Most improvisors have a sense that “having confidence” is necessary for a scene to go well, and that they can be thrown off by lacking confidence. But what exactly is this confidence? A misunderstanding of the idea of confidence can lead to subtle difficulties in your work.

Because I make my living as a musician, a lot of my knowledge about improvisation is drawn from my experience playing the piano. When you are playing a particularly fast of complex passage of music, it becomes very obvious that you need confidence. Your hands are flying all over the keyboard, trying to accurately hit keys at a rate much faster than your conscious mind can comprehend. If you are confident about your ability to hit the right keys, this feeling of confidence itself, manifested physically, will increase your accuracy. If you feel unsure and hesitant, the physical manifestation of your insecurity will likewise ensure that you will miss many more notes.

A common error is to think of confidence as a kind of “blind faith,” which is actually a manifestation of an enormous lack of confidence. In other words, you think to yourself “I have no belief that I can consciously make myself hit the right notes, so I’m going to fling my hand somewhere in the vicinity of the notes, and just believe on faith that it will hit the right ones.” What you’re actually doing in this case is deliberately shutting down the channel of information which your hand is receiving from your eye and your brain. As might be expected, it makes your accuracy worse rather than better.

Real confidence is simply the intellectual understanding that if you keep the channels wide open between your eye, your brain, and your hand, you will play the notes with perfect accuracy, even at tremendous speeds. Your hand will be accurate because it will be as well-informed as possible. This makes your job as a musician much easier: all you have to do is keep your attention “inside” of every note of the music, and keep the channels (all of your senses) wide open. Accomplish these two things, and you will play the piece perfectly.

The same thing applies to improvised theater. You must bring yourself to understand intellectually that if you simply “live” inside each moment of the scene, and keep all of the channels (that is, all of your physical awareness and your senses) open, you will “nail” each line and each beat of the scene perfectly.

By keeping the channels open, you will feel confident, because you will have the security of knowing that you can physically feel your connection to the sources of the scene, which are supplying you with everything you need to build your performance. Physically, the muscular experience of “confidence” is the sensation you feel when you know you won’t fall down because you can feel the support of the floor. When you keep the channels open, you will experience a similar muscular sensation of confidence, which will carry you through the scene, feeling secure because you can physically feel that the energy of the scene is feeding you everything you need.

Note that this knowledge is not particularly something to use directly in the scene, or in creating a mental “preparation” to use before starting the scene. If you prepare by saying to yourself “I will be confident in the scene” or even “I will keep the channels open” it won’t be of much help to you.

Rather, say to yourself “I will fully experience every moment of the scene.” Then, in order to do so, you will have to keep the channels open as much as possible at all times, and thus you will be making yourself feel confident.

In other words, confidence is a result of good technique more than the cause of it.