Learning to be an amateur

by Dr. Norman Stanfield ~ February 24th, 2013. Filed under: World Music Studies.

Although I was a professional musician who played the flute in a former life, I was flung into the world of the amateur, and a beginner at that, thanks to my anglomania, and my new ambition to play the cornet and become a full-fledged brass bander. Therefore my participation in a British Brass Band was coloured by the fact that I was a beginner player, while recalling my previous life as a contract musician in Western Art Music ensembles, and my current roles as flute clinician and a national winds examiner for the Royal Conservatory of Music.

On the other hand (full disclosure here) I continue to struggle with my ambition to play the cornet at a high level of technique, a daunting predicament given that I am recognized and lauded for my advanced ablility to play a music instrument (the flute) in another world. After ten plus years of on-and-off practicing on the cornet, I can pull off a half-dozen high Cs in any given rehearsal. (Brass players will know what I’m talking about.) It is my ability to read music notation quickly and accurately that allows me to sit with the big boys and girls, not my stellar technique. A side benefit of my adventure in the Brass Band is my new-found respect and heartfelt admiration of brass players who play for me when I am conducting their RCM wind exam.

Professional participation in an Amateur Ensemble

You would think that membership in a recreational musical activity would be a viable alternative for professional performers and career music students who want to play music without the pressure of the workplace. Not so. Most chafe at the thought. They are trained to excel, not to simply hope for the best. Some professional musicians might claim that they already get their musical fixes in their workplace ensembles, or that their work schedules don’t allow it, but those excuses are covers for the more pressing issue of oil and water – amateur and professional abilities.

If professional musicians are not in the top five per cent of their expected level of expertise, the practical consequences are devastating. Their careers can collapse or their entry to the professional world via an audition can fail, all within a heartbeat. Parallel with this life-threatening consequence is the desire to be musical artist, the root of their original ambition. The relationship of their love of music to the pressures of acquiring and maintaining a job in music, has barely been researched. I can think of only one monograph, Stephen Cottrell’s Professional Music-making in London: Ethnography and Experience (Ashgate, 2004).

Regardless of the pressures to succeed, professional musicians describe the environment of the amateur ensembles as tepid if not torpid when compared to their high-octane culture.

The assumption in the above scenario is that a career musician plays the same instrument in both worlds – vocation and avocation. My situation is rather different, thanks to the dramatic switch I have made from flute to cornet. Curiously, my particular scenario is strikingly similar to many Early Music players and ethnomusicologists who find themselves learning a historical Western music instrument, or ethnic music instrument from the ground up, after having trained for decades to play a modern Western music instrument at a high level of accomplishment.

Participation in an Amateur Ensemble

One of the major issues in any amateur ensemble like a brass band is the range of technical abilities among the players that individually contribute to the collective whole. As the old saying goes, “a chain is as strong as its weakest link”.

The following discussion does not include British Brass Bands in England, and oddly enough, youth ensembles in the Far East, especially in the grade schools. Their model of participation that is almost sacrificial. Practices include three and four sessions on weekdays and even weekends.  (The usual practice of amateur ensembles in the Old and New World is a couple of hours, once a week. Schools are a bit different.) In Japan, the one experience that I have seen described extensively, in addition to many, many hours of group instruction, young musicians will often break out into groups of like instruments where the seniors will teach the juniors on tone development and bar-by-bar perfection of their parts. It is as if their lives are consumed by their hobbies. When this regimen is first encountered it can appear to be a kind of blind obsession, but I was reminded by some associates that the model greatly resembles recreational athletics, where young and old alike practice and play for countless hours each week.

The model where players meet only occasionally is buttressed by the additional understanding that players practice on their own, for countless hours a week. I am reminded of activities like book clubs, where members are required to read books from cover to cover before they meet to discuss the book at hand for a couple of hours. Herein lies the flaw. Private practice is in the hand of the individuals, and adults in particular, have many more competing interests and levels of commitment. The fall-back for some (many?) is to “privately practice” at the rehearsals, in the midst of the entire band or orchestra.

In any amateur music ensemble, there is a tension between those who are advanced, and those who are not. Many players are often drawn from people who were in bands or orchestras in school, who then abandoned those musical hobbies as they went about the business of pursuing post-secondary education and establishing families and careers. Now, as they return to those instruments, many discover that their adult lives are not as conducive to perfection as the time when they were young, footloose and fancy-free. Others may be adult beginners, the brave new world of music education.

