Brainjo Bite: Why It’s Great To Be A Beginner


All right, welcome again to another episode of Brainjo Bites. So today’s episode was inspired by a recent comment in the banjo for adult learners Facebook group that came from Richard. And Richard wrote, “Don’t you just love that breakthrough moment? I mentioned a few weeks ago how I quit trying to learn songs note for note and started the breakthrough banjo course from scratch.

I’m not going to lie, I found it a real slog for the first two weeks and demotivating to be struggling with the timing of such simple tunes as it felt like a step backwards from my okay renditions of Boil Them Cabbage and Cripple Creek. But wow, am I glad I stuck with it. Today I moved on to the thumb lead banjo stuff and within minutes my fingers just got it and suddenly I was flying through the songs. Okay yes, I need to hone in and tidy up a few of the changes, but I’m so amazed at how easy it’s been to progress by going through those early stages, particularly the phrasing and timing is so much easier now.

Sorry, this is all obvious stuff, and I’m sure many of you have been through it many a time yourselves, but I had a real Eureka moment this afternoon and I’m buzzing with excitement and wanting to share.”

So first of all, it’s not as common as you may think, Richard, for folks to go through that kind of experience and that’s kind of the topic for today. So one reason I love this post is because what Richard did here, going backwards and relearning material, is actually not that common. And yet the willingness to do that is absolutely essential for continuing to make progress as a musician or really in anything we’re trying to learn.

But again, it’s human nature, it’s our natural inclination to really resist doing so and there is a concept I want to talk about today called Shoshin. It’s a Japanese word that comes from Zen Buddhism and it translates to beginner’s mind. And what that refers to is having an attitude of openness, eagerness and lack of preconceptions when we’re studying a subject or learning a thing, even when we’re studying or at an advanced level.

So retaining that spirit of openness and creativity no matter how far you progress, as well as a willingness to continue to ask simple and basic questions and be free of preconceptions and expectations. And the reason it’s promoted as a concept in Zen Buddhism, and it’s also used in martial arts, is because it’s been longer. I recognize that not having beginner’s mind or having its inverse, what you might call expert’s mind, is an obstacle to growth and progress and this is seen not just in learning music or in martial arts but in virtually every human area of human endeavor.

For example, there is a long list of breakthroughs in the various scientific disciplines that came from people who were outside of a particular field of study, so who were in a sense still relative beginners. So much so that it seems almost to be the rule rather than the exception that it’s almost necessary to be an outsider to a field in order to make a major breakthrough.

And one reason for that is that newcomers have an advantage because they come in with a beginner’s mind. In these particular instances, we have smart people who are bringing this spirit of openness and curiosity to a field free from calcified patterns of thinking that are oftentimes typical of those who’ve been in the field for a long time and who may resist that a beginner’s mind mentality. Those newcomers were able to see things in ways that the experts couldn’t.

And the reason we’re inclined to resist beginner’s mind as we advance in a particular area is because we don’t really like feeling like a beginner. It kind of raises insecurities and doubts and oftentimes that indicates that we are attached to some kind of outcome or expectation and on the contrary, we really liked the feeling of mastery. In fact, the reason we put up with feeling like a beginner is so that we can get to that feeling of mastery.

And this is an area where kids tend to have an advantage as they don’t tend to have this particular hangup nearly to the same degree. Adults, because we’ve been going through life a long period of time, are used to feeling mastery in lots of different areas and kids are just not used to that feeling in as many parts of their lives and so feeling like a beginner feels a lot more ordinary.

So in learning to play an instrument, there are a few common scenarios, I think, where having a beginner’s mind is necessary and really helpful and where not having it can be a significant impediment. These are mainly situations, like Richard initially describes, where we need to go backwards in order to move forward. So one scenario where that may play out is where there’s a foundational technique that limits you in some way.

So I talk a lot about the importance of being slow and methodical in the beginning when we’re learning. So that allows us to progress much more quickly later on because we’re building that foundation upon which everything else is going to draw from. But being slow and methodical in the beginning requires trading off some degree of short-term gratification for that longer-term benefit.

And of course that’s easier said than done, we like short-term gratification. So it’s not uncommon for people to, in their initial excitement, to rush a bit when learning those foundational skills, which can lead to the formation of bad habits, technically speaking. And if we were to plot this graphically, we see that gains with the slow and methodical approach are slower at first but then begin to increase significantly later on and ultimately allow for much higher levels of expertise whereas the fast and hasty initial approach may have faster gains at first, but then it slows down and plateaus because of the limitations that are imposed by bad habits.

