Problem solving

Life’s music lesson #4 – Improvisation

Written by Don Jones

Photo licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

In 1975, pianist Keith Jarrett was to perform at the Opera House in Cologne (German – Köln), Germany. When Jarrett arrived at the concert hall, he found that the piano he was to play was horribly out of tune, had keys that stuck and wouldn’t work, and the upper registry keys all sounded tinny and harsh. On top of that, the piano was too small to produce enough volume to fill the concert hall.

Jarrett was in a back brace, had driven from Switzerland, and understandably was not inclined to play on the substandard piano. The organizer of the concert (a seventeen year old concert promoter named Brandes) frantically called around but could not find an adequate substitute. She did the best she could to tune the piano and place it in the best acoustical location on the stage and Jarrett agreed to go ahead with the concert. Because of the time to get the piano in somewhat acceptable condition, the concert didn’t start until 11:30 p.m.

When it came concert time, Jarrett walked onstage, stood up through most of the concert to ease his back pain and to be able to play hard and loud, played only in the middle range of the keyboard, and avoided the keys that didn’t work. It should have been a disaster, and yet it has become widely noted as Jarrett’s best work. The double album recording of that concert (The Köln Concert) went on to become the best-selling solo album in jazz history, and the best selling piano album of any genre.

But here’s the amazing part – Jarrett does not play pre-written, composed pieces. He improvises.

Now, I’ve had the wheels come off my semi going 70 mph and things did not seem very hopeful. We’ve all had that happen in our professional and personal lives more than once. Maybe not to the extent that Jarrett faced, but enough to be discouraging. Like Jarrett, sometimes we just have to improvise.

I don’t know about you, but I could never improvise a piano concert that anyone would sit through for more than one or two minutes without throwing dangerous projectiles at the stage, but that’s because I have not developed the skills and learned the rules behind the art of improvisation on a piano. In music, there are certain structures and rules you can use to guide your improvisation – the key you’re playing in, harmonic rules, scales, etc. And, of course, you must be adequately proficient in the skills required to play your instrument.

Improvising in our profession and in our personal lives also requires learning and practicing certain rules, structure, and techniques. We learn those skills over time and rely on them probably more than we know. We must react appropriately to the context in which we find ourselves (similar to the key of a musical improvisation), the basic rules (what can and cannot be done in that context), and the appropriate skills and techniques we have learned over time (knowledge of the pertinent law; conversational skills; emotional intelligence; creativity).

The next time the wheels come off your truck (metaphorically speaking I hope), here are some things to remember:

  1. Keep calm
  • Stop and take a slow deep breath
  • Acknowledge the panic
  • Remember that they can’t eat you and can’t take away your birthday
  1. Know what key you’re playing in
  • What’s the context? (Meeting with a client? In court? In a conversation with a loved one?)
  1. Acknowledge the positives
  • Look for the opportunities to be creative
  1. Use the appropriate toolbox of skills
  • Hopefully, you have skills for the courtroom that are dramatically different than the skills you have for personal relationships
  1. Use your knowledge of harmonics and scales
  • Don’t lie
  • Don’t promise more than you can deliver
  • Be willing to admit your shortcomings as needed (Sometimes the hardest sentence for a lawyer to say is “I don’t know”)


(By the way, if you haven’t heard Keith Jarrett’s Köln Concert I’d recommend you check it out. It’s a beautiful piece of work made more inspiring by knowing the background.)

About the author

Don Jones

Don Jones has been licensed to practice law in Texas for longer than seems possible – 35 years – though he hasn’t practiced law that entire stretch. He went on a hiatus from the practice to tour as a musician and later to serve as a licensed chemical dependency counselor in a number of treatment centers. He has been with the State Bar of Texas for the past 25 years, first serving as director of the Texas Lawyers Assistant Program and later serving in the Legal Counsel’s office and as a trainer in the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator curriculum. He’s been married for 27 years and has four great kids – one 22 year old and 20 year old triplets.

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