Friday, June 24, 2016

Beginners Mind: Ukelele Version

My new Kana and my old Silvertone

I've been playing the piano and singing most of my life.  When I was 3 years old, I had a little toy piano, like Schroeder's piano in the Peanuts cartoons, and figured out how to play songs from my parent's jazz records on it, so they bought me a Wurlitzer spinet piano and got me a piano teacher.  On my own I figured out how to play chords and read jazz charts.  I was serious enough about "being a musician" to major in music and anthropology at my university. I sang in a Javanese gamelan, and later in my life I played in a bossa nova band with friends and Zen students.  And all this time I've been playing for my own pleasure.  (For 10 years in my 20's I even made a living playing for dance classes and teaching piano and voice.)  It came easy to me, so I didn't practice much.  I was never good enough to have a real career, but I love playing music.

And now, 60 years after figuring out Harry Belafonte's song "Come Back Liza" on the toy piano, I've decided to take up the ukelele.  I'm not alone in this.   There are ukelele clubs and bands springing up all over the place.  My daughter, who actually is a conservatory-trained professional musician, in the middle of making her second CD of original alt-rock songs, taught me the basics, and I fell in love with the portability and the cuteness of the instrument.  A Zen student sent me a rehabbed vintage Silvertone soprano, and yesterday I bought myself a late birthday gift of a Kana baritone.  And the strange thing is, I've been practicing the heck out them.  My fingers are developing callouses in the right places.  Things are starting to sound a little bit musical.  But I'm a rank beginner, and so the music isn't quite as satisfying to play as I'm used to when I accompany myself singing at the piano.

As a Zen student, and now a Zen teacher, I value the concept of "beginners mind" -- the quality that is so prized in Zen and in mindfulness -- the capacity to meet the moment just as it is, with freshness.  But I had forgotten that it's also quite hard to be a beginner.  Zen students who are just starting out feel lost and confused, not just fresh and mindful.  It's quite challenging to not know.  

I'm grateful to my ukeleles for reminding me that being a beginner is awkward and difficult before it feels fun.   And it's important to practice, to strum and pluck and make mistakes.  That's where the learning happens.  We Zen folks sit on the cushion and learn to face everything, what we like and what we dislike.  We show up in dokusan, our individual meetings between teacher and student, and we practice showing up just as we are.  It's all in the service of being able to live a life that has meaning, that is useful for the world.  We practice to make music, and we practice to be bodhisattvas.   As Gary Snyder says, in another context, "There is no other life."

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