Lehigh University
Lehigh University
President Alice P. Gast

Speeches & Writings

Commencement Address: Principles of Improvisation

May 20, 2013
Alice P. Gast

Congratulations Graduates of 2013.

It is joy to be with you, and your families, professors and friends on this special day.

We are graced with the presence of distinguished honorees: Bill Nye, Millie Dresselhaus, Jim Carroll and Jim Tanenbaum, and we thank them for joining us for this important ceremony.

Exactly forty-five months ago, on August 20, 2009, you moved into Lehigh. I am sure you remember the excitement you felt and your anticipation of what was to come.

A lot has happened since then. Today is a time for you to look back on your years at Lehigh. To think about all that you have accomplished. And to look forward with excitement and anticipation to what comes next.

You leave here with new knowledge, new friends, new experiences, and new opportunities.

I know that you will make the most of those opportunities. I know that you will each find your own way to make a difference in the world.

Each of you has hopes, plans and dreams for the future. And these will guide and sustain you as you set out on your path. But you know that even the best of plans and the most realistic of hopes and dreams do not always work out as expected. You will need to deal with the unexpected, the unanticipated and the unwanted.

You will need to improvise.

The word improvise comes from the French, improviser, originally from Latin, meaning, unforeseen. It means to make, invent, or arrange offhand. To make the best of what is at hand.

It’s an ability that is often associated with music, the theater and comedy.

But the ability to improvise is also important to success in life.

I think that improvisation is founded on three principles.

First, effective improvisation is founded on knowledge and experience.

I’ll start with an example from jazz. It’s a story I like about Wynton Marsalis that David Hajdu wrote about in an article called “Wynton’s Blues” in The Atlantic Monthly.

One night in 2001, Wynton was playing the ballad “I Don’t Stand a Ghost of a Chance with You” at the Village Vanguard. Hajdu was there and wrote:

… When he reached the climax, Marsalis played the final phrase, the title statement, in declarative tones, allowing each successive note to linger in the air a bit longer. “I don’t stand…a ghost…of… a…chance…” The room was silent until, at the most dramatic point, someone’s cell phone went off, blaring a rapid singsong melody in electronic bleeps.

People started giggling and picking up their drinks. The moment—the whole performance—unraveled. Marsalis paused for a beat, motionless, and his eyebrows arched. I scrawled on a sheet of notepaper, MAGIC, RUINED. The cell-phone offender scooted into the hall as the chatter in the room grew louder. Still frozen at the microphone, Marsalis replayed the silly cell-phone melody note for note. Then he repeated it, and began improvising variations on the tune. The audience slowly came back to him. In a few minutes he resolved the improvisation—which had changed keys once or twice and throttled down to a ballad tempo—and ended up exactly where he had left off: “with… you…” The ovation was tremendous.

Wynton Marsalis’s ability to improvise brought back the magic that night. He was able to do that because of his musical training. He knew how the music was put together, he was experienced in picking up a tune. And he relied on that knowledge and experience to improvise.

As Lehigh students, you’ve been encouraged to improvise, to innovate, to invent. Your education here at Lehigh has given you knowledge, confidence and experience that you can draw upon when you need to change direction, or deal with an obstacle in life.

A few years ago, a group of Lehigh students had their IPD project fall apart. That setback became an opportunity to look for a new project. They found that there was a need to improve the way emergency responders perform tracheostomies. They researched and studied the surgical procedure, the market for EMT kits and the best way to meet the need. This improvised project became a successful startup company providing medical solutions, Life Serve Innovations, funded by the Cleveland Clinic.

And this summer, students will be working on pilot projects in our newly acquired Mountaintop Building C. One of these pilots will focus on technology for developing countries. These include buildings made from unusual materials such as two-liter plastic bottles filled with sand; water purification systems, and clean burning stoves and solar ovens. Those students will learn to improvise solutions from the materials at hand. And they will need to think creatively about new ways of solving problems.

The second principle is that improvisation involves dealing with uncertainty, taking risks and not being afraid of failure.

As Lee Iacocca, class of 1945 said:

So what do we do? Anything. Something. So long as we just don't sit there. If we screw it up, start over. Try something else. If we wait until we've satisfied all the uncertainties, it may be too late.

In 2010, Lehigh alum, Bill Maloney didn’t just sit there when he saw the news about the Chilean mine disaster. He knew that the trapped miners could not be left down there as long as the experts were predicting. Working with others, he used his knowledge and experience in drilling to help develop the approach that resulted in the rescue of the 33 miners. He was not sure whether his approach would succeed. But he knew he had to try.

Dick Berg went to Hollywood after graduating from Lehigh in 1942. He wanted to be an actor, a producer, a writer. He wanted to be part of the magic of Hollywood. But the only work he could find was as a dialogue coach for movie cowboys. Unsuccessful, he moved to Westport, Connecticut where he ran an art gallery and a store that sold art supplies.

Connecticut is a long way from Hollywood. And running an art gallery and selling art supplies is far removed from the glamour of movies. But Dick Berg didn’t give up. What he had available was his ability to write and the growth of live television. So he took a risk and wrote scripts on speculation. More than a dozen of his dramas made their way to television. And in 1957, 15 years after he had first gone to Hollywood, he got a call to return as a screenwriter. He became a pioneer in creating historical mini-series.

Dick Berg didn’t give up. He dealt with uncertainty, took risks and was not afraid of failure. He improvised. He succeeded.

Examples of improvisation closer to home illustrate a third principle, the importance of being adaptable.

You found interesting ways to improvise when the power went out during both Snowpocalypse and Frankenstorm.

One of the many attributes that a basketball guard needs is the ability to improvise. They must react to the situation at hand. They need to deal with different defenses and matchups. They must stay calm in the pressure of the moment.

C.J. McCollum is a leader, a team captain and your classmate. And since his freshman year he has been one of the most elite players in college basketball.

C. J.’s dream is to play in the NBA and then go into sports broadcasting. While he could have entered the NBA draft after his junior year, he chose to finish his education at Lehigh.

Here’s what he said in an article that he wrote about his decision:

By returning for my senior year, I give myself a chance to complete my degree at a prestigious university, while putting myself in a position to be successful no matter what happens in my future.

We know that C. J. made the right decision. C. J. did not let his injury last January alter his dream. He focused on his rehabilitation, his classwork and in supporting his team. He became a leader from the sidelines. And he learned from that experience.

C.J.’s rehab went very well. He’s ready. He is smart, versatile, he is a “do it all guard” and we know that he will, indeed, “do it all” in the NBA. Today, as he receives his degree in Journalism we are all very proud of him.

Graduates, you leave Lehigh ready to improvise.

You have the knowledge and experience, you can deal with uncertainty and you are willing to take risks. Be adaptable and flexible when the unexpected happens. Be willing to change direction. Be willing, and able, to improvise. And you will succeed.

I wish you a life of happiness and fulfillment.