5 ways musicians can develop a "beginner's mind"


Begin a conversation with any group of highly trained musicians, and within a short time, the Music Fundamentalists will show themselves. We all know these people. They’re the ones whose ideals are so high that no one quite measures up to their musical expectations. In their minds, there is one right way to do things, and plenty of wrong ways. This rigid thinking isn’t just limited to the classical crowd. If you doubt me, ask a group of jazz purists what they think of smooth jazz and then listen to the judgements fly.

It’s easy to spot this trait in others, but it’s a lot more difficult to admit that almost every one of us, in one way or another, is a Music Fundamentalist. I’m no exception. Playing the piano at a high level requires us to sort this from that, and to commit ourselves to choices befitting the composition we’re learning. Problems occur, however, when we find ourselves believing that there’s just one correct way to play a piece. All other approaches are discarded, and the piece enters a sort of musical museum—a place where everything is correct, but ultimately dead.  

The more highly-trained we are as musicians, the easier it is to become rigid and dogmatic in our thinking. For some of us, the lists of right and wrong, should and should-nots can paralyze us every time we’re tempted to try something new. Every few years someone writes an article encouraging musicians to develop a “beginner’s mind”—which is an attitude of openness and a lack of preconceptions, even when studying at an advanced level. We all want to recapture the wonder and openness of a beginner; the challenge, however, is figuring out how to do so.

Shunyu Suzuki, author of  Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, famously wrote, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the experts there are few.” As a non-Buddhist, I don’t claim to understand everything about “beginner’s mind,” but I’m certain that maintaining the openness of a beginner does not mean discarding everything we know. In other words, "beginner’s mind" doesn’t require us to be, as has been stated by many, “so open minded that our brains fall out.” No, “beginner’s mind” asks us to find the middle way between expert knowledge and wide-eyed wonder. The paradox of developing a true “beginner’s mind” in a profession I practiced all my life is an incremental task that I'll probably never conquer. Yet, in my halting way, I’ve found these things to be helpful. Perhaps they will appeal to you as well: 

Start with yourself

We don’t learn music in a vacuum. Everything we are as human beings, all our strengths and weaknesses, are present every time we sit at the piano. If we want to know whether or not we approach music with a “beginner’s mind,” all we have to do is look at the rest of our lives. Are we quick to judge? Do we live our lives by a rigid code? How do we relate to people who are different than we are? Are we capable of a “live and let live” attitude toward ourselves and others? Because here’s the truth: if we can’t be open to new ideas and differing opinions away from the keyboard, we’ll bring that rigid way of thinking right into our music. 

Be willing to be playful

Creativity is born from play, not from grim hard work. Playfulness pulls us away from rigid thinking and allows us to dance in a world of possibilities. So play—at the piano, and (perhaps more importantly) away from the piano. Develop a “why not?” perspective. Spend time doing things just for the fun of it. As Julia Cameron famously noted in The Artist’s Way, “Serious art is born from serious play.”

Learn something new—away from the piano

Want to remember what it feels like to have a “beginner’s mind”? Learn something brand new. I got a crash course in this when I started yoga 12 years ago—an activity for which I had a lot of passion but absolutely no natural aptitude. The thrill of discovery, along with my clumsy awkwardness did more to knock me out of my perfectionism than anything I’d ever read about developing a “beginner’s mind.” When I brought what I learned in yoga back to the piano, I was more able to recognize when I was falling back into my old pattern of rigid thinking. 

Learn a brand new style of music

Are you a classical pianist? Learn how to improvise or play jazz. Are you a jazz pianist? Consider learning Bach or Beethoven. These forays away from our areas of expertise are excellent ways to shake ourselves out of mental and musical ruts. I’m currently experiencing this myself, as one of my 2021 projects has been to take a break from classical and study jazz. The experience of learning new chord voicings and improvisation techniques has opened my mind to a world of new sounds on the piano. 

Bring this wisdom to your regular repertoire

When we sit down to play a style of music we know very well, we approach the score with a checklist of rules and (sometimes) a Greek chorus of musical judges in our minds. The beginner suffers from neither. This is where we can take the lessons we learned from the other parts of our lives and apply them to the scores we’re learning. This is where we, much like a child, can ask why we’ve made the judgements we’ve made. This is where we can take a passage of music and challenge ourselves to play it 10 different ways. This is where we can remind ourselves that it’s more important to let the music be creatively alive than perfectly dead.