Improvisation: Collaboration, Structure, and Social Media / by Nate Westheimer

Improvisation doesn't just mean "making sh*t up" it means adding to the structure (conversation) and responding to others (listening).

What is the relationship between structure and improvised collaboration? How do we make music together -- without coordinated notes on paper -- and still make sense?

The quote above came from Forrester researcher and social media consultant Jeremiah Owyang in the midst of a recent conversation on Twitter which began with another comment from him, in which he attributed his love for Social Media to Jazz.

I agreed with him that there's a connection -- and thought my love from improv may be why I'm drawn to the most collaborative forms of social media, such as those my company's platform supports (mash-ups, wikis, social databases, etc).

Back to the quote above, I think Jeremiah strikes a incredibly important point about structure and improvisation -- that structure exists, even when we're improvising, and that listening can help you figure out what that structure is.

I'll try to add to Jeremiah's point by by bringing real music into the conversation.

Back at Brandeis, I participated in a group called the "Brandeis Improv Collective." We were a group of 6, comprised of (in order of expertise): a pianist, a guitarist, another guitarist, an alto sax player (me), and a percussionist. The sixth, and best trained among us, was another saxophone (tenor, mostly) player who was also our instructor.

Yes, I said instructor.

During our weekly sessions, we would always open, without cue, by warming up together. We'd see where each other was that day. If someone had an especially stressful day (which would happen a lot to me while writing my thesis) the tone of everyone else in the group would usually become supportive and soothing. We'd even each other out.

For most of the sessions, however, we'd practice improvising around different structures. Our instructor would suggest different rules for conversation (one person "talks" at time, paired conversations, stepping in each other's shoes, etc).

With each different structure, a different kind of conversation would emerge, but because we were still improvising, no conversation would ever be the same, even if we recycled structures.

Take this track from our Winter Concert. /blog/wp-content/files/Brandeis_Improv_5.mp3

We start structureless. A few tweets, clinks, and bumps start the conversations, but soon (mid-way through the track) we get a bit more comfortable, and a melody (albeit awkward) emerges.

Fast forward to the last two minutes of the track and we're hot. At one point, the instructor and I are so locked into conversation that we "say" the same thing for a full 30 seconds -- changing six or seven notes in lockstep.

For me, the track is still exhilarating for me to listen to; and the lesson couldn't have come back any faster this morning when Jeremiah brought up the issue of Jazz, social media, and improv.

The music we made was pure improvisation. However, that did not mean we'd just go out and play our instruments without care for our environment. We were 100% (okay, 90%) informed by structure and the conversation going on around us.

In fact, the sum of the conversation became the structure, the way a melody becomes the structure for how a song will progress.

In the world of social media and collaboration, this is the point: collaboration happens best around structures which allow conversation to scale. If we added another saxophone player to our group, the structure of our sessions would have needed a way to compensate and not allow saxophone players to dominate. It would also need to find a way to capitalize on such a rich resource and not treat them like a burden ("Three sax players? How lucky!").

Social media also needs to allow anyone to join in. During our Spring concert, one of the people in the audience used the chairs in the auditorium to join in as a percussionist. The rules changed. We adjusted. And we were still making music.

And if you're wondering. This has everything to do with Bricolage.