The improvisatory nature of storytelling

By Limor Shiponi

This post starts from Allan’s comment on why storytellers should not practice in front of a mirror where he wrote:

I have a slightly different problem – one of the things that first attracted me to oral storytelling was its supposedly improvisatory nature. I say ‘supposedly’ because I gradually came to realize that a lot of storytellers (including many that I really admire) do an awful lot of work on paper, even down to creating a more or less ‘set’ text.

I hate doing this although I have done it several times, as it’s really the only practical thing to do if you’re working with a group *and* you want to have precise technical cues as well.

I’m also blessed (or cursed, depending on how you look at it) with an excellent oral memory – at least in the context of storytelling. Once I’ve come up with a form of words for something, I can find it very hard to break free of it…this can be quite un-conscious

Thus practicing becomes something of a dilemma, as it’s required in order to really properly learn the story, grow into it (never really finishes, I don’t think) but I don’t want to ‘set’ it too early…

When looking at improvisation concerning storytelling, most people relate to text meaning one of two things:

  • The ability to alter an existing text.
  • The ability to create a text from scratch on the spot.

So here is my first question: if a musician is playing a classical text and considering he cannot change even a single note, could he be improvising?

I’ll give you a hint about my position on this issue – it’s not only about the text. It’s about the ability to be in the state of “active zero” holding two major capabilities – to be approachable enough to be influenced from what’s going on in the moment; to be skillful enough to answer those influences with a decision that will keep the story and event on the right track. In addition I’ll say I don’t allow my students to write down their stories or learn them by heart from a written text. There is a possibility to “own” a story even if you learn it by heart but that takes way more practice than most storytellers would like to hear about…


6 thoughts on “The improvisatory nature of storytelling”

  1. Pingback: Storytelling Business Social Media Marketing PR & Technology Curated Stories June 12, 2011

  2. Limor,

    I simply loved your comment, “state of “active zero” holding two major capabilities – to be approachable enough to be influenced from what’s going on in the moment; to be skillful enough to answer those influences with a decision that will keep the story and event on the right track.” What a joy to read a definition of improvisation that makes complete sense to me. Thank you as always.


  3. It was just a passing thought, didn’t mean to start something…but now you mention it, this is another of those things that seems diagnostic of oral storytelling. Another of those things that once you start to think about it properly is strangely difficult to pin down.

    I agree with you, it’s not just about the text (however you chose to define it), although I’d answer your question about the orchestral player with a definite, resounding ‘no’ – that’s about interpretation, not improvisation. If you have good, attentive players who really listen to each other and the audience, then individual performances of a given work could conceivably differ, one from another, quite substantially, but I’d still argue that’s in the realm of interpretation, not improvisation.
    On a technical level it’s about timing, dynamics, intonation etc. and of course there’s an emotional element as well – perhaps a better word would be ‘expression’, not ‘interpretation’, and there can be great scope for the individual, but ultimately you play the dots. That’s why they’re there. That’s what makes it one tune rather than another.

    To my mind, ‘improvisation’ implies a clear element of spontaneous creativity. In musical terms this is reasonably easy to distinguish – however expressive they are, a classical musician is not improvising. A jazz musician may be, although even there only the really exceptional artists will make something completely new every time.

    I don’t think it’s anywhere near as clear cut when it comes to storytelling, though – at one level, from word to word, gesture to gesture the shared experience of the story is improvised, created moment to moment (that’s always been my goal, at any rate).

    But…at another level, no matter the twists and turns along the way which can and (should) vary immensely from telling to telling, it’s still the same story, there will be some way-markers the journey must always pass through, and the eventual destination will always be within recogniseable difference of the same place….because that’s what makes it that story, rather than another story.

    ‘Structured improvisation’ is the best I’ve ever come up with as a (a less than euphonious phrase, I admit) way of describing it…making it up as you go along, but going along a (more or less familiar, depending on how many times I’ve told it) path.

    As you rightly say, it’s all about holding that ‘zero point’ of balance, although I’d express it slightly differently; you need to be able to see the ground under your next step, the path ahead and the bird’s eye view of the landscape, all at the same time.

    1. Hi Allan,

      Interpretation and expression sound right because eventually it is the same piece, the same story unless you are making-up a piece from scratch in front of an audience. In most cases its interpretation and expression, in some cases its improvisation. Sorry if that ruins you attraction to storytelling…:) naa, I don’t think it will.

      A classical musician could be improvising under certain circumstances; for instance – a cadence in a concerto or sonata, the basso continuo part in baroque music or most of the medieval pieces. In any of those cases what allows the musician to know where he can go or dream new ways is rooted in the long voyage to musicianship. It’s the same in Jazz although seems different. Practicing all those “standards” for years, listening to other musicians, having a dialogue with your instrument, skill and other players – are all the same even if the musician wear different clothes. I’d even go further more to argue that the best improvisation training is very structured otherwise you’re guessing and that doesn’t give much freedom because it puts you in the state of fear.

      When it comes to storytelling it has again to do with the kind of text your working with, just like in music. Some give room to improvisation and in any case – you need to be skilled to do something interesting. I’ve been watching youngsters play role-games for years. When they are young they often choose characters which seemingly have no limits – monsters and such, they want to do something “different”. Yet their game becomes rather dull because a good story is not about accumulation of character skills, spells and powers but what you do with them in front of the events, how your character evolves, what relationships it has. Only when they grow a little older and are willing to engage, do they get into more interesting story textures and allow themselves to really “fly”.

  4. Pingback: Storytelling and improvisation - Limor's Storytelling Agora | Angewandte Improvisation |

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