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Art in an instantThe secrets of improvisation

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How does a freestyle rapper rhyme without rehearsal? How does a jazz improviser shape an instant solo? How do improv comedians wing it under pressure? Creativity is one of our most mysterious and fascinating capabilities, and astonishing things happen inside the brains of improvisers as they perform.

In this presentation we explore the science of improvisation, with rapper GoldLink, jazz pianist Jason Moran, and comedy duo Andy Bustillos and Alex Song of Upright Citizens Brigade. We’ll get inside the artists’ heads to see how their quick creative process allows them to step into the spotlight — without knowing what’s coming next.

How does a freestyle rapper rhyme without rehearsal? How does a jazz improviser shape an instant solo? How do improv comedians wing it under pressure? Creativity is one of our most mysterious and fascinating capabilities, and astonishing things happen inside the brains of improvisers as they perform.

In this presentation we explore the science of improvisation, with rapper GoldLink, jazz pianist Jason Moran, and comedy duo Andy Bustillos and Alex Song of Upright Citizens Brigade. We’ll get inside the artists’ minds to see how their quick creative process allows them to step into the spotlight — without knowing what’s coming next.

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What if you could silence your inner critic, that voice in your head that says “no” instead of “yes”? Improvisers can do this, and that’s one of the keys to their creativity.

We asked a rapper, a jazz pianist and a comedy duo to improvise for this story. All the performances you see were made up entirely on the spot.

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A new beat is a clean slate

How freestyle rappers let loose

These artists improvise lyrics and play around with rhythms, rhymes and storytelling. It’s an especially challenging form of creativity, mixing music and language. Rapid wordplay springs from a stream of consciousness, unleashed by a state of mental looseness.

GoldLink, a Grammy-nominated rapper, doesn’t often freestyle, but he was willing to give it a try to tell us about his process.

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GoldLink: You wouldn’t paint on a canvas that already has a painting that already started. Because it kind of limits you to what is already there. So it’s like when you have a new beat, it’s like a clean slate, it’s like a blank canvas.

[Rapping]: Nikes on my feet make my sight feel complete

I really, really, really like this Tom Misch beat

[In interview]: I try to start with a sentence or a word and then expand on the word. It’s almost like a meter, it’s like, “Five, four, three, two, one” and you’re like, “Uh, and a car!” and say something else. So I just try to start with a word and build upon the word.

[Rapping]: I’m so cool, they call me smooth. I’m real rude

I don’t understand what’s going on with me

I just want to get some money out of my dungarees

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Dropping into the subconscious

While other forms of creation — such as writing a novel or composing a symphony — can demand deep concentration, improvisation is a process of letting go. Musicians and other improvisers talk about stepping into an alternate reality, or entering a trance-like state, beyond thought. Distractions fall away; doubts disappear. Time seems to vanish.

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GoldLink [rapping]: I’m the man, I’m the man, thought I told you that

I’m just trying to get some money out my quarter sack

[In interview]: It’s almost like you’re grabbing from a subconscious place, because you think — it’s like, what am I talking about? You can just talk about how you feel. You can talk about the mood. You probably say things you never thought you’d say.

[Rapping]: I had so much fun I didn’t want to come home

Now I’m back home I just want to go somewhere else

Somewhere else that’s just better

I don’t understand why I don’t have to wear a sweater

[In interview]: Nothing is stupid. You’re like I might try this and it might work and this might sound cool and everybody might like it. Then as well as like it might not, but you still would like be brave enough to try it.

[Rapping]: I just rolled around a beeper on its beep beep.

Um, this is really — this is really hard. [Laughs] Yeah. It’s fun though.

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Giving up control

Freestyle rappers release themselves from mental constraints, so that self-editing doesn’t impede the flow of words. How is this possible? Neuroscientist Charles Limb and others have scanned rappers’ brains during a freestyle rap and during a memorized rap. The studies show that during freestyling, there’s a functional change in their neural networks. Through practice, the rappers have reorganized their brain activity, allowing their improvised lyrics to bypass many of the conscious-control portions of the brain, which regulate behavior.

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Silencing the inner critic

Jazz improvisers let inspiration take charge

Jazz musicians riff off the chord structure and melody of a familiar tune to make up a new solo on the spot. Brain studies suggest that, as with freestyle rap, this thought process is different from the ordinary. It liberates musicians from inhibitions, letting them play around with new images and combinations.

Pianist Jason Moran, the jazz director of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, is a frequent improviser who draws inspiration from sources as varied as Thelonious Monk, TV stock market reports and composer Maurice Ravel, the catalyst for the solo you’ll hear in a moment.

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Jason Moran: I haven’t been able to find any other feeling in the world that comes close to like how my heart kind of pumps when that moment arrives.

[Piano playing]

[In interview]: In the moment, I couldn’t even say what was, what is happening. I recall playing an F sharp and using the kind of, the repetition of the note and then changing the octave and having it generate again and seeing then what it would make.

[Piano playing]

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The science

Limb, of the University of California at San Francisco, studied the brains of jazz pianists by having them lie down inside an fMRI machine while playing a custom-designed keyboard. The fMRI produces brain scans that show changes in blood flow to different areas, illuminating which parts are more active than others during a given task.

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The results of Charles Limb’s study showed that brain activity is organized differently while improvising. This happens mostly in the brain’s frontal lobes, which are essential regions for consciousness.

Here, in the prefrontal cortex, improvising fires up the self-expression areas and essentially turns off the self-monitoring areas, which judge and correct our behavior. These regions are also thought to be involved in focused attention and problem solving.

According to Limb’s study, this mental state may allow a looser, de-focused type of attention, sparking free associations and sudden insights.

