Beginner’s Mind


If you can talk you can sing; if you can walk you can dance.

That African saying is well known around the world but for 59 years, personal experience has made me wonder if it is true.

I suppose I can sort of sing, but I certainly can’t hold a tune and I am capable of moving my body while music is playing, but the two things don’t seem to be connected so I don’t think what I do is dancing.

I mention this because I used to have similar doubts about my ability to do anything musical, but when I pick up a guitar or harmonica these days I expect to make agreeable noises.

That’s a big change and it makes me happy so I’d like to expand on that positive note.

It’s been a long journey but I’ve had lots of fun overcoming my lack of natural talent and I’ve even become interested in music theory and the wider benefits of playing an instrument.

I came across that ‘singing and dancing’ saying last week when I picked up a guitar book by a Japanese-American street performer that takes a spiritual look at music making.

The saying is at the beginning of this column because I think it gets to the root of a basic problem many of us have with learning new skills. We try too hard.

In Zen Guitar, Philip Sudo advises readers to adopt a beginner’s mind when they pick up their guitars even if they are experts.

He goes on to say the way to get the most satisfaction is to be like children learning to speak and walk.

That is, to do it without being self-conscious.

When children learn to walk and speak they just do it.

No one tells them how it should be done and they have no idea how their efforts compare with those of other children.

There is no competition and no pressure, and that’s the way Sudo thinks it should be with most of the things we do.

He says all of us are born with talent; it might be for music or it might be for something else, but that doesn’t mean we should forget about doing something if it doesn’t come naturally.

Sometimes overcoming difficulties makes an activity more enjoyable.

No matter what we do in life there will always be people with more talent for it than we have and there will always be people with less.

So we might as well accept that fact and develop the skills we want to develop without giving ourselves a hard time.

That last point should not be under estimated.

I like playing the guitar and the harmonica so the effort required for me to improve has not felt like hard work.

It’s obvious those kids in the picture up top love to dance.

I don’t feel that way about singing or dancing so I haven’t made the effort to develop either skill, but that doesn’t mean it would be impossible to do if I could muster enough interest.

Hopefully, the same holds for other skills as well.

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