“If you put musicians in a place where they have to do something different from what they do all the time, then they can do that—but they’ve got to think differently in order to do it. They have to use their imagination, be more creative, more innovative; they’ve got to take more risks. They’ve got to play above what they know—far above it—and that might take them above the place where they’ve been playing all along, to the new place where they find themselves right now—and to the next place they’re going and even above that! So then they’ll be freer, will expect things differently, will anticipate and know something different is coming down. I’ve always told the musicians in my band to play what they know and then play above that. Because then anything can happen and that’s where great art and music happens.” – Miles Davis
Play above what you know. That’s where things get interesting. But it takes an imagination and courage often beyond what most people are willing to risk.
And the musical metaphor holds up off of the bandstand: Live above what you know. Surprise yourself. If you’re a politician, stop voting predictably down the mindless party line, but consider each issue and let a new possibility enter. If you’re a teacher, consider my mantra “How else can we do this?” and feel yourself uplifted, feel the change in the class atmosphere. If you’re an airline pilot—well, stick with what you know. But be prepared for an emergency when an improvised response may be needed.
The pandemic has certainly sent the memo of “live above what you know, go beyond what you previously imagined.” Let’s not make a vaccine put us back to sleep, for the issues facing us are begging for us to think differently, to understand that “something different is coming down” and we need to align ourselves with its demands.
And note that this, like Miles’ bands, is a collective effort, a team engaged in the mutual exploration of the next needed language, calling, responding, exploring the territory together. And that requires Miles’ greatest gift as a musician, the capacity for deep listening and responding in the moment to the notes put out in the air.
What will you do differently today?