“Every artist was first an amateur.” Ralph Waldo Emerson
Over the years, as a professional musician, I have often heard the term ‘amateur’ used in a pejorative sense. It is frequently used to mean someone who is a second-rate musician or artist, or not serious about what they are doing.
Yet what does the term amateur actually mean? The original word derives from the Latin ‘amator’, lover, from ‘amare’ to love. And how often do we experience that an amateur can be more in love with what they are doing than a professional?
Recently, my husband and I were in Bruges, Belgium for the weekend, and on Sunday morning we came across an elegant old bandstand in the town park. A marching band were seated there, rehearsing their repertoire without a conductor. They were obviously not professional- the tuning was suspect, and the music lacked drive and style. Yet when the trumpeters stood to play a duet, swaying to and fro with obvious glee, I couldn’t help but be charmed by them, and delighted that so many of the townspeople had chosen to spend their Sunday morning that way. A small crowd of spectators were evidently enjoying themselves also.
It made me wonder what professional musicians can learn from amateurs, and vice versa.
Firstly, as the brass band demonstrated, they love what they do. With full-time jobs and/or families, they probably don’t have a lot of free time, and could choose to spend it on a myriad of activities. If they opt to play trumpet, piano or guitar, it must be from a sense of pleasure and enjoyment. I know this should go without saying, but I’ve met plenty of professional musicians who seem to have forgotten or lost any sense of love or enjoyment they once had.
Secondly, they choose repertoire that they want to play, and don’t mind playing it often, and over a longer period of time. As professionals, we often feel obligated to learn music quickly and then move on, aiming to increase the breadth and size of our repertoire constantly. Yet there can be a huge benefit to performing a particular repertoire frequently. A friend told me that she once congratulated the renowned soprano Arleen Auger after a recital, and Ms Auger commented, “Well it’s very new repertoire- it’s only the 11th time I’ve performed it in public!”
Thirdly, although some amateurs do not play well, this doesn’t mean that amateurs are unable or unwilling to attain a high level of achievement. They frequently do, as evidenced by footage from competitions such as the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition for Outstanding Amateurs. When I saw footage from a documentary of the event, I was struck by the competitors’ huge commitment to excellence and individuality, and some of the performances I heard were strikingly original and passionate.
Naturally, amateurs can also learn much from professional musicians. Professionals have often experienced an extremely high level of training from superb teachers, and, as such, have developed effective practice habits. Concepts such as deliberate practice demonstrate the ability to improve rapidly and efficiently, to increase focus and consistency of technique.
Successful professionals are tenacious and persistent, refusing to give up when the going gets tough, learning to find ways to overcome technical problems, stress, boredom, distractions, illnesses, injuries. They learn to ‘deliver’ when it matters, to be ready for any eventuality, and to pace themselves so that they are in the best possible shape on the night. As Frank Sinatra once advised, “Bring your own crank!”
If they are well taught, they also have developed knowledge and expertise in history and style. Using the best sources, such as contemporary writings and Urtext editions, they study performance practice, investigate current research, and remain adaptable and exploratory throughout their performing lives.
I’ve had many great friendships and relationships with both professional and amateur musicians, and remain impressed by so many of their great qualities. When you put together the consistency and purpose of the professional with the love of music and sense of fun that amateurs bring, you really have the perfect recipe!