Have you ever wondered what constitutes, ‘a beginner?’ The Oxford English Dictionary defines begin as ‘ 1. carry out or experience the first part of an action or activity, 2. come into being. 3. have as a starting point. ‘ So when you sign up on a beginners’ course it would be quite reasonable to expect that other people are like you, knowing nothing or little about the subject. How wrong can you be! A woman on the beginners’ tennis course said to me on lesson two that she was really daunted by the knowledge and skills of other participants. She’d thought that we’d all be real beginners. Well, that’s because some of the women have been on the beginners’ course for the past three years. They are good! One woman has such a strong forehand that I’ve still not been able to return a shot from her in three lessons. She must be secretly thinking that she could be knitting a Fair Isle sweater, writing a sonnet or cooking a roast dinner while she waits for a return from me.
I’ve signed up for all manner of courses in my time that have been described as for beginners. One art course was described as, ’art for the terrified.’ With that title surely no improver or accomplished artist is going to sign up? Although I suppose any creative person may be terrified at the sight of a piece of plain white paper and the need to fill it by the end of the morning. As a writer I’ve experienced that sort of terror, especially if you have a deadline imposed by an exacting tutor, but surely ‘art for the terrified’ implies a fear of making that first mark on the paper; a beginner perhaps traumatised by a school art teacher who threw all her creations into the bin or a critical parent who could never bring himself to praise a young child’s efforts at painting her family as hippopotami with golden dread locks. But no, in ‘art for the terrified,’ there were people who’d been in the class for a decade. The humiliation at the end of the lesson when the teacher insisted we all put out our work to share. There was my pathetic attempt at a drawing of a conker when their autumnal still life could have made the Royal Academy’s summer exhibition.
Being in a mixed class with a range of experience can work but it can mean as the beginner you have to work much harder to keep up. Rhys went along to Church Bell Ringing. He was one of two absolute beginners and there was so much to understand, learn and remember, he decided it wasn’t for him. The other beginner wasn’t sure if it was for her either. Shame at not getting it right in such a public forum as a bell ringing circle or your conker looking like a sputnik in a still life class is not just embarrassing it can fill you with feelings of not being good enough and negative thoughts that you thought you’d overcome years ago leak out.
So why do people who are actually skilled and accomplished place themselves on these courses or continue to repeat the beginners’ course even though they’ve progressed way ahead of what could be fairly described as such? Is it lack of confidence and modesty or one up-man-ship? Better to be top of the pecking order in the sweet knowledge that no other beginner is going to be better than you rather than have to put yourself outside your own comfort zone. Doesn’t matter how that feels for others in the beginners’ class. Or could it be that you find a good teacher who you like and who likes you, sees your potential, you fall in love, and are not able to let the other go or move on?