And so in that case, breaking through the plateau requires going back and working on those foundational techniques again, but that of course requires the willingness to do so. Another scenario where you may need to go backwards to move forward is when there are discrepancies in the kinds of musical knowledge and skills that we’ve developed. So as I mentioned before in the banjo players roadmap, we can divide the knowledge and skills needed to play a musical instrument into three broad categories, technical development, your development, and then musical knowledge and concepts.

And each of these areas are necessary in each of these are mutually beneficial, but a disproportionate focus on one category, which usually is technical skills, can lead to a relative discrepancy in these three things. In other words, you might have a situation where someone has reached intermediate levels of technical skills. Maybe they can play 20 or so tunes at speed but are still shaky on the basics of music theory or maybe can’t pick out core changes yet.

And one reason for creating that banjo players roadmap was to try to help prevent this, to help to identify the beginning, intermediate and advanced skills in each of these categories to ensure that they’re being developed in tandem and so that those discrepancies don’t develop because when they do, they limit progress often in ways that are hidden to folks. But in the case where those discrepancies do develop, progressing will require working on material where you still feel like a beginner, and it can be very tempting to just continue to do the things where you feel more of a sense of mastery, so continuing to kind of work on the same techniques or just play the same tunes you know each time you pick up your instrument rather than work on the things that are needed to continue to move you forward.

And the third scenario where this can crop up is in the resistance to learning new styles of playing or new genres or new instruments. As you know, there are so many great ways to pick the banjo and I think so many great reasons to learn several of those ways. By the same token, learning a new instrument is a great way to continue to develop musically and learning new styles, learning new genres, learning new instruments, helps to distribute knowledge in the brain to represent concepts in multiple ways and in multiple networks, which makes that knowledge more powerful and more robust.

And in fact, research indicates that once you reach a certain level on a particular instrument, learning a new one will actually lead to a greater return on investment or greater progress on your original instrument. Yet, I think the common perception is that if you take away practice time from your instrument by learning something else, you’re going to stifle progress on the instrument you’re not practicing. But again, that doesn’t appear to be true at all, just the opposite, in fact, and that will be the topic of an upcoming episode.

One example in the realm of claw hammer banjo that I think illustrates the value and impact of this concept is in learning to drop thumb. So drop thumb amongst some banjo players has a reputation of being a harder thing to do and so people oftentimes put off learning it until they’ve become more advanced in other areas of playing and of course, when they set about to try to learn it, it naturally feels awkward, but paired to their other skills which are more developed, it feels now especially bad.

So number one, they don’t want to spend the time learning it because they really don’t like feeling like that and number two, it gives them the mistaken impression that it’s a harder technique since it’s now being judged relative to the other skills. Drop thumb isn’t actually any harder than any of the techniques of claw hammer banjo. I wrote an article on this topic that I’ll link in the description, but the fact that it has often not been learned early on or not taught early on has led to the perception that it’s more difficult simply because of this phenomenon.

So a lot of players give up on trying to learn it at all because they’ve developed a level of mastery with claw hammer that they like and drop thumb makes them feel like a beginner again. So again, this is why I teach it early on and recommend everyone learn it early on and also why I’m trying to stamp out the myth that it’s harder than any other technique of claw hammer.

All right, so how to adapt stopped the beginner’s mind since we’re naturally inclined not to do so. I think the first is just having the awareness or recognizing that there will be times in any learning journey where it’s necessary to go backwards a little bit to move forwards, we should expect that to happen some times. And then another way to adopt beginner’s mind is to reframe how you think when something feels challenging or when you feel inept at something and that this isn’t something to feel uneasy or unsettled by, but actually represents a great opportunity.

And that’s because, number one, when we’re encountering something that we find challenging, we’ve just identified an area where we have the most room to grow. And then, number two, it’s really good for our brain, these sorts of challenges. These times where we feel inept, the more challenging something is the more demanding it will be on the brain, meaning the more the brain will have to change structurally and functionally to learn that new thing.

And we know that that’s really, really good for the health of the brain, that it reverses aging, and it protects against age related cognitive decline and dementia. So one of the very best things you can do, if you care about keeping your brain in good condition over the longterm. So these places, these times where we feel like a beginner, are actually golden opportunities and our resistance to them arises from insecurities and false expectations.

All right, so thanks again to Richard for your comment and your excellent demonstration of the value of beginner’s mind. Again, I really like this concept. It’s one I personally try to keep top of mind because I find it so valuable and hopefully you will as well.

And again, if you’d like to join the banjo for adult learners Facebook group, there is a link in the description for this episode or you can also go to Facebook and search banjo for adults and you should find it there.

Thanks so much for listening to this episode of Brainjo Bites. To make sure you catch future episodes, be sure to subscribe to the podcast on your podcast player and consider leaving a rating interview in iTunes, which helps other folks to find it as well.

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