Community Outreach, Future of Music

On Amateurs


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By Emily Hogstad

Thursday night rehearsal. I’m in a small room with twenty other string players, members of my local amateur string orchestra. I’m rehearsing a solo of the Piazzolla Oblivion. I shake my wrist out. I’ve got jitters for no reason at all.

***

Adult amateur musicians are almost universally embarrassed to play in front of otherpeople. An adult who has just come to classical violin (or just returned to it) will invariably apologize for how they sound. Self-deprecating jokes – with an edge of desperation – proliferate. The violinist.com discussion board regularly features entries from adult amateurs asking questions like: I’m the only adult at my teacher’s recital, should I even participate?

I can relate. If I’m ever complimented on my playing, I’ll smile graciously, but in the back of my head I’ll invariably think: honey, go to Minneapolis, watch a program of their Sibelius, and get back to me on how good you think I am.

Why?

I can think of any number of reasons. Maybe the attitude comes from increasing levels of specialization not just in music, but in all fields. Maybe it’s because the boundaries of the musical world have grown so dramatically, from Bach to Xenakis, that you need to spend your whole life studying to start to do any of it justice. The proliferation of professional musicians? The way that classical music itself often attracts people who are obsessive and self-critical perfectionists?

Regardless of the reasons why, the embarrassment is definitely a thing. And the more I think about it, the sadder it makes me.

***

Not long after I graduated from high school, I was getting my bow re-haired at a local violin shop and saw a flier advertising an intermediate-level string orchestra. I’ve been going every Thursday for the past five years.

What does music mean? I don’t know the answer. But I do know that during the desperation of the Minnesota Orchestra lockout, when I had a front row seat to the organizational convulsions we all thought were death throes, my Thursday nights kept me sane. They reminded me what I wanted music to mean: people with common interests spending time with each other, valuing teamwork, believing in self-education and self-improvement. There was a kind of purity about our time together that was hugely meaningful, that inspired me to work to see those same values reflected again at the Minnesota Orchestra.

***

It goes without saying that big symphony orchestras, the big professional institutions, have a hugely important place in our art form. We are all better off when musicians have jobs that enable them to fulfill their artistic potential at the highest level. We all benefit from seeing and hearing the current Minnesota Orchestra under Osmo Vänskä in a Sibelius symphony. That is inspiration. That is transcendence.

But one reason it’s special is because we amateurs can’t do what they’re doing. Our shortcomings make the full glory of their achievement possible, and special.

***

I wish big orchestras could be more connected with the amateur orchestras. I also wish the amateur orchestras could be more connected with the big orchestras. I’m convinced we have a lot to learn from one another.

To be sure, there are already some interesting partnerships happening. The Baltimore Symphony has a Rusty Musician program, where community musicians play alongside the pros. Fabulous idea, even though the name grates. (To my mind, if you can play a Tchaikovsky symphony, you’re a musician, period!) Before the lockout the Minnesota Orchestra had a Fantasy Camp. Boston has its “Onstage at Symphony.” More programs will doubtless follow.

And they all sound amazing. But they strike me as more good starts than the true fulfillment of possibility. Building relationships in whatever way possible is key, and I’m positive there are even more ways to do this.

In an era of handwringing over attendance figures, the Wall Street Journal reported in June in an article called “Orchestras Welcome Older Musicians“:

Across the U.S., older Americans are dusting off instruments—or starting anew—to play in orchestras. Figures are scarce, but music directors and others in the field report a significant increase in the number of amateur orchestras and chamber groups made up solely of people 50 and older.

Maybe if we can make the connections, some of those empty seats could be bought by passionate music lovers. And maybe if there are empty seats at any of the adult amateurs’ performances, a professional or two could visit ours, and bring a little bit of our excitement back into their demanding day jobs.

***

In December, during winter break, members of my little orchestra get together on our own time to work up some carols. We then go to various assisted living facilities and just play. It doesn’t matter that we haven’t won competitions, that we’ll never win a job in music…that we missed that shift, or that we can never get that one note to ring in tune with the others. In that moment, our hearts are light. So are our listeners’!

If you can draw out a sound from your instrument that is occasionally halfway beautiful, you are capable of instilling joy. Even amateurs. Especially amateurs. Take advantage of that fact.

***

So if you’re an amateur, I want to hear how you play. More than that, I want you to be proud of how you play. Unapologetically so. I want to congratulate you for caring enough about yourself and the art that speaks to you to take the time out of your busy day to do something as demanding as playing a musical instrument.

I’m not going to judge you against someone who had advantages you never had: fabulous teachers from the age of seven, connections made at summer camps, a family that had the cash to pay for lessons and instruments and competitions.

Be proud of who you are and what you’re accomplishing.

***

My performance of the Piazzolla Oblivion was the other day. I did very nicely. I was happy!
***

Emily E Hogstad is a twentysomething writer, violinist, and violist. She writes about the Minnesota Orchestra and other music stuff at songofthelark.wordpress.com.

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