Discipleship is Like Jazz

Here is something that I’ve been learning from Pastor Daniel Montgomery and management professor/jazz musician Frank J. Barrett: Leadership–particularly discipleship–is like learning to play jazz.

You begin with basic instruction, but the goal is improvisation.

“The popular misconception is that jazz players are untutored geniuses who play their instruments as if they are picking notes out of thin air. But studies of jazz have shown that the art is very complex—the result of a relentless pursuit of learning and disciplined imagination. It’s that relentless pursuit and disciplined imagination, not simple genius, that allow jazz players to improvise—from the Latin improvisus, meaning ‘not seen ahead of time’—and it’s the improvisation that has become the defining hallmark of the art from.” —Frank J. Barrett, Yes to the Mess, (Harvard Business Review Press, 2012), p. 7.

In a recent sermon, pastor Daniel broke this down into three basic steps:

1. Instructionlearning the basics. It’s like learning piano scales. Barret says it is “hearing patterns, watching gestures, and repeating and imitating. Jazz players build a vocabulary of phrases and patterns by imitating, repeating, and memorizing the solos and phrases of the masters until they become part of their repertoire of ‘licks’” (7). Great instruction affects knowing, being, and doing. It leads to an ingrained skill or a deeply held conviction.

2. Integration—growing in experience and then making connections that weren’t there before. “After years of practicing and absorbing patterns, musicians recognize what phrases fit within different forms and the various options available within the constraints of different chords and songs. They study other players thought and processes and learn to export materials from different contexts and vantage points, combining, extending, and varying the material, adding and changing notes, varying accents, and subtly shifting the contour of a memorized phrase.” (7-8).  In discipleship, integration involves connecting what you’ve learned with your personal experience and thinking about the possibilities. It’s like playing a song that you already know but playing it in a new arrangement or playing it for the first time with a friend.

3. Improvisation—creating and finding my own way by putting newly imagined ideas into practice. It’s like jamming with a jazz band and creating a new rift on the fly. “The goal of improvisation is to be mindful and creative, making up ideas on the spot that respond to what’s happening in the moment” (7). The disciple who can improvise is able to apply his worldview on the fly to a new ethical dilemma or a new relational challenge.

I don't know about you, but I don't just want disciples who can repeat the catechism. Disciplined instruction is necessary. But working it out on the fly is the goal!