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Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art Paperback – May 1, 1991

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Editorial Reviews


"Stephen Nachmanovitch has produced a celebration of human uniqueness. What it amounts to is a guide for gettingthe most out of whatever is possible"
Norman Cousins, author of The Anatomy of an Illness

"This is an unusually intense, packed, thought-through book on the most difficult subject in the world: mystic creativity. If you wantto be intellectually informed about how people actually craete things, then you should read it at least once."
Robert Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

"Would that Free Play found its way into every school, office, hospital, and factory. It is a most exciting book and a most important one."
Yehudi Menuhin, violinist

"Nachmanovitch tells it like it is in the most important book on improvisation I've yet seen."
Keith Jarrett, pianist

"Free Play is a superb guide for anyone who aspires to create, whatever medium."
—New Woman

"This book is important not only because it delves into the creative process, but also because Nachmanovitch creates the opportunity for the reader to get in touch with her/his own creative possibilities and abilities."
—Harvard Educational Review

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: G.P. Putnam's Sons; Reprint edition (May 1, 1991)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0874776317
  • ISBN-13: 978-0874776317
  • Product Dimensions: 5 x 0.6 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 6.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (85 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #51,002 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Stephen Nachmanovitch performs and teaches internationally as an improvisational violinist, and at the intersections of music, dance, theater, and multimedia arts. He has presented master classes and workshops in improvisation at Juilliard, the Yehudi Menuhin School, many conservatories and universities. Born in 1950, he studied at Harvard and the University of California, where he earned a Ph.D. in the History of Consciousness. He has lectured and published in many fields since 1966, and is the author of Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art (Penguin, 1990). He has created computer software including The World Music Menu and Visual Music Tone Painter. He performs on violin, viola, electric violin, and viola d'amore. Recent albums include Impermanence, Electric and Acoustic Improvisations, and Ludi Fecundus and Saraswati Steps Up To Bat.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

121 of 124 people found the following review helpful By james denson on August 2, 2001
Format: Paperback
Reading Free Play is a journey; and as such, it is not an easy one. That is its most enduring reward. When a good friend gave me the book to read in 1993, I doubted what I could possibly gain from it, since I considered myself hopelessly awkward compared to her. Through such a toxic prism, I couldn't make any sense of the book, much less embrace it. It read like one big abstraction, with no relevance to me or my life. After a month of fitful starts and stops, I returned the book to my friend in frustration.
Something about it, though, made me buy my own copy in 1998. I started taking voice lessons for singing early last year, and am preparing for a major performance next week. Two weeks ago, I decided to take another stab at reading Free Play. In doing so, I found my key to appreciating the book, and relishing all it has to offer, from beginning to end. Although Nachmanovitch is a musician, he beautifully expands the idea of Improvisation to include any medium through which we express ourselves, and live.
Some friendly advice: When sitting down to read this book, get rid of all negative thoughts and judgments about yourself. While reading it, think of all the things in life you love to do, regardless of how well you or others think you do them. Whoever you are, and whatever you do, this book will help you discover what creativity is, where it comes from, how we block it, and how we can make it sizzle. If you stick with Free Play, you will get to know what's possible when you conquer fear and self-doubt just long enough to do what you love, for its own sake and on your own terms. Stephen Nachmanovitch has written a labor of love, and encourages us to see and live our lives this way. For that, Free Play is a true classic.
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49 of 50 people found the following review helpful By Sebastian Matthews ( on November 5, 1999
Format: Paperback
This a wonderful handbook for anyone trying to create art or live life creatively. It's practical in that offers helpful techniques on getting past "blocks." It's inspiring in its insights into the nature of the creative act. It's enjoyable to read with its plethora of quotations, illustrations and photographs, and teaching stories. It's wise, it's playful, its honest. In short, it's a piece of art in and of itself--accessible, illuminating, beautiful. It should be every artist's companion.
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58 of 62 people found the following review helpful By A. Maheshwari on November 4, 2000
Format: Paperback
I love this book. I have read this highly readable book more than 25 times in the last five years. So much that I took its message to heart, as I will specify below. The book suggests inspiring stories, tips, and lessons for making yourself more flexible at the core. Let Go - this is the central message of the book. Letting go of our preconceived notions can improve our sense of autonomy, and help us play freely the game of life. Like a god. On one inspired moment after reading this book, earlier this year, I let go of this great book. So it won't any longer be a crutch I hold on to in every moment of difficulty. I have recommended this book to all my friends.
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31 of 32 people found the following review helpful By aubyn on October 30, 1999
Format: Paperback
It's sub-title is "The Power of Improvisation in Life and the Arts," and it is truly a treasure for those who would seek new ways of creating and living. It contains well-informed discussions on sources of ideas; going about the work; silencing that ever-present critical shadow; and making art because "we have an ilienable right to create." With wonderful quotes from Henry Miller, Rumi, William Carlos Williams, William Blake and Martha Graham, to name a few, this book is completely dog-eared and remains my bed-side companion. I have given it as gifts to younger members of my family - who are not artists - to "cheer them on" them as they explore what their lives have to offer.
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful By G. Kao on May 5, 2005
Format: Paperback
Stephen Nachmanovitch has written more than just a book on improvisation and innovation. Contained within are anecdotes and lessons to be re-read. By combining an avid interest in Eastern religion and philosophy with the perspective and expertise of a seasoned musician, he has managed to deliver a book that challenges readers to live actively in order to live freely. For those looking for a more practical, hands-on approach to creativity that focuses on techniques with a modern business-oriented feel, this book would be a mistake. That said, let's continue on to what can be found within.

Mr. Nachmanovitch clearly knows his stuff (look into his educational background and you'll see why) and one would do well to be acquainted with some basics in American and English literature as well as Eastern philosophy to understand some of the allusions he makes throughout the book. I think this is where the feel of the book stems from. Additionally, all these philosophers and poets focused on an inward development and enlightment which Mr. Nachmonovich beleives to be critical for unblocking the creative process since, as the book introduces early on, all people are inherently creative. Living is a creative experience.

Personally I will keep this book to re-read every few years to discover new things about myself and life, and so I recommend this to anyone to at least give it a try. This is not to say that there isn't room for improvement. I disagree with how the author organizes the concepts in the book because often they overlap and meld into each other. While this may serve the overall feel of the book by creating a sense of continuity and unity, it also creates confusion.
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