Improvisation is not a dirty word. As technology speeds up and the timing of everything that we say, produce and broadcast in the digital world hinges on intuitive, split-second decisions, it is not a bad idea to train ourselves and our offspring to improvise in order to succeed. How does improvisation training work for groups of people who do not feel comfortable with the word or the idea of improvising?
Group improvisation training requires a serious structure and a trained facilitator, like a professional yoga teacher, an athletic coach or a music instructor. The facilitator introduces games, musical exercises, thought experiments and movement-based activities to create moments where individuals within the group have a chance to improvise and create new ideas spontaneously. The role of the facilitator is to construct a non-hierarchical and democratic environment by ensuring that individual egos do not interfere with a group's solidarity or creative process. Group improvisation is emotionally fulfilling and transformational when a professional facilitator helps it to succeed, which is a learning process that can take many years of practice "in the field." Group improvisation is agonizing when it falls apart in the hands of an amateur facilitator.
Over the last 11 years, I have worked with a group of dedicated musicians to pioneer a new educational method that is based on improvisation, called the MIMA Method. With the support of institutions like the U.S. State Department and Princeton University, musicians like Gilberto Gil and Prince and scholars like Cornel West and Lawrence Lessig, we collected group improvisation theories, exercises and games from around the world, tested them in over 50 outreach projects in some of the world's most dangerous slums and documented our work through cutting-edge video documentaries, music videos and social media. We distilled our improvisational teaching process into a cycle that includes four basic steps, works for any age group and can translate into any language: inspire, transform, create and celebrate.
At the beginning of 2012, we opened our first improvisation training academy in the heart of Brooklyn, NY where we offer courses in the theory and practice of improvisational music, media and management (i.e. leadership training with a pulse). The MIMA Academy in Brooklyn is structured like a martial arts studio or an "improvisation dojo," where beginners ("members") receive training from advanced facilitators ("envoys"). Over time the members become envoys, like white belts becoming black belts in a Karate system. In order to advance through the system, the members attend weekly improvisation workshops where they learn the secrets of the MIMA Method, improvise as a group without instruments and then perform as musicians in the form of an interactive musical collective. As the group composes spontaneous songs, produces music videos and hosts outreach projects in the local community, the individual members learn more complex principles of improvisation used by professionals in the fields of music, education, media production and group dynamic management. Once the envoys complete the training process and earn their titles, we send them around the world to make an impact in some of the world's neediest communities.
The most important lesson about group improvisation that we teach at the MIMA Academy is that in order to succeed, individuals need to remove their egos from the creative process and find ways to enrich the community-at-large. Improvisation teaches us how to be present so we can communicate more effectively in the split-second moments that matter the most, both online and off-line.