Beginner’s Mind



“Beginner’s Mind” is a concept in Zen Buddhism that refers to having an open mind, a positive & enthusiastic attitude, and approaching an activity or subject free from preconceptions (as would a beginner who knows nothing about the topic.)  I find it to be a good practice to take this approach as often as possible, in all tasks.  Even if we have quite a lot of experience in a particular area, to approach a task as a beginner:  going in open to new possibilities and discoveries, not holding on to those mess-ups of the past, not expecting any particular outcome.  It can be quite refreshing…and can lead us to have fun, to learn new ways of doing things, to break out of familiar routines, to be creative, to challenge ourselves, and to fall in love again with activities we’ve done time & time again.


I recently decided to learn to play a new instrument.  As an undergraduate music education major, I was required to learn the basics on all of the instruments in the woodwinds, brass, percussion, and string families.  As part of my coursework, I had to be able to play 2 scales and an elementary level song on each instrument.  When I had taken the semester of strings, I particularly enjoyed the violin.  I even took a few lessons on violin over one summer as a college student.  Now, more than ten years later, I have decided that I’d like to study the violin again.  I’ve begun taking lessons with Simon Maurer, who is a spectacularly talented musician and who is an incredible teacher.  He is a founding member of the Gabriel Chamber Ensemble and is also the conductor of Sunday Sinfonia, based out of the Lancaster area.  Simon gave me the invitation to play with this group for the spring 2014 concert season.


Upon receiving this invitation, I was excited but nervous.  I was sounding pretty decent on “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” and was making progress on “Minuet in G,” but I had serious doubts about my ability to play any of the orchestra music for the second violin section…most importantly to not get in the way of the rest of the (more experienced) players in the orchestra in their process of creating a beautiful sound.  But I knew that I wanted to join in the music-making with Sunday Sinfonia.  It just sounded fun.  And I thought it would be a good challenge for me…musically and spiritually.


With my primary instruments being voice, piano, and organ, I have never played in a marching band or concert band.  I’ve performed as part of small ensembles, but that is a very different experience than being part of a large group led by a conductor.  I knew that playing with an orchestra would offer me a different kind of musical challenge, and I trusted that this challenge would strengthen my musicianship across the board.


I also welcomed the opportunity to be a beginner.  I know, for a fact, that I am the weakest player in the group.  That means that there is so much that I can learn from being around everyone else and attempting to play with them.  Last Sunday, I attended the first rehearsal for this group, and it was a learning experience, for sure.  I was out of my comfort zone.  By the time I figured out where my first few notes were and positioned the bow, the orchestra was already past that place…and then I had to try to figure out where in the score they were…and that wasn’t an easy task, as orchestra music doesn’t have words…and the first violins right next to me were playing different notes and different rhythms, and … !  Deep breaths.  And so much appreciation for this new experience.


Even when I failed, it was a delightful and glorious experience.  I went in knowing that I would not play a flawless anything.  And I was far from flawless;  clueless was more like it, at times.  I went in with the simple goal of fully having this experience:  being in the moment, taking it all in, and growing from it.  I succeeded in doing that!


In addition to the musical and spiritual benefits that this new adventure involves, I also am enjoying the process of getting to know the other members of the orchestra.  It was great to get to meet other musicians and talk during our snack & break time.  At this first rehearsal, I began talking to another violinist about my initial reaction to the rehearsal, and she found it refreshing that I admitted to being flustered and unable to play the majority of the notes in any of the songs.  That led us to talk about the common tendency among musicians (and people in general) to pretend to have it all together, and we also talked about the topic of performance anxiety.  Then I made a connection to vulnerability and fitting in versus belonging, mentioning one of my prime spiritual mentors Brene Brown.  My new friend was very interested in my thoughts on this, and she was even familiar with the work of Brene Brown.  That made me feel, even more, like I was indeed part of a community of fellow musicians and human beings, dedicated to growth.


Part of the practice of beginner’s mind is to release expectations.  In my case with playing the violin, that is pretty easy.  I don’t expect much of myself.  I’m so inexperienced that I don’t really know what to expect.  I’m just trying my best and having fun with the instrument.  With my primary instruments and with other activities at which I have a greater proficiency, I most certainly have expectations for myself, and sometimes those expectations stifle creativity, freeze me, and prevent me from fully enjoying the experience.  Returning to beginner’s mind, I remind myself to let go of those expectations and to simply be engaged in the task and to allow myself to be surprised by whatever directions things go in and whatever progress I make.


I hope to become more accomplished at playing the violin as I continue to take lessons and play as part of Sunday Sinfonia, but I intend to keep my beginner’s mind toward my playing of the violin as well as other activities, approaching each task with that openness and that willingness to start fresh, to explore, and to learn & grow.

~ Copyright © 2014 by Susan M. Featro, Voice Lifted.  All rights reserved.