Thursday, December 22, 2011

Beginner's Mind (and other things I've learned from my toddler).

I've been having fun learning the rudiments of banjo picking these past weeks. I have been practicing almost every evening, after Joe goes to bed. At this point, I can pick out a few songs. Slowly, tentatively, with long pauses before "difficult" chord changes. ("Difficult" in quotes because I'm pretty sure that most seasoned banjo players do not have difficulty changing from C to D7. Ahem.) My fast-pickin' banjo days are still in the distant future, but I'm making progress.

This experience has been especially interesting as I am reminded of what it's like to be an absolute, rank beginner at something. This is something that is easy to forget. Like most 30-somethings, I tend to do the same things I've been doing all of my life. Things I am at least moderately okay at. Even sewing - although I am always learning new things, I haven't been a true "beginner" at sewing since I was in junior high school. I left my "brand-spanking new lawyer" days behind quite a few years ago as well and I am well-practiced in sounding like I know what I'm talking about (sometimes I do know what I'm talking about). My frisbee catching skills have been dismal since the dawn of time, and do not appear to be very amenable to improvement. But it's been a while since I wholeheartedly embraced "beginner" status at a new hobby.

What does it mean to be an "absolute rank beginner" at something? Well, it means you'll feel like you really suck. For a long time. Totally sucking at something can be a challenge for a perfectionist like myself. I like to be good at things. I don't like to be bad at stuff.

This is where observing your toddler can provide helpful hints. After all, toddlers are rank beginners at a lot of things. Joe is a beginner at many things - building tall towers with blocks, configuring train tracks, communicating with words. Does it bother him that he is not expert at these things? As far as I can tell - not at all.

When Joe sees something he wants to do, he just jumps in and gets to it.  With a smile on his face! When things don't work out the first time, when he falls flat on his face, he just picks himself up and gets back to it, usually still smiling (the black eye, on the other hand, will stick around for two weeks). He doesn't care what other people think. He takes joy in pointing out and naming things and it doesn't bother him that he doesn't enunciate every syllable perfectly. He delights in saying things as well as he can, and we delight in hearing him give it his best shot.

So here's a not-so-radical concept my toddler has a better handle on than I do: Learning is fun!

This is the spirit I'm trying to bring to the banjo. I'm not bad at the banjo. I mean, yeah, my Foggy Mountain Breakdown still leaves a bit to be desired (are you kidding me? I haven't even tried to play Foggy Mountain Breakdown), but that's not because I totally suck. It's because I'm a beginner.

There's a difference.

Thanks, Joe.

But I can still be inspired by truly great banjo players ... (Check out the way Earl Scruggs' right hand hardly moves at all! Dang! He could do that in his sleep! He probably does do it in his sleep! The man really makes it look easy.)


  1. This is something I constantly need to be reminded of too. Too often I psych myself out before I even start something, which I know is absolutely ridiculous but I find myself doing it anyway. Here's to a new year of learning!

  2. Hmm, really good point about being a beginner. Charlie was teaching me a little bit of guitar a few days ago and I wanted to be able to do it all straight away, of course. He's been plugging away for a year now and is starting to come out with some actual song-sounding things.
    The Sacred Harp singing sounds (well, reads) really lovely. I'd never heard of it. I've done a bit of choral singing in my life and really miss it at Christmas time. Sounds like you will be working up to singing along o your banjo playing?

  3. Hi Jane! Guitar is really fun too! I've played a little bit, but I'm pretty "beginner" at that too. I'm like you, I always want to be able to do it all straight away. I forget that it's taken me decades to get that way at the other things I'm good at.

    Speaking of things I'm not an expert at, Sacred Harp is really fun! I've been singing for about five years now. If you'd like to hear a hint of how it sounds, check out this trailer for the documentary Awake My Soul. It's a loud, raw, booming sound that people seem to love or hate. I am solidly in the LOVE category, but then, a lot of people don't love banjo, and I do. :-)

    I wish I could tell you, like I can tell most people in the US and UK, that it's an option for you to just go and check out some day, but I've never heard of Australian Sacred Harp Singing. I'll have to do more research to see if there are any singers down there ...

  4. Love this post. Here's to rank beginner-hood. It's amazingly refreshing.

  5. Yeah, I took up hockey as a 30-year old mom. I was so very rank. But I had a blast and am very proud of myself cause it wasn't easy to be so, you know, rank!

    Keep your stick on the ice.


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