[Piano playing]

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‘Yes, and …’

Improv comedians accept everything. Everything.

Improvised performance has been around since the days of commedia dell’arte. But like freestyle rap and jazz, improv comedy as we know it is an American art, invented in the mid-20th century from children’s games for building confidence and spontaneity.

Psychologists have studied improv techniques for what they can teach us about creativity and collaboration in everyday life. Limb is looking at improv comedians’ brains to find out if the changes he has seen in rap and jazz artists are universal across genres. He doesn’t yet have results, but he’s intrigued by the way comedians train their brains. “No matter how outlandish the idea your partner comes up with, you keep affirming it,” Limb says, “and that takes you into unexamined territories that are wildly creative.”

While in front of a live audience and under pressure to deliver, comedians draw on their training to focus on listening, openness and persistence.

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Listening

Listening

Improv comedians know that creativity is an act of will and requires training. As Andy Bustillos and Alex Song of Upright Citizens Brigade show us, improvisers try to liberate their partner’s imagination by accepting every idea that’s offered. This can make them both seem fantastically attuned, even telepathic. It stems from careful listening and encouragement.

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Alex Song: Okay, what you’re about to see is a fully improvised scene. It’s never been done before and will never be done again. All we need to get started is a suggestion of anything at all.

Reporter [off-camera]: Hamburglar.

Song: Hamburglar! Thank you.

Song [in interview]: The goal is to really put all your focus on your partner. And the rest, like all the rules of improv just come naturally.

Song [in skit]: Yeah, Greg, you always go wild.

Andy Bustillos: [Laughing] Yeah, you want to hear the story?

Song: Okay, yeah, Greg, I’ll hear the story today.

Bustillos: Alright!

Bustillos [in interview]: The big thing is “Yes, and,” right? So whatever gets sort of said, you agree with and then add information to it. That’s the easiest way to sort of build a world that we can all agree on.

Song [in skit]: I just, really, I need you not to get the blood on the burgers.

Bustillos: [Laughing] Yeah, okay I’ll try. Yeah.

You know me, I’m hardcore.

Song: Okay. I just, I j—

Bustillos: Watch this. [Screams loudly]

Song: Ahhhhhhhh!

Bustillos: Ooh! Tell people. Tell people I’m cool.

Song: We can‘t use that patty!

Bustillos: I won’t. That’s fine.

Song: Okay.

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Openness and trust

Openness and trust

Once they know that all ideas will be accepted without judgment, improv comedians can play together without inhibitions. Their sketch becomes a back-and-forth game, and the audience gets swept up in watching people work so easily together, with enthusiasm and joy.

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Song [in skit]: Look, you’re my brother and I have to employ you, but ...

Bustillos: [Laughing] Yeah, thank you.

Song: I’m — no! I’ve got gloves on. I’m not going to high-five your burned hand.

Bustillos: [Cackles]

Song: You are fast, though. I’ll give you that.

Bustillos: Thanks, I’m a good worker!

Song: I’ll give you that.

Bustillos: I‘m insane but I’m a damn good worker.

Bustillos [in interview]: I can’t be saying something while thinking of what to say after that because the next thing she says, I can’t predict.

Song: It‘s like improv isn‘t chess, it’s a game of ping-pong.

Song [in skit]: Hey, did you call mom last night? It was her birthday.

Bustillos: I did. I called her and went, “I’m dead!” And then I hung up! I’m wild, man!

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Persistence and commitment

Persistence and commitment

If they feel they’ve stunk up the stage, improvisers know it’s important to do another show right away. One way to keep the creative juices flowing is what former improv comedian Stephen Colbert picked up from his Second City director: “Learn to love the bomb.” Embrace failure, because it’s going to happen. Then dive in again.

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Bustillos [in skit]: Remember that one time they let me do it, and I called the fire alarm?

Song: Mmhmm.

Bustillos: I did it with my mouth.

Song: Yeah.

Bustillos: I didn’t even pull it, I just went, “Ahhhh, fire!”

Song [in interview]: I feel like I’m way less precious about ideas, and I’m a lot more willing to scrap something and start over. Improv teaches you there’s always more ideas.

Reporter [off-camera]: And scene!

[Laughter]

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Cultivating creativity

Science has not fully mapped the neural network of creativity — that’s years, maybe decades, away. But brain studies suggest that creativity is a basic human function. It’s part of our biology, available to all of us. As improv artists show us, creativity can be cultivated by practice, which strengthens the neural pathways that lead to new possibilities.

Improvisation is a complex art, but it can also be a philosophy. It’s about opening up, loosening mental controls and saying “yes” instead of “no” to create something meaningful. This kind of creativity can be a powerful force. It’s strong enough to shape the brain, to engage the brains of others — and to build a world of surprises.

Credits

Reporting and writing

Sarah L. Kaufman

Video production and editing

Jayne Orenstein

Motion graphics

Sarah Hashemi

Photo editing

May-Ying Lam

Photography

Tim Coburn (Jason Moran) and Marvin Joseph (GoldLink, UCB)

Design and production

Shelly Tan and Elizabeth Hart

Editing

Alexa McMahon, Mitch Rubin, Suzette Moyer and Kaeti Hinck

Copy editing

Jim Webster and Jay Wang

Videography

Daniel Mich, Breanna Muir, Adriana Usero and Victoria Walker

Music

Original composition by Jason Moran; Roy Beat by Tom Misch

Additional photos and footage

Courtesy of Charles Limb, neuroscientist, surgeon and professor of otolaryngology at University of California at San Francisco

Special thanks

Project filmed on location at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue, the Kennedy Center and Studio Theatre

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