The core concept of the approach to improvisation which I’m describing in these pages is to improvise the scene as if it already exists in its perfect form. The usefulness of this metaphor is that it gets you away from the dilemma of feeling that you are making “choices” as you perform. Improvising by making choices can cause crippling anxiety, since you are never sure you made the best choice. If you attempt to solve this problem by deciding that it doesn’t matter what choice you make, this has the effect of making the scene feel less important to you. Finally, the “choice making” part of your mind is your intellect, which is much too slow and clumsy to produce brilliant performances. Good technique consists of learning how to work from your intuition, not your ideas.

The importance of thinking that the scene is already in its “perfect form” is to remind you that there is nothing wrong with the material that appears in the scene, and you don’t need to try to change it. You only need to make yourself more and more open, so that the scene’s ideal form can speak through you.

I usually teach performers this technique through a series of exercises, which make it clear how to use this metaphor. (There are many possible variations on the exercises.)

A good beginning exercise is to do a movement improvisation which uses a piece of recorded music as its source. The idea is that you will use your body, your movement (or stillness), to feel every moment of the recorded music as a physical sensation. If the music has different instrumental parts (as in orchestral music), just try to feel the totality of the musical sensation at each moment, as a complex whole with many parts, rather than trying to listen to each individual instrument. Note that you are not “dancing” to the music, or trying to “represent” or “show” the sounds with your body, you are simply trying to experience the whole feeling of the music, with its rhythm, melody, harmony and emotional tone, as a physical sensation with your whole body. You are using your body as a sense organ. As the improv goes on, you can keep trying to open yourself up to it so that you feel it with your body more and more fully.

In this case it is literally true that the music “already exists,” since it is a recording. The exercise allows you to practice the sensation that rather than making choices during the scene, you are opening yourself up to experience a scene which already exists in its perfect form.

A variation of this exercise that can be done with a group:

One person stands in the center and does a movement improvisation. (They can actually do any kind of movement they want in their improv; the intent of the exercise is to train the other people, not the person in the center.) Everyone else stands in a circle around the mover and does a vocal improvisation, using the mover’s movements as a source. They can all work at the same time, but it is not a group improvisation; each person is doing their own improv. Similarly to the first exercise, the goal is to feel the mover’s movements by using your voice (and silence). You use your voice as a sense organ, to experience the total rhythm and emotional tone of the movement as a physical experience with your voice. You can continue to open yourself up more and more, to feel the movement more and more fully. Again, it is literally true that the piece “already exists,” since it all comes from the movements that someone else is performing. This helps you to practice the idea that the piece is something you discover, rather than something you create.

The next step would be to do an improvisation, whether vocal or movement, in which you use the image that the piece you are about to perform already exists in its perfect form as part of your preparation. In the case of a voice improvisation, you can use this preparation:

“The piece I’m about to perform already exists in its perfect form. My job is to feel and experience every moment of the piece by using my vocal line: my voice and silence. Throughout the piece, I will open myself up more and more, to feel the flow of the piece more and more fully.”

Here’s an explanation of some of the concepts used in this preparation:

When I say “the piece already exists,” it is understood that the piece consists of the inner experience of the piece, the flow of feelings and musicality the audience and I feel during the piece, and not the particular sounds which happen to come out of my mouth as I perform. I can think of the sounds I am making as a kind of by-product or residue of the performance process, rather than being the piece itself.

As in the first exercises, my vocal sounds do not have to “perform” the piece, “show” the piece, “demonstrate” the piece, or make the audience know anything about the piece. I am simply using my voice as a sense organ, as a way of personally experiencing the flow of the piece as a physical and emotional experience. I assume that the more fully I physically feel the piece with my breath and my voice, the more fully will my voice reflect the essence of the piece to the audience.

It is important to remember that I will find out what the piece is like by living through each moment of it with my voice. Although I am using the idea that the piece “already exists,” that doesn’t change the fact that when I first begin the scene, I hardly know anything about what the piece will turn out to be like. I will find out, by vocally sensing it, moment by moment.

I use a rather strange metaphorical image to illustrate this point: imagine that you are in a theme park, and there is a special ride called the Tunnel of Textures. In this ride, you float through a pitch black tunnel on a boat, and you can reach your hands out and discover, by touch, a succession of interesting textures: cold water, fluffy cotton, rough sandpaper. When you begin the ride, you don’t know what the sequence of textures will be, but you simply reach out your hands and discover what they are through touch.

Similarly, when you begin your vocal improvisation, you don’t know what the “already existing” scene will be like. But you “reach” your voice out into the space and discover, moment by moment, what the moods and textures of the piece are, by “feeling” it with your voice. The further you go into the piece, the more you discover about it. You can use your voice with the same active sense of “reaching out to discover” that you would use your hands. You don’t have to be inhibited at the start of the scene by the idea that a piece which you know nothing about already exists in its perfect form, you merely have to reach your voice out into the space, and start discovering, by feel, what the piece is like.

Generally speaking, I use this image that “the piece already exists in its perfect form” for each and every improvisation I perform. If I am in rehearsal, and something causes me to have to stop in the middle and begin the scene again, I assume that each time I begin again, it is a new and different perfect piece which I am going to discover.

Knowing that the piece I am performing already exists in its perfect form frees me from worrying about thinking up ideas and making choices. It clarifies for me that my job is to make myself more and more sensitive, more and more open, so that I can reveal the perfect piece that is meant to be performed on this occasion. It shows me that there is nothing wrong with the material that is emerging in the scene, nothing which I need to alter. The only thing that I need to improve is myself, to make myself more and more sensitive to the flow of the piece, so that its perfect form can be revealed to the audience. When I am performing a duet or a group scene, it clarifies for me that the source of the scene is not something in my own mind, but rather that the perfect scene is something that all of the performers in the piece are collectively sensing and discovering. As an improviser, my job is not to invent or explain or show, but to listen and discover.