Best of Fish & Bicycles: A Rock & Roll Elder’s Beginner’s Mind

Originally Published: September 21, 2010


Like most guys of my generation, I spent a considerable portion of my youth listening to Led Zeppelin. I didn’t really have a choice. I had an ear for music and I had testosterone.

Now, all these years later, I’m a 45-year old frustrated musician, harboring a dream to be in a performing band, having worked at the guitar for over 20 years, particularly over the past 5 years, and yet I can’t seem to find bandmates. My recent Craigslist ad, the language for which I crafted over several weeks, yielded not one response. For the first time in years, I walk past my guitar these days, sitting on its stand, and I don’t feel an intense magnetic pull. I’ve started to question whether or not I should even bother. Perhaps, I think to myself, I should just settle for the occasional jam session that I attend, or the occasional campfire that I strum and sing around.

But then, last night, I heard a delightful interview with Robert Plant on NPR, and I was particularly struck by this exchange (my emphasis in bold):

Melissa Block: Do you think that you started thinking of your voice, maybe, as an instrument, in the way that Jimmie Page’s guitar was an instrument in Zeppelin?

Robert Plant:Yeah, it was a thing to play off of, definitely. But, it’s a weird thing to do, because the voice doesn’t have that kind of flexibility. I wanted my voice to be a tenor sax, really. I wanted to be Coleman Hawkins. I wanted to be Dexter Gordon. I just think that certain instruments have so much more chance of following the electric charges in your mind. When you’re listening to people play the post-bebop stuff, you can hear this great instrumentation. But for a singer, you’ve got to work with syllables; you’ve got to work with themes and lyric. I’ve got to learn to play something soon.

Sure, a cynic could write this off as a kind of faux humility that comes with the privilege of being a superstar. Certainly, Plant doesn’t have to learn to play an instrument. He’s set for life.

But for some reason, his comment struck me as a genuine expression of Shoshin, the Zen Buddhist concept of Beginner’s Mind. As Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki said: In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.

There’s a film I saw in 2002 titled Fierce Grace, a documentary about Ram Dass. The film is part biography and part exploration of Dass’ experience of a massive stroke he had suffered. Near the beginning of the film, Dass explains that when the stroke hit he was struck by how he — a world famous spiritual teacher, a former Harvard professor and devoted student of Hindu guru Neem Karoli Baba — at a moment of being very close to death had no connection to spirit, had no spiritual thoughts whatsoever, that as he laid there all he noticed were the pipes on the ceiling above, and he thought to himself: I have some work to do. (You can see this very moving scene, as well as the entire film, split up into nine parts, on YouTube.)

And when I think about the writing of my Craigslist ad, I realize that it was written from an expert’s frame of mind. Of course I’m no true expert at anything, and yet, as I was writing the ad, I was thinking of my musicianship as having achieved a degree of expertise and that I required bandmates to have an equal degree of expertise or higher. While there’s a fairly thoughtful and practical motivation behind that approach – to filter out musicians who won’t be very compatible with me due to their lack of experience, thereby saving their time and mine – I can’t help wonder whether or not this expert mind energetically turned off potential bandmates.

Maybe, like Ram Dass, I have more work to do. Perhaps I should take some lessons, to finally learn all those alternate chord forms that I’ve coveted for so many years.

It could be fun to be a beginner again!

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