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Applause For Amateurs: Classical Music With Community Appeal

With the exception of the programs that specialize in professional musical study, playing an instrument—at least in the Western World—is no longer a standard of general education. Having said that, classical musicians are not dying out. Enthusiasts populate the seats of traditional high-end music halls as well as newer, younger alternative music venues, and while they don’t all study instrumental music professionally, many of them do play.

Who are these passionate musicians who, to differing degrees of perfection, practice their instruments even though there are no concert halls waiting to be booked and no fans lining up to buy tickets?

These are the amateurs—the musicians who are in it purely for the love of it, who have made their musical pursuit a vital part of their lives, despite jobs, careers or families. In some cases, these hobby instrumentalists follow their practice routines almost religiously, sometimes committing as many hours as professionals. Yet to play as an amateur, rather than playing in order to make a living, is to tread on different ground.

The pool deemed amateur is much larger and more varied than one may think, and some musicians land in it involuntarily. Competition in the world of professional performance is fierce, and even a degree in music and an impressive set of skills do not guarantee you’ll be quitting your day job any time soon. Until you’ve turned your passion into a career, you are—whether you like it or not—an amateur.

Not that the title evokes the derogatory sentiment with which some associate it either. Unlike the dilettante, the amateur may be a beginner but need not be. Whether on a path to professionalism or not, some amateurs are very gifted musicians. What defines the amateur is exactly what the Latin root indicates—the love for it.

That gratuitous love means the leisure of not having deadlines to meet or repertoires to memorize. For some, that love still means developing a serious mindset toward their instrument of choice, seeking out a more competitive edge—and performances when possible. And when it comes to performance, amateurs face the same mental challenges, stage fright, self-doubt, and sweaty palms that professionals do—just without the paycheck.

A recent documentary about one such platform for amateur musicians, the Van Cliburn Amateur Competition, profiled some competitors facing all of these obstacles. What came through most was that it wasn’t entirely about achieving the ranks; rather, it was a story of each participant’s personal growth, inner critique, and collective experiences And as with any form of happiness, music making becomes so much more inspiring when shared with others. I learned this many years ago when I joined the Juilliard School Evening Division.

Leading to Julliard’s newly renovated West 65th Street entrance, gates to the uppermost echelons of music heaven, is an imposing, steep staircase—which, to my knowledge, is only used by some pre-college kids and the occasional lost visitor. Everyone else is rather willing to wait for the elevator around the corner. But whichever way you arrive, the experience of crossing the Julliard threshold can certainly be intimidating.

After frequenting seminars and practice rooms, getting to know many of the guards by face and some by name helped me cross that initial barrier. None of them is as friendly as Paul, whose warm Caribbean mentality lights up his face when he comes out of his chair behind the reception desk to greet me with a big hug whenever he sees me. I was standing outside once waiting for the building to open, when Paul asked me about what instrument I was pursuing. We chatted about playing the piano, and he touched on the nerve of a passionate amateur: “It sure keeps you young,” he complimented me.

Lisa’s students of various levels return year after year. She is admired for her natural technique as well as her great musicality, practical advice, and performance feedback. Most of all, though, she is loved for her kind spirits and her continuous efforts to inspire her students to achieve the highest standards possible. ”The student in the Evening division is usually deeply motivated and eager to learn,” she says. “There is one certainty: if we do not aim to be the best of the best, whatever the goal, we may end up giving up craving for the impossible. The fulfillment in being a musician is far too great ever to feel desperate, even if our original goals change.”

Our group within the Evening Division has not changed much over the course of the several years since we’ve joined Lisa’s class. We know each other well and like each other. Each of us plays in a completely different manner, but each of us is equally appreciated by the group.

Although ambitious, we are not competitive but rather supportive of each other’s progress. It is not always an easy task to sit down in front of a group of people and present the repertoire you have worked on for so long. Most of the assigned pieces are brought back week after week. Sometimes there is progress. Sometimes there is not. Lisa is patient and, most of the time, encouraging: “Many nice things” is not my favorite Lisa comment, since I prefer to be critiqued in more specific detail. Worse, even, is one I hear all too often: “You’re trying the Martha Argerich approach again—but without the technique behind it!” Or simply the German expression Lisa and I both understand, “Schlamperei”—inexactitude, mess! But even though she has to put me straight once in a while, I know by now that she loves me, Martha Argerich and all.

Lisa must have often felt the sting of teaching us instead of teaching the real Argerich potentials. In a competitive environment like Juilliard, “teaching genius” is what teachers are expected to do. The other faculty always had something of a supercilious attitude toward the Evening Division, she admitted once. But Lisa recognizes the bliss of it too: “I am truly blessed with my position here at the Evening Division,” she says. “The level of amateurism is getting higher all the time and there is certainly a lot of charm and reward in following the hard earned success of some of my very charismatic students."

Lisa’s end-of-the-semester recitals are a high point in our secret lives as pianists. Usually we go out for a group dinner afterward. Having sat through each other’s and our own efforts, which include messing up and sometimes losing our place in the music, we feel very close to each other. Everyone appreciates another aspect: "The fact that we get along so great," says Christine; “intimacy, since we are together for so many years” says Lisa; “enjoying the good with the bad. We do our personal best and are very happy for one another,” says Ina; “it feels as though I play your repertoire as well,” says Ann; and Terry concludes: "Everybody is so musical, and we share a world of beauty together. It gives our lives another dimension."

Every performance means a little bit of growth as well as a deeper understanding of oneself. Of course, the performance involves different personal thoughts for each of us, but we all share the inspiration and the challenge. It is the experience of the act of the performance itself that makes each student into a performing pianist, at least for that very moment, and even though there is no livelihood at stake, the adrenalin rush is just as powerful. And it is seems almost the bigger test for the amateur, to overcome self-consciousness, than for the seasoned professional performer.

In addition to smaller performances like our end-of-the-year recitals, there is an array of national and international competitions for amateurs to participate in, like the Amateur Van Cliburn Competition. Another student from Lisa Kovalik’s ensemble class, Lou Delaveris, who is also a professional opthamologist, once told me about several amateur competitions he partook in. After having tried to get a placement in just about every American competition over a number of years, he finally entered the Paris International Competition successfully in 2006. His perseverance led to a recital at the Sorbonne, which was publicly broadcast on French public radio in 2007.

”I continued reaching the semifinals in Berlin and finally got into the finals in Vienna this year [2009],” he explains to me in his personable, quite way. “The same people show up to most of the competitions and I met some really nice people, most of them very supportive. Everyone knows each other—we are like one big family. I am constantly receiving emails, informing me of different competitions, which I recognize as opportunities to play new repertoires and keep on getting better. There is a New York amateur organization and meetings are held once a month in participants’ homes, where we play for each other. In fact there is one going to be held at my house,” he tells me and invites me, kindly, to join.

The viral expansion of social networking tools provided by Internet culture only supports and expands the explosive growth of a connected community of amateurs, powerful in its variety of creative ideas. There are Facebook groups, like Late Starter MusicianDilettantePiano Salon, and more, that promote musical interests and cater to amateurs or are organized by amateurs geared to professionals and amateurs alike. Recently, Internet-organized Meetup groups of all kinds have been forming, which coordinate outings to concerts and get-togethers and enjoy the benefit of group bookings discounts.

Many of them are amateurs who left professional music education behind at some previous crossroads in their lives or found music at a later point and are looking to renew their interest and connection to the musical world. While rewards are there to be found within the practice room, practice rooms can also get lonely; it’s certainly nice to know that others are out there who are sharing in your enthusiasm.



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