One of the most frustrating things as a musician is to be playing improvisational music with others and to hear a line in my head that I just can’t get my fingers to play on the piano or guitar. I know in my mind what needs to be played. I know where the notes are. I can hear the line. But I just can’t get my fingers to move that way in the moment because I haven’t paid the price in my everyday life. In other words my capacity to be spontaneous in the moment (improvising musically) is very tied to the rhythms and routines I follow in my daily life (which may or may not include getting better at playing an instrument).
Last week I brought up the question raised in the new movie Date Night – Does being married doom you to a life or boredom and routine or can a committed relationship still maintain vibrancy and spontaneity as a couple grows old together? My experience with playing music seems to be a helpful analogy for the relationship between routine and improvisation, between monotony and spontaneity.
As a musician, some of the most exhilarating moments I’ve had with other musicians have been times of improvisation where a new song arises, seemingly out of nowhere. In these moments there is something of a collective inspiration and working together that produces a sum that is much greater than the individual parts. I was in a band for several years called Mary’s Den and this was our preferred way of song writing—a very exciting approach to songwriting and music performance. In our six years together, most of our songs came out of such an approach to music, birthed out of improv and spontaneity. I have since read that this is also the way the band U2 approaches their songwriting as well (When U2 goes into the studio they will just start creating a mood with the music until all the elements musical and lyrical finally congeal). While this is no doubt an amazing way to play music and write songs it is not quite as spontaneous as it may appear in the moment. While the creation of the song does have much to do with the inspiration of the moment it is also, more importantly, the result of many years of playing music, writing songs, being a fan of music, not to mention fairly mundane aspects as buying equipment and finding rehearsal space. In other words the song arises out of a journey, a lifestyle, and not in a vacuum.
I think this is very true of relationships as well. Married couples do need to have times that are unstructured and spontaneous, times when the routine is broken, when caution is thrown to the wind but this can only come as the fundamentals of the relationship (love, respect, communication, care etc.) are respected and nurtured. Too often when a relationship gets in trouble, a weekend away is scheduled as an attempt to salvage things. This type of spontaneity doesn’t usually work because it comes after the fundamentals have not been respected for quite a long time and thus the very stuff that would rekindle passion and love is not there in the right amounts. In these situations the spontaneity is hollow and betrays reality. But if spontaneity arises from a lifestyle of care, respect, of working through conflict, of learning how to communicate, then it brings the relationship to a new level in the same way that a band that has paid the price in the not so glamorous aspects of music can create beautiful new songs in the moment.
I’ve heard various relationship experts talk about how making love doesn’t start with foreplay but with doing the dishes and taking out the trash and I believe there is some truth to this. The problem is that this kind of everyday stuff doesn’t seem very sexy. Yet it is the very rhythms and routines of everyday life that have the potential to unleash spontaneity and passion in the moment if we will approach them in a different way.
So the question to wrestle with today is how might you and I structure our everyday lives to value the things that are most important? How might we build a better relational infrastructure that would give rise to beautiful improvisational music in our relationships?