The preludes and postludes offered by Breton Abbondanzio, organist at St. Theresa of Lisieux in South Hadley, MA, are often improvisations on the entrance and exit hymns. That is, Breton artfully plays with and embellishes the hymn-tunes to present beautiful musical offerings. His creative compositions help me prepare to worship and to reenter the world once I’ve encountered our Lord Jesus Christ.
When I asked Breton about his skill, he responded that he has been improvising for a long time, first on the piano and then, more recently, on the organ. He combines the talents God gave him, the skills he learned from his teachers, and the practice he has engaged in over the years to present musical offerings for our enrichment and for the glory of God.
Breton’s work on the organ reminds me that each of us can improvise in our daily lives. We can creatively play with the themes that arise by cultivating an improvisational mindset. That’s the message of the book titled Improv Wisdom: Don’t Prepare, Just Show Up.
Now the subtitle might be off-putting, as though those who improvise aren’t mindful. But author Patricia Ryan Madson, head of the undergraduate acting program at Stanford University, uses the subtitle to introduce two of thirteen maxims that help students become skilled improv actors. Her adages can help us live unscripted lives, for as she points out, “life is an improvisation.”
Each chapter is a short, real-world explanation of one of her maxims. The author’s point with “don’t prepare” is that experienced improvisers pay attention to the drama around them rather than prepare their own parts. For example, in a group-setting most of us can’t remember the names of those who introduce themselves just before or just after we do. We’re preoccupied with our own presentation. But we’re apt to give a better performance if we focus on other people, allowing our own material to flow spontaneously.
“Just show up” is an imperative for those who have trouble getting in gear. Madson says that it’s as simple as moving our bodies toward our dreams. And she offers three pointers to pull it off: Use rituals, show up for others, and change locations. Of the three, I find the section on rituals most fascinating. Madson’s practice of making the bed each morning gets her started. I need to turn on the classical music station, take a shower, and drink some coffee to begin my daily writing routine.
Improv Wisdom is a pleasure to read whether or not one becomes an improv artist. Madson’s writing is crisp and practical. She offers at least two “try this” projects per chapter; and a list of bullet points summarizes every adage.
Few of us will become improv organists like Breton, but his arrangements will continue to inspire me. They may even serve as a reminder to practice Madson’s maxims toward a more spontaneous life.
© Stan BohallMay 2, 2016