A wise friend of mine had an interesting notion of what it is to be stupid. Yes, I know, not exactly a PC term, but every once in while, I meet someone who, well… their knobs are on full, but the brain is not generating a heck of a lot of power.  Yes, I fully believe that as humans, we have rationality which gives us unlimited potential for achievement. But as much as we want to tiptoe around the issue, it is a fact that some people are just not as smart as other people. (Before you bitch me out, I also think that treating people who are less intelligent than others as less than human by restricting their personal freedom or causing them pain is a great, great evil to be avoided.)

In any event, back to the matter at hand. My wise friend had a clever approach to understanding what makes some people smarter than others. Stupidity is not simply knowing fewer facts than someone who is not stupid. I have met PhDs who were not very bright people, although they certainly knew many, many more facts than I do. Stupidity is not simply a lack of common sense. As anyone who knows a really brilliant person can attest, sometimes genius is inversely proportional to one’s ability to cope with the mundane rituals of life.

His idea was this: stupidity (or if this is too loaded a term for you, feel free to substitute another that is less pejorative) is seeing the world as a series of random, isolated events without any interconnection. It’s missing out on patterns, similarities, and metaphors. I might also add that it is the ability to zoom in and zoom out as needed, which this film by Charles and Ray Eames demonstrates pretty well.

What does this mean for a guitarist? Well, since I am a working musician who also has a non-music day job, and who also happens to like a lot of things that don’t involve pieces of wood with six strings, it was huge for me when I realized that no matter what I am doing, I am always a musician primarily. No matter what I do, music is the way I best interact with the world. I am attuned to sound always, whether I am shopping for groceries, getting the car an oil change, or writing a blog post. You do not stop being a guitarist, or a saxophonist, or a drummer, when you are not at your instrument.

Realize that your instrument is not in one compartment while everything else is in another. If you are mindful in your approach, any activity can be musical. Stop thinking that if you want to be good at A, I must do A a lot and B a lot less. I suggest that to get better at A, don’t do A exclusively.

When you open your eyes and ears, you notice the connections between stuff in the world. I’ve been in a lot of classes where my classmates were frustrated that the teacher did not directly teach the subject at hand. If these students bothered to notice, the lecture may have been abstracted up a level or two but it was still very much about the promised topic. What the teacher was doing was demonstrating the universality of the idea.

Think about this: what if each and every software program was very, very different from each other? This, I think, is the misconception held by people who find computers so mysterious. The fact is, we don’t learn a new program from scratch each time we purchase new software. Instead, we are able to use so many different programs because, on an abstract level, all of the programs are more similar than different. They all have drop down menus, control-C or command-C almost always means “copy,” and they share a common terms like window, palette, enter, save, etc. Abstraction, like metaphor, teaches the general principles shared by a collection of things. Now we can spend time thinking about the way one program is an improvement on another instead of learning a completely new set of commands each time. So if you can browse the Web using Chrome, you can also with a very minimal learning curve use Internet Explorer, Firefox, or Safari. If you literally had to learn 100% of the program from scratch each time you switched browsers, I suspect people would not switch browsers very often.

Which is why–although a guitarist absolutely must spent adequate time with a guitar in his or her hands because knowledge of the kinesthetic challenges of an instrument is something gained through physical contact, time, and repetition–you can also get better at playing guitar by practicing the piano, by studying a score, by listening mindfully to music, or even by taking a walk, watching a movie, playing with your children, or washing the dishes. Every activity offers a chance to become a better musician if you take a moment to see the interconnectedness of your art and the world. Truth: the limitations of our brains means that things in the world must be mostly the same. So as you set aside time to practice scales or chords, also schedule in time to practice noticing and finding your own metaphors! (And realize this, artist types: mathematics ain’t nothing more than systematizing analogies. But just don’t forget to carry the one.)

Closeup photograph of the leaves of a plant.
The Logan Stripe Duvet Cover and Sham, now on sale at Pottery Barn.
Closeup photograph of Saturn’s rings.
LP spines.
Gerhard Richter, Strip; 2011; 300 cm x 300 cm; Catalogue Raisonné: 922-1; digital print on paper between aluminium and Perspex
a3, Hatori Yumi
Cornelius Cardew, except from Treatise