Piano teaching

Always a beginner

“I am a beginner. I am always learning”*

Fou Ts’ong

This wonderfully humble quote from Fou Ts’ong, the acclaimed Chinese pianist, who died in December 2020, is a reminder that even those at the top of the profession should never stop learning.

Our learning journey often begins in childhood, with early music lessons under the guidance of a teacher and later, for the aspiring professional, in music college or conservatoire. The support of a teacher or mentor may continue after graduation and many professional musicians return to their teachers/mentors for critical feedback and support during their career, even if they are no longer taking regular lessons.

The decision to cease regular lessons is not a sign that one has ceased learning; rather that one has reached a level of competency and confidence to continue on the learning path alone, and a good teacher can instil in a student the necessary tools to study and learn independently.

Ongoing learning requires curiosity and an open-mind, a willingness to accept and reflect on setbacks, the ability to self-critique one’s work, and to set realistic goals to maintain focus and motivation. This continual learning process is allied to mastery – embracing the role of the life-long student and dedicating oneself to the pursuit of excellence.

But there’s more, because what I think Fou Ts’ong’s quote also reminds us is that, as musicians (and human beings in general), we should always try to retain that thirst for knowledge and childlike inquisitiveness of the beginner student, unburdened by preconceptions and past experiences. The beginner’s mindset keeps us alert, curious and questioning, ready to accept doubt and open to possibilities and alternatives – important for the musician, not just when learning and refining music but also in performance and teaching.

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s, there are few.”

– Shunryu Suzuki

The beginner’s mindset can also be helpful when trying to problem solve or overcome obstacles. The “habits of the expert” can actually be an impediment, leading us to overthink or become mired in problems which aren’t really there. The “innocence of first inquiry” (Suzuki) allows us to see things as they are, to simplify, and to problem solve step by step.

Studies have shown that the accrual of greater knowledge can lead not only to us becoming bogged down and distracted by our expertise, but also rather complacent in the face of problems, which then leads us to approach issues in ways which are familiar or habitual, rather than thinking more creatively “outside the box”. Here too, we allow our ego, enhanced by our perceived greater knowledge, to over-complicate a situation. This may also prevent us from finding a better or more creative solution.

The accrual of greater knowledge and expertise, advanced technical facility and musicianship should always be tempered by the beginner’s curiosity and open-mindedness. It can only make us better musicians.

*from an interview with music journalist Jessica Duchen

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