Always an Amateur

I want to be an amateur bassist for the rest of my life.

One of the summer projects I assigned myself was to read Barry Green's The Inner Game of Music. Based on the work of legendary sports, life, and business coachTimothy Gallwey, Green's book guides musicians through the process ofdeveloping some of the mental skills necessary forpreparing and performing music. In a chapter devoted to the practice of goal-setting, Green made this comment about amateur musicians:

"I am often impressed with the spontaneity, confidence, and enthusiasm of amateur musicians, as well as by the excellent music they often make. Yet if you ask amateur musicians to play a Beethoven sonata in public or for pay, they'll often decline the invitation. 'I just want to enjoy my music,' they'll explain.

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'Amateur' has come to mean 'nonprofessional' or 'unpaid.' But the word is derived from the Frenchaimer ('to love') and literally means someone who loves what they do. The true amateur, then, is someone whose attitude to music never loses sight of their experience goal."

In the argument surrounding this quote, Green discussed the importance of setting for oneself goals that reached beyond the material aspects of making music: getting the right notes, coming in on time, blending with the ensembleor broader goals like getting in to a certain school or ensemble. These sorts of goals are performance goals, objectives to be met, which he acknowledges as important elements of developing and improving one's music-making. The other side of Mr. Green's coin is the concept of experience goals. Drawing on anecdotes from gold-medalist skiers, he argues that every performance should have its impetus in a personal, emotional experience for the performer. As one skier put it, "I just want to have fun."

About a month ago, I accomplished a performance goal by joining a regional orchestra. Now, every few weeks I join a group of seventy-some union musicians in a long weekend of performance goal-setting. On stage in rehearsal, instructions are handed down to the orchestra from the conductor. Performance goals to serve his interpretation of the music. Section leaders advise their subordinate players on how and when to change bows. Performance goals in service of the ensemble. Individual players mark reminders in their parts: Second finger. Shift here. Breathe there. Subdivide. Watch. More performance goals.

The symphony's season-opening concert proved that there we're no "amateurs" in the room. We backed up a classical rock star soloist in one of the most beautiful renditions of the Samuel Barber's violin concerto I've ever heard. And the waves of sound in the finale of Tchaikovsky's fourth symphony brought the audience to their feet.

But backstage, not allof my colleagues echoedthe joy expressed in the audience's applause. As we cleaned our instruments and packed up to drive home, some of the musicians around me lamented spots where they had made mistakes. Silently, I wiped the rosin dust off my bass, listening to confessions of mishaps so small I hadn't heard them onstage.

Last June I inherited a small studio of private students from graduating doctoral student, and in teaching each of my middle school students every week, I've been reminded of the fact that conservatory and professional musicians alike become slaves to excellence. In our quest to achieve ever higher performance goals, we forget to enjoy the act of music-making.

On Tuesday evenings, I teach a sixth grader who has not had all the advantages of other music students his age. The bottom feeder in his school orchestra, he was often left behind or overlooked in group lessons. After two years in school orchestra, he started lessons with me in August, barely able grip the bow, much less finger notes. Last week we had our fifth lesson together; after warming up, he played a slow but steady, in-tune rendition of Variations on Shortnin' Bread. (For students of the George Vance method, this is the bass player's version of the Twinkle, Twinkle variations.)

My bass resonated in sympathy as he played, a testament to the strides he has made in developing proper bowing technique and producing a good sound. His performance wasn't perfect by any definition of the word, but it was much improved over the scratchy, fuzzy pitches he played in our first lesson. This student has no performance goals: he is in lessons because his parents thought it would be a good idea, and he doesn't know if he will continue playing bass or join the football team when he starts high school. Consciously or not, he is doing what many of my graduate student and professional colleagues fail to doexperiencing the joy of making music. When he took his bow off the string, a wide grin spreading across his face, I knew that our time in lessons so far had been a success.

When I take auditions, I often meditate on scripture in the warm-up room. I do this for two reasons: for one, it keeps me from overplaying and leaving all my best notes in the green room; secondly, it helps me center my mind and heart on something other than the adrenaline of a high-pressure situation. When I was teaching last week, Psalm 96 (one of my favorite "audition psalms") came to mind. The psalmist declares "Sing to the Lord a new song," and "let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be gladlet the fields be jubilant" If the very earth is to be joyful in worship of God, should we not also experience that joy when making music?

I want to always remember the rush of joy I felt the first time I played the bassthe same joy I saw in my student when he played his set of simple variations. I don't want to forget that it was the one and only Creator who gave me the skills to play in sync with a section of five, six, or seven other basses. I don't want my pursuit of excellence to blind me to the privilege I have of making music in worship, be it in the practice room, at church, or in the concert hall.

I want to be an amateur musician forever. In love with making music and in love with the One who gave me the gift of music.

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Posted in Other Home Post Date 09/22/2021