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Back from a long trip (sans instrument) over the holidays, I am taking notes while sitting at the piano playing scales for the first time in weeks, and anticipating doing the same in a couple days with long tones on trombone.  I am definitely starting over (again).

Many people loathe this feeling of starting over after having gotten out of shape, but we can reframe this experience.  Shunryu Suzuki said “don’t lose your fresh experience moment by moment.” This is Beginner’s Mind.  If anything, returning to practice (or to working out) is certainly an experience in freshness!  So it is possible to appreciate and even enjoy it on that level.  In life and in music things are always changing with our playing and with our internal and external realities; part of our skill is learning to adjust gracefully to those changes.

First – I forgot to do this, and immediately noticed my mistake – don’t plunge in immediately, but take a breath first, survey the keyboard (or the equivalent on your instrument), and reconnect your mind to the instrument before doing so with your body.  Study how your instrument wants to be played, and how your body and mind want to connect with the instrument.  This is mindfulness in playing, and it can be done in just a few seconds or however long feels right.

Take the time to “taste” the notes, to let their color and inflection register in your consciousness.  Absent this level of awareness, your playing is little more than a mechanical exercise.

Be Patient. Start slowly, but don’t stay there too long.  Mix things up – do those scales in 6ths and 10ths, switch up the modes.  For brass – start in the middle of your pitch and dynamic range and gradually expand outward.  Come up with variations on your established routines.

The quality I am working to re-establish could be expressed as Flow. (This, by the way, is a key theme in the movie The King’s Speech.  For an excellent summary of the cognitive mistakes that disturb flow in our playing, I suggest Marianne Ploger’s analysis of the Causes of Error, included in the music links.)  So we pay attention to where our fingers falter on the piano keys and study what’s going on in those spots, working to smooth them out.

While of course I look forward to feeling more comfortable and fluent on my instrument(s) as I get back in shape, and to playing real music, I find it very enjoyable and relaxing to focus on the basics.  (As every musician understands, ‘the basics’ are not easy – just to get a gorgeous sound on a single note or to connect two notes beautifully is challenging, and immensely satisfying when we pull it off.)  What it takes to play something that’s apparently simple with beauty and elegance is attention, as well as putting in the time necessary (as guitarist Ottmar Liebert states in an interview, also in the music links) to become intimate with the activity of playing.

The other key in the process of starting over is using your imagination of where you want to go in your playing – both how it sounds and how it feels to play thus.  Continually referring to that sonic imagination of your goal, and the physical memory of what being in shape feels like, entrains our nerves and muscles to reach that goal much more quickly.

As I understand it, Beginner’s Mind in music is starting wherever you are in your playing, every day – being present and observant and patient, and appreciating the process of practicing even as you analyze how to connect the dots between where you are and your goal.

2 Responses to “Beginner’s Mind in Practice”

  1. Ted Fondak says:

    Fantastic article, Heather! I really enjoy following your blog–your insights can be easily abstracted for most any endeavor.

  2. admin says:

    Thanks, Ted! I hope you’re making some connections to IT and your other endeavors. Really appreciate your support and encouragement of my web project.

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