The self-help/life coaching section of the local bookshop is full of books on how to learn from the pros – think like a pro, act like a pro, be more pro. We are encouraged to draw inspiration from successful professionals – whether they are sports people, musicians, chess players or high-flying financiers whose “pro-thinking” has made them shedloads of money.
“Be more amateur” – said no one ever
The word “amateur” is problematic for a start. A quick Google search throws up the following definitions:
Non-specialist, layperson, dilettante, unskillful, a hobbyist, a dabbler, inexpert, incompetent, talentless, ham-handed, unqualified……
The word “amateurish” has even worse connotations, suggesting cack-handedness and ineptitude.
To describe oneself as an “amateur pianist” is almost derogatory, calling to mind the image of someone fumbling through some Chopin on an out of tune upright piano.
But look more closely at the etymology of the word “amateur” and a quite different image is revealed. “Amateur” comes from the French word meaning “one who loves” and prior to the 1780s, when the word developed its more negative associations, it meant “one who cultivates and participates (in something) but does not pursue it professionally or with an eye to gain” [i.e. does not get paid for it]
My primary contact with other adult amateur pianists is via the London Piano Meetup Group, which I co-founded in 2013, partly because I was keen to meet other pianists like me and because being a pianist can be a lonely activity. The members of this group – to a man and woman – display the most positive trait of amateurism: they love the piano, many with a passion bordering on obsession (myself included). They love playing the piano, talking about playing the piano, getting together at our Meetups to share the experience of playing the piano (repertoire, lessons, performing), going on piano courses to meet other lovers of the piano, and hearing others (professional and amateur) playing the piano in concert.
It is this love which drives members to practise, to take lessons, and to strive to improve their playing, even if they have to snatch precious moments out of their busy lives to find time to spend at the piano. Because we don’t have to earn a living by our piano playing (though a number of members of the piano group are piano or music teachers, so can be defined as “music professionals” as opposed to “professional musicians” – again, myself included), we can gain enormous pleasure from playing the piano, yet we are under no obligation to practise if we don’t want to.
In fact, all the amateur pianists I know practise regularly and happily. We appreciate the benefits of practising and many of us cultivate good habits to ensure we practise deliberately, productively and thoughtfully, no matter how much or how little time we have. We have developed our own methods for achieving personal goals in our music making, from preparing pieces to perform successfully at one of our Meetup events to putting together a programme of advanced repertoire for a performance Diploma, or performing in charity concerts (as I do). Many of us draw inspiration and guidance from the practise habits of professional musicians, but we also appreciate that setting unachievable goals can be counter-productive and leads to dissatisfaction and lack of motivation.
When we are doing something we love, whether playing the piano, tennis, watercolour painting or mountain-biking (my husband’s chosen passionate pursuit), we form an MEA – a Minimal Enjoyable Action – a habit which is so easy and enjoyable we do it almost intuitively and, more importantly, consistently, because we love doing it. Through regular engagement with our personal MEA, we increase our commitment to the task, and by rewarding the brain with small successes (which causes the brain to release dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with feelings of pleasure which enables us not only to see rewards, but to take action to move towards them), we create a virtuous circle that can actually build greater willpower to stick to the task. (In a way, this is related to the concept of Marginal Gain Learning, a training technique used by top athletes). Once the MEA becomes a habit, it leads to more advanced behaviours – longer, more involved practising, attempting more complex repertoire, for example. Some of us reach a plateau where we are happy in the “good enough” stage; others wish to strive further, to achieve something touching expert status by engaging in deliberate, self-regulated practise with focused goals, self-evaluation, often together with critical feedback from teachers, mentors, friends and colleagues. We know we may not touch the pros, may never perform at Wigmore or Carnegie Hall, but we gain much pleasure from the process of being the lifelong student.
So why should we learn from amateurs? Because amateurs are consistent practitioners of a healthy pursuit, practising something they enjoy which brings enormous pleasure and personal satisfaction.