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The Power of Improvisation: Students of the Arts

07/05/2012 10:07 am ET | Updated Sep 04, 2012

Given the incredibly versatile skill set with which students in the arts are endowed, it seems odd that in the popular imagination, majors in the arts are seen as dead-ends. How many times have pundits laughed about students majoring in art or music or (heaven forbid) theater not having a chance in the world of securing a job upon graduation?

I've always found this odd, given the unique aptitude that graduates in the arts possess: the ability to improvise.

Shakespeare had a love/hate relationship with his scripts. Scholars believe that Shakespeare used improvisation to polish his plays, since different sources give slightly different texts for many of his plays. Yet in Hamlet, he also wrote the famous line: "Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounc'd it to you, trippingly on the tongue."

Certainly, modern authors fully intend for the words that they have written to be delivered exactly as they appear on the page. For actors, this is simply a fact of life. Memorizing lines is an absolute job requirement. But life is imperfect. Even the best actor will occasionally flub a line, forget an entire passage, or in other words make a mistake. The other actors must then improvise, cope with the situation and somehow move on to the next line or scene, without leaving out needed plot points for the audience. This capacity is an essential one for actors, but at the same time essential for employees in business and industry. There, it's called "thinking on your feet."

For musicians of all types, from classical through pop, improvisation is an important discipline. Taking a theme and manipulating it is one of the central features of music. Entire genres of music, most notably jazz, are built around live improvisation. Again, even playing from a score, accidents happen. A musician's ability to recover from an accident, to keep on playing or singing seamlessly, is a talent that is absolutely essential. In the workplace, being able to recover from any incident and still be successful is a highly prized skill.

Painters, sculptors and ceramists all convert information into visual and tactile artifacts. They interpret emotions and sensory data into physical representations. In their way, these artists also improvise: They deal with the reality which confronts them, in order to bring the work of art into being. A sculptor in stone or wood must deal with imperfections in the medium. Potters must accommodate the clay with which they work. Painters must manipulate the oil paints, watercolors and surface upon which they create. Each of these makes hundreds of moment-to-moment decisions about how best to bring the project to a successful conclusion. That shows precisely the dedication and decision-making wherewithal which most employers seek in employees and colleagues.

Students in the arts first must learn the rules of their discipline and then learn how to break those rules to create something new and original. Their creativity is stimulated and enhanced at the same time that they learn how to deal with uncertainty. This is all highly prized experience in the workplace.

Now, this is not to say that students of science, dealing with uncertainty in the lab, or social scientists confronting the vagaries of human behavior are not also equipped to deal with change and ambiguity, because they are. But unique among the liberal arts and sciences, students in the arts are specifically trained to deal with failure, or more precisely how to avoid failure: to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

I am a great believer in the power of improvisation -- and I am not alone. Many employers specifically seek graduates with tremendous creative skills and the capacity to cope in an atmosphere of rapid change. That's why I believe that students in the arts will be laughing all the way to the bank, which -- who knows -- they just might own.

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