way to improvise your own groove.

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