In praise of the serious amateur

This post is entirely biased, one-sided, subjective and immodest  – because I am a ‘serious amateur’ pianist, one of many, many people who play the piano as a “hobby”, but who take it extremely seriously.

These days, the word “amateur” has become synonymous with cack-handedness and incompetence – yet the other ‘amateur’ pianists I met on the piano course hosted by my teacher in the spring were anything but that. With the exception of two young music students, one of whom was already halfway to reaching the pianistic nirvana of the Three C’s – Conservatoire, Competition, Concerto – the people gathered in that elegant sitting room in north London were anything but “hobbyists”: we had all signed up for eight hours, every day for three days, of intense masterclasses and performance. True, there were some slips, some smeared notes, and quite a lot of nerves, but everyone played with commitment, fidelity and honesty, and each of us were highly self-critical perfectionists intent on pulling off a memorable and pristine performance at the end of course recital.

The dictionary on my Macbook defines “amateur” as “nonspecialist, lay; dilettante” and “inept, unskillful, inexpert, clumsy, maladroit, bumbling”, yet I did not feel my fellow amateurs on the piano course displayed any of these attributes. Nobody was inexpert, not a bit: the young woman from Cambridge who played Debussy’s ‘Isle Joyeuse’ on the first day, and Chopin’s Barcarolle on the second day; the piano teacher from Bath who gave us one of Messiaen’s ‘Vingt Regards’, a piece she was learning for her Diploma; the quiet lady from southern Ireland who played two of Gershwin’s Three Preludes with jazzy extrovertism and panache. Even my own rendering of Chopin’s Opus 25 No. 7 Etude was described as “moving” and “thoughtful” by some members of the audience after the end of course concert…. (and, better still, my teacher told me she had never heard me play better). Then there is my friend Michael, a fine amateur pianist who, when he retired two years ago,  bought a Steinway B instead of an Aston Martin, and who plays Rachmaninov like a pro and is currently working on Schumann’s famously difficult ‘Kreisleriana’. gives a more appropriate definition, in this context, for the word ‘amateur’: “a person who engages in a study, sport, or other activity for pleasure rather than for financial benefit or professional reasons”. I play the piano because I enjoy it and it interests and consumes me, but I am not a professional pianist. I use my pianistic skills to enable me to make a living (after a fashion) as a piano teacher, so I could claim to be a “piano professional”, but I do not make my living from my playing – nor would I want to.

Not being in possession of the requisite artistic temperament nor the extreme single-mindedness to hack it as a professional pianist; nor, it must be said, having that particular and unique degree of talent that sets one apart from the ‘Sunday Pianist’, nor wishing to subjugate the rest of my life to that masochistic profession which can confine one to one’s piano room or studio for hours and hours, alone, without other musicians to laugh and joke with, to spark off ideas or to relieve the grind of day-in-day-out practising, means that I limit my piano-playing to performing for friends after dinner, or at occasional concerts with my students, or on courses for like-minded amateurs. That does not mean I do not take it seriously, because I do, putting in a good two or three hours practise every day, if I can manage it, fitting it around my teaching, and my home life. I admit I’m fairly obsessed: I miss the piano when I am away from it and worry if I don’t get the practice in, von Bulow’s quote never far from my mind: “if you don’t practice for one day, you know it”, and would freely admit it is now a necessity rather than a luxury in my life. It’s not exactly relaxing, but it’s certainly transporting, offering important time away from myself and the exigencies, big and small, of Real Life.

I come from a background of amateur musicians: my father was an accomplished clarinettist, who played with a local orchestra (conducted by, interestingly, the principal oboe player of the CBSO) and various chamber groups, and who could pull off a memorable and lively performance of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto to the accompaniment of Music Minus One. My older uncle was a violinist and may have taken the professional path if he had had the right mindset for it; my younger uncle plays the piano passably well and sings in a local choir. My paternal grandfather played too – Methodist hymns, snatches of the Old Radical’s Sonatas, shorter pieces by Bach, Haydn and Mozart.

And I’m in good company: Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger is a ‘famous’ amateur, who plays a Fazioli, a piano, favoured by the likes of Stephen Hough and Angela Hewitt, whose reputation goes before it; some people rave about its crystal-clear tone quality, that once played, one would never want another piano, ever…. Others that it is just over-engineered Italian histrionics; nothing more than a show-piece, an instrument without heritage or integrity. A piano for the Ferrari owner who values image and exclusivity above ultimate usability. I’ve never played one, but I’d like to, just to see what it’s like….. Rusbridger has written about attending piano summer school (or “boot camp” as he calls it! – a quick glance through the back of Piano or Pianist magazine and you will find many courses, in the UK and abroad, specifically for amateur pianists of all standards) and is currently writing a book about learning Chopin’s First Ballade, one of the most difficult pieces in the repertoire – a piece I am also learning at the moment.

Conrad Williams, author of the novel ‘The Concert Pianist’, an interesting examination of the interior life of a musician which questions what price one must pay in the pursuit of one’s art, is also a committed amateur. In his article in the current issue of Pianist magazine, he makes some interesting and truthful observations about the motivation of the amateur pianist. As he says, every amateur dreams of playing to a full house at the Carnegie or Wigmore Hall. A few years ago, while doing research for a book, I was afforded a wonderful backstage tour of the Wig. I actually walked across the hallowed stage, stood under the beautiful gilded cupola, and could have sat down at the Steinway and played Schubert’s D899/4, if only I’d had the chutzpah! Just being there made me faint with the feeling of connection to great pianists, past and present, who have played in what Vikram Seth calls “the sacred shoe-box”.

Even if there is nothing professional at stake, serious amateurs want to do their best, the best they are capable of. I can’t see any point in offering a half-baked Debussy prelude at my forthcoming students’ concert: after all, my audience will be, largely, the people who pay my bills, and I should at least make an effort to demonstrate I am worth it!

One of the more reassuring aspects of performing as an amateur is the knowledge that people enjoy hearing music played live and will be accepting of different, or even indifferent, standards if the context is right. As Conrad Williams says, “…amateurs will never touch the professionals, but just conceivably we might touch the audience”. Hearing my friend Michael play my piano – and he’s the only person, apart from me, who plays it well, is a wonderful experience. His playing may not be as polished as a professional, but there’s no doubting his commitment. “Was it all right, Fran?” he asked me anxiously after playing La Cathedrale Engloutie at my summer concert. The look on my students’ faces should have answered that question for him: they were utterly spellbound by his playing. As Shura Cherkasy said “If you have something to offer an audience, why be afraid?”


Alan Rusbridger on attending piano summer school

Cheethams Summer School

Jackdaws courses for pianists and musicians

Summer School for Pianists

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