How to be an Amateur

It’s ok to dabble.

Last December, the children in my violin studio were invited to play carols at Homestead Gardens, a nearby garden store that decks itself each year with seasonal trappings.

I laughed at the naivete of the invitation. Who would want to give up a precious hour in December, that most frantic of months, to perform for free? When people ask me to play a gig, I start calculating the payoff, factoring in the cost of my time and the life investment I’ve put into violin study. Musicians are undervalued these days; and they wanted us to leave our cozy houses on the weekend, for no compensation, to entertain holiday shoppers? Hilarious.

But I was wrong. Nearly all my students pulled out their Christmas music and started brushing it up. Since they had never earned a penny for performing, they didn’t know the value of their time or skills. Most of them dislike practicing and tolerate recital performance. But this? This was a chance to play in an exciting place, for people who would love it. For an hour, they got to conjure up the Christmas mood. Why else would you slave away at the violin — if not for chances like this to create real music for real people?

That day I stood beside the Christmas tree listening to “Joy to the World,” wondering how I might recover the pleasure in music that these children had.

Not all musicians are as jaded as I. I’ve watched Irish fiddlers jam for hours, an unfading light in their eyes. What they had, and what I saw in my students that December Saturday, is the special beauty of the amateur. The lover.

Traditionally defined, an amateur is not merely a “wannabe professional” with second-rate skills. It is a distinct kind of thing. The amateur is different from the professional, because he or she is free to approach an activity with a different motive.

In a busy and competitive world, it’s not easy to retain an untarnished passion for our professional pursuits. That’s just a fact of modern life, and it’s why we all ought to go in search of other activities unrelated to our professions, where we can throw ourselves in with zest, regardless of our level of skill.

In his whimsical essay, “The Perfect Game,” G.K. Chesterton describes the advantages the green amateur has over the expert. He tells of a bantering conversation with his croquet partner, exchanged during a game he is hopelessly losing. As he hits ball after ball into the bushes, Chesterton insists,

It is only we who play badly who love the Game itself. You love glory; you love applause; you love the earthquake voice of victory; you do not love croquet. You do not love croquet until you love being beaten at croquet. It is we the bunglers who adore the occupation in the abstract. It is we to whom it is art for art’s sake.

The good painter has skill. It is the bad painter who loves his art. The good musician loves being a musician, the bad musician loves music. With such a pure and hopeless passion do I worship croquet.

Let’s admit it; Chesterton’s praise of the bad artist is comforting. You can relax and stop feeling guilty that you’re more of a Joe Schmo than a Hilary Hahn, or a Tiger Woods, or an Elon Musk. But does Chesterton mean that by acquiring skill, we kill joy? Do I have to tell my students that their delight in music will be inversely related to the number of hours spent practicing?

I hope not. You won’t get far in music without hard-earned technique. Technique is the vocabulary of an art; the more you know, the more nuances you will be able to understand and communicate.

“Amateur” need not mean “unskilled.” Still (though we hard-working heirs of the Puritans don’t like to admit it), it is difficult, perhaps impossible, to excel in all the things we love. Many human pursuits, the arts most of all, require a lifetime of investment. In The Talent Code, Daniel Coyle cites studies showing that you need 10,000 hours of quality practice to reach expertise in almost any field. And if you want to reach the top, it takes quite a bit more.

Who has time for mastering more than one or two such pursuits? Some of us can’t even manage one. For everything else, we dabble.

I believe Chesterton’s point is this. However proficient he may be in his field, the amateur views skill as secondary. He values an activity without reference to his earning power or place on the ladder. He is free to love it for its own sake.

Robert Capon, a priest who loved to cook, argues in The Supper of the Lamb that a culture needs its amateurs. “The world,” he says,

is a gorgeous old place, full of clownish graces and beautiful drolleries, and it has enough textures, tastes, and smells to keep us intrigued for more time than we have. Unfortunately, however, our response to its loveliness is not always delight: It is, far more often than it should be, boredom. And that is not only odd, it is tragic; for boredom is not neutral—it is the fertilizing principle of unloveliness.

The role of the amateur, says Capon, is simply to love, and by loving, “to look the world back to grace.”

We won’t be experts in everything we love. But go ahead and be a bad musician, a bad painter, a bad writer. Let your interest catch on something, and pursue it without shame. Join your community softball team; pick up woodworking; play golf; sing in a choir.

The possibilities are endless, really. In the coming weeks, the Play channel will be hosting a series exploring ways to be an amateur. We hope you’ll join us, and share some of your own amateur pursuits along the way.


Image: A Game of Croquet, by Edouard Manet, 1873. Via Wikimedia Commons.

1 Comment

  • December 9, 2017

    Robin Strempek

    Great article! I remember having a grand ah-ha moment one summer. It changed the way I taught my middle school orchestra kids and the way I approached my playing.

    I prepared to go away to my first ever week long chamber music workshop. I didn’t know what to expect. So, I prepared my first violin part to a Beethoven quartet the way I prepared for performances in college. Agonizing over the fingers, bowings, phrasing, tempo, who played what, and so on. There were coaches from major orchestra there and it stressed me out! What if I played out of tune? I was allowing the mechanics of it all overwhelm me.

    Once I got there, played in a few pick up groups, and heard participant performances I realized my technique was by far the most advanced. None of the workshop attendees had a Master’s in music like me. But where they out shined me was depth of knowledge in the history of each piece (some of it very obscure), all the recordings available for each piece, and their pure love of just enjoying music in fellowship.

    I got to know these amazing people and the biggest regret any of them had was that they stopped playing in middle or high school. But most had picked it back up after retirement, and wished they made it a priority throughout their life. I learned to love music even more during the few summers I participated.

    After the first year, I realized that I had been teaching my students as if they were on a one way path to becoming a professional musician. The reality is that of the 300 students I had each year, they all weren’t going to be professional musician. Instead, I needed to create an environment that fostersd love and joy of music. I didn’t want any of them to quit just because they didn’t feel they could be a “professional”. I wanted to help my students be amateurs and life long supporters of music. I went home and changed my teaching philosophy and all of my curriculum that summer.

  • December 10, 2017

    Liz Horst

    Thank you, Robin! I love this story. Probably every musician and teacher could use an encounter like yours, to put the world back into perspective.