Sheron Wray on the Six Fundamentals of Improvisation

Interview with Sheron Wray

Conducted and condensed by Aaron Aslin

Sheron WrayQ. How did the idea come about for exploring improvisation through jazz?

A. I have been investigating improvisation as a research project, trying to examine precisely what it is. It sounds, for many people, like improvisation is this thing that just happens, is ad hoc, and there is no form to it. It is not underpinned by anything in particular. My research into improvisation is looking into improvisation, not just in jazz music, but in dance and theater. I have also come across how people are now using improvisation in the business world or use the analogy of jazz to highlight what is involved in improvising. In that business setting, they define improvisation as a response to a surprise event. It is how you manage in those moments when things do not necessarily have a pre-determined order or pre-determined responsibility is not assigned to a particular person. In those moments, people then have to recalibrate their skills and fill in gaps to respond to whatever it is that is taking place. So, improvisation requires a high degree of knowledge to be able to fill in gaps. It requires a high degree of insistence upon listening and calibrating the listening as a whole-bodied sensory experience. It is not just looking out towards the things you are familiar with, but choosing to not filter things out and to really pay attention so that, as opportunities present themselves, you can then offer the right kind of support, the right kind of response, and can relate to whatever that phenomenon is with the right sensibility.

Improvisation involves skills and technique, a development of your capacity to listen deeply, and it also requires quite a variety of particular cognitive processes. You need to have a strong working memory of particular ideas as they relate to one another, be able to quickly apprehend patterns , as well as be developing new memories for things that are occurring now that relate to events that have passed. So, when you are improvising — I am coming back now to a performing sense — you are also creating new ideas, which you are then going to develop. [You] have to remember those ideas and form pieces of communication that you can then expand and reiterate and come back to.

The essential part of improvisation that goes missing for many people when they think about it is that when improvisers are at work, we are attempting to develop our capacity to communicate and there might not be a structure in place for that communication, but we are developing that in the moment. So we have to have an open awareness as to what those components are, so that with them, we can consciously build a structure with the tools we have at hand.

Q. In your talk at TEDxSalon –“Jazz, Improvise, Innovate!”– you mention there is a structure to nurture improvisation. What is this structure?

A. [Referring to the chart presented at the event] There were six elements [and they] are all working elements that are being recalibrated. Depending on the circumstance, they are all present to differing degrees. The first one is a dynamic relationship with time. The present moment is critical. I called that arc rhythm. It is really the dynamics of time. Inside of that, there is fractal memory. This is about patterns and pattern recognition and about being able to develop patterns. There is repetition, but this is repetition with some development. It is sort of iterations; you are drawing from [that] which you already know but you are developing it at the same time. And then there is listening, taking information in and suspending our judgment of it. Oftentimes, we have a very critical mind and we want to critique something right away, when actually, we want to allow it in and see what responses are possible. Then there is an aspect of play and what I call play and decision making. That involves your persona, your personality, and your cognition. So how do you bring who you are, who you really are, to the moment? Oftentimes, we have roles, we are supposed to act like this and dress like this; well, when you are improvising, you reflect your personal values a little bit more.

And then there is your relationship to your audience, whomever that is. That could be customers; that could be colleagues. That could be people in the same band. It could be dancers. It could be the musicians. What is your relationship to your audience and how porous is that relationship? Are you allowing there to be a flow of energy between you and the audience? In an improvisation, we should have that mechanism in place to have a back and forth engagement between the audience. It is again, another listening piece, but particularly recognizing your audience and their agency. The final dimension is collaborative competition. Often times, we think of competition as something where ‘I win, you lose.’ But in this context, it is really more about an energetic coalescing of people’s skills and talents, and the idea is that you are bringing something and someone else is recognizing it and challenges it to some extent or compliments it, so there is a push and movement forward toward development and sustaining the outcome of this exchange of ideas. And that competition can also be with oneself. You can also reckon on what you are contributing and take another look at it from another angle and challenge it. So, I think those six elements are identifiable across many different settings. I am really seeking within JazzXchange to explore ways in which this theory and practice can be useful in different settings.

Q. You have both an academic background and business background. In what areas of life do you see this being applied?

A. I am developing a course for undergraduates because I feel that young people have been trained, and it’s not their fault, to fit into something that is highly regulated. And then, when you take away those structures, their ability to use their knowledge dynamically is very poor. I would like for young people to take the agency they have, and use their youthful energy to be able to (not in that whimsical way) follow their dreams, but to make things manifest; for things to be possible, as opposed to feeling that they need to fit into a scheme that has already been defined –by somebody else’s thinking and imagination, by the way– it does not mean that the scheme is true for today and today’s world.

I am very interested in writing a book, one that addresses how you go about doing this in everyday life, but also looking at how to apply it within in the business world. So I am starting to have conversations with people in the business world that are interested in looking at medium-sized companies and how they manage change and transform their working environment and their work forces. It really is about agency. We all have it, but there are so many things that confine us and, because of that, we think we don’t have the capacity to purposefully embrace and direct change. There is always space and time tells us that change is inevitable. Improvisation creates fluidity within change as opposed to anxiety.

Q. Where do you feel like you first experienced true improvisation?

A. It goes back to when I was a child. I think the beginnings of my improvisation had to do with me mimicking what I saw. I was mirroring what I saw and I was interpreting it as a child … watching musicals, actually. Then I started to invent my own versions of what I saw. It was Singing In The Rain. I remember very graphically that I loved the musical so much that I eventually went outside when it was raining, put my umbrella up, and started to dance. And at that point that my mother said, “I need to go and let that child take some dancing classes,” because I was so full with it. That was one early memory of making a decision, playing, being inside a narrative, the repetition, the memory. I was kinesthetically driven with the impulse that ‘I need to do this.’

If you are interested in finding out more about Sheron’s work on improvisation you can contact her by email at Put “Improvisation 2014” in the subject line.


Posted on: May 23rd, 2014 | Posted in: TEDxOC

  • Phoenix

    What a great way to connect art and commerce — two fields that seem at first glance totally unrelated to one another! Ms. Wray’s findings about improvisation, while synthesized from the performing arts, offer useful insights and suggest an effective approach to filling the critical need within the commercial world to remain competitive in this age of globalization. I hope she plans to take this work (through JazzXchange, perhaps?) beyond the classroom — and soon! We need it out here.