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The Year I Stopped Looking For a Script and Learned How to Improvise

Learning to improvise can be tough when the road to success seems like one big script.


I have always wanted to play jazz. I found the rhythms difficult to master, and the unscripted improvisations made me uncomfortable. As a flute player, I kept firmly to classically scripted scores through my collegiate years. The most improvised thing that I did was switch to playing the sousaphone in college marching band. While it was challenging and different, I still played off of a scripted and memorized sheet of music. During one brief, brilliant moment living in Morocco, I played with a big band jazz pickup group—a virtual United Nations of musicians from all over the world. But even then, I must be honest, I hid my meek flute sound, afraid of being heard making mistakes.

I recently conducted a retrospective on my career to give a presentation for colleagues new to public service. When I looked back from college, through graduate school, to a career in public service and international relations, I have constantly looked for that compelling scripted score to follow.

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