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Embracing the Beginner’s Mind

I first learned about shoshin from an experienced martial artist. I remember it well, I was learning a basic kata, which is a choreographed sequence of movements that one practices alone. Although he was amused by my clumsiness, he appreciated my sense of humor and observed my ability to drop into shoshin. I was able to enter that state because I knew from the start that I would never become a martial artist. Shoshin is a concept from Japanese Zen Buddhism meaning beginner's mind. It refers to having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying, even at an advanced level, just as a beginner would.

I can say that I am deeply drawn to this concept. Curiosity is a gift that we can all enjoy. I thrive when I am learning, and I am especially fascinated by how people perceive their lives and the world around them. I am easily amused and cannot remember the last time I was bored. As a child and teen with low vision, I could not always participate in the activities that my peers were engaging in so I spent a lot of time reading books, talking with people who were older than me, writing stories, and improvising in theater and singing. My mom remembers watching me play alone, she described how I would play different characters pretending I was on the stage. My mother called me Tallulah Bankhead, my brother said I was like Carol Burnett (I loved watching her!), and my father said I lived in a dreamworld. How lucky I was! I didn’t fit in with most of my peers, but I could create my own world and play in my imagination. 

I still love to drop into imagination! During the pandemic my mother and I decided we would curl my hair with rollers! It turned out unexpectedly well. I thought to myself - ok let’s see what it feels like to adopt the look of a singer from my mother’s era! Such a great memory to share with my mom. 

Improvisation feels very natural for me. I have always felt more comfortable improvising freely than I do following strict forms or formulas. As I entered my adult years, that form of freeplay disappeared into the hazy past of childhood memories while I was preoccupied with building my life.  

My curiosity never went away though. I remember vividly that sense of wonderment I felt when I began formal studies in classical music. I was 30 years old, and incredibly excited. My undergraduate years were life changing. While many of my friends were working, getting married and raising families, I was deeply immersed in my study of classical music. There were many tough days. Learning theory and sight reading were difficult for me due to my age, lack of classical music background, and low vision. Most classical musicians begin their training before they are 8 years old so I had a lot of catching up to do! As I became more advanced, I went to graduate school but I still felt like I was trying to keep up. I felt that whenever I shared my awe and wonder about something it was observed to be trite, naive or not serious enough. I let myself be intimidated, but I LOVED the music, I was determined, and I learned a lot. I am fascinated by how we learn to play music - my background was in rock and pop, I learned from my mentors and most of my learning was by ear.  

When I began free improvisation with Music for People, it felt like coming home. I jumped at the opportunity to release and return to a childlike state of wonderment. The child’s mind is agile and open, I reawakened what lay dormant for years. When I drop into flow, I can let go of thoughts and physical tension. There are moments when I am not in flow, and I experience insecurity, self-judgment and disappointment but if I can release these moments as curious opportunities for learning and growth, I can catch the flow again. I save the questions for future research, practice and time with mentors. 

Improvisation terrifies many accomplished musicians. That’s because they were NEVER given the opportunity to try it, and those who were naturally drawn to it, were often discouraged. 

Here are four questions I invite you to ponder:

  1. What if free improvisation was a part of non-formal and formal musical studies?

  2. What if a first level course in improvisation encouraged the beginner’s mind?

  3. What if free improvisation was integrated into music theory, musicianship, and history classes?

  4. What if free improvisation was integrated into vocal and instrumental instruction? 

I think music classes would resemble language study encouraging not only knowledge of reading and history, but self expression, and conversation.  

Free Play - I Pretend to be a Jazz Singer

My aunt, a well known Montreal singer,  Annie Brooks, used to sing to me over the phone and in person. In her later years, she sent me recordings of herself improvising with the radio. I grew up hearing Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Prima, Frank Sinatra, Danny Kaye, Carol Burnett, Louis Armstrong, Sammy Davis Jr, and Nat King Cole. This music was all around me, I absorbed it, and it started to naturally come out in my improvisation practice. 

When highly trained musicians come to an improv session for the first time, they are sometimes taken aback by the simplicity of the Music for People forms. When they are asked to “release” expectations, accept that there are no wrong notes, love quality over quantity and embrace silence as your friend without a musical score to guide them, they find themselves struggling to let go of their mastery and the years of experience and accumulated knowledge. “Release!” is actually a very tall order! But when we finally let go and enter the beginner’s mind, we discover that it is not about turning one’s back on all the years of musical training and knowledge, it’s about cultivating a deeper trust in our ability and knowledge. As an experienced player, I have opened new pathways of discovery and my musical experience and knowledge emerges as a flexible and ever evolving process. In other words, I am not stuck doing the same things with what I know, I'm applying what I know in novel ways.    

When we embrace the beginner’s mind, we become open to experiencing fully. In improvisation David Darling stated that “every combination of people and instruments can come together and play music.” I find myself using my skills to serve and support others. Unbound by our own hubris, we feel a part of something that is much greater than our cultivated selves. The music that emerges is varied and complex on a human level - as my mentor Mary Knysh says “it is the human process in sound”. Sometimes freely improvised music is chaotic, dark, edgy, crazy, hesitant, shy, or just plain funny, but there are always moments of sublime beauty that leave me in awe, and they are so worth it! 

Try this: say mm-mm as though you are saying yes. Say it again. Say it with more inflection. Hold one of the tones, repeat that tone, sway gently and tap your foot. Don’t worry if your voice crackles a little. Keep repeating it, and if an idea comes in, slide to that new tone. You may find yourself making up short melodic phrases. You may also find yourself becoming more calm. You may feel the tension in your shoulders and face soften. Smile - end your improv by repeating one hummed tone three times. 


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