On A Not-Knowing Knowledge

The jazz guitarist John McLaughlin says that when he played with Miles Davis in the late 1960s, Davis gave him some advice before a recording session for In A Silent Way (1969):

“Play like you don’t know how to play guitar.”

McLaughlin, of course, went on to great heights of jazz-Indian music fusion with his Mahavishnu Orchestra and Shakti and said that Miles’ words had a deep impact on him. Here is how he describes his interpretation of the moment:

“After a few seconds I threw caution to the winds, and literally threw all the chords out, and the rhythm also. Even if you don’t know how to play guitar, most everybody knows the E chord. I played that one chord and played the melody around it. Miles had already got the red light on [signaling a recording in process], and at the end he really liked what happened.”

The advice to do something as if you don’t know how to do it is a powerful heuristic for approaching any craft because it puts you in a fresh mindset. The trick is how to forget what you know enough to free yourself up to move in novel directions. In the case of musicianship–and indeed, probably in the case of any craft–one obstacle to thinking with a fresh mindset is that we spend so much time developing and refining certain ways of doing things (that’s why we practice, after all) that it can be difficult to imagine alternate pathways to creation.

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