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. 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.