The personal reasons for those who are technically handicapped may include limited (or no!) time for individual practice, due to the pressures of neighbours and non-musical obligations. Older beginners may be unfamiliar or repelled by the imposed life-style of young beginners (especially pianists) who are closeted away for an hour or so each day to grind through technical development and mind-numbing repetition.  One unique problem seems to exist for older (retired?) amateurs. They have the time and interest to join several music ensembles, thus setting themselves up for conflicting concert and rehearsal schedules, and even less time available to perfect individual pieces of music during home practice. Some older amateurs will even say that they have no real talent; a condition they may even claim was true even when they were younger. It is interesting to contrast this excuse with young beginners, where the question of talent is bypassed by their private music teachers who guide them through the well-tread labyrinth of technical development, regardless of natural ability.

One way for amateur ensembles to bypass the baggage brought by amateurs handicapped with limited technique is to institute auditions. But that works against the universality of equal access to music-making. How to motivate the players to strive for excellence, without recourse to auditions that inevitably create a cultural gap between the have and have-not players, is the big question for me. Given that all players are equally motivated when beginning their musical ventures, and ignoring the mythology of “talent”, how can players be nurtured to strive for perfection, even if they assume they are not likely candidates for such a role? One stop-gap measure is the assignment of second and third chair positions for beginners, but that is a false economy. The parts may be easy, but their place in the music is still crucial. Even if the parts can still be played with a modicum of technique, the possibility of moving up to the more challenging parts in first and solo chairs should be ever present

Within non-audition amateur western art music organisations in the West, avoidable mistakes and limited technique are often shrugged away with a sheepish grin or a judge-not-lest-ye-be-judged stance. Those who have every intention of doing well and yet cannot, no matter how hard they try, can be a serious liability and detriment to the ensemble. They challenge the conductor’s patience and mandate to provide an enjoyable listening experience for their home-town audience. “Amateur” becomes a synonym for “mediocre”.

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The simple question is this. How can a motley ensemble of amateur musicians be motivated to individually excel, without the threats levelled at the professional musicians – expulsion or financial reward? No doubt the same question, rephrased to fit the context, are at the heart of amateur popular and folk music ensembles as well.

The benefits

Given the awkward realities I have just described, why would anybody join an amateur ensemble? Or, perhaps to put it another way, why do amateur music ensembles exist?

When I think about this question, I am reminded of my first encounter with a professional symphony when I was fresh out of advanced flute studies. It was a shock. Instead of the earnest aspirations coloured by worshipful behaviour found in the youth symphony, I encountered a business-like atmosphere seemingly devoid of inspiration. Musicians worked hard, then went home, like any working person. The dull atmosphere of high-end rehearsals were complicated by the constant threat of failure in the space of a micro-second and the stultifying role of the conductor whose position was autocratic and presumptious. His mime and stick technique was allegedly brought life and art to the compositions being performed, while the performers were tabula rasa. It seems to me that he (or very, very rarely, she) is nothing more than a mediator of tempo and dynamics, like a sound engineer.

Amateur ensembles have one magnificent obsession. They are utterly and completely devoted to the “flow”, as described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

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Each contributes equally to the whole in a moment-to-moment panorama of a soundscape that is exquisitely alive and integrated. To put it another way, the ensemble is also the prime audience. They are both the creators and the recipients of the music experience, from the inside-out, unlike the passive members of the audience who witness them. Even audiences are unlike the masses who crowd the symphony halls. Many are relatives and friends who witness their loved ones and associates perform “flow” as if by magic. And those who wander in from the streets are motivated not by the commitment to seek value for the cost of their admission, but rather to hear “the little engine that could”. To think that composers and arrangers create the soundscapes for such a beautiful experience. We tip our hats to Hindemith’s Gebrauchsmusik and Telemann’s Der Getreue Musikmeister (1728). And we recall that ethnic ensembles like the Indonesian gamelan and African drumming ensembles function in the same aura of “flow”. Professional ensembles are also aware of the “flow” in their efforts, but it is heavily mediated by the imperatives of the work place. Not so, in amateur ensembles.

Further study

It is in this field of inquiry that Participant-Observation could move from passive observation to active intervention. Guideposts would be provided by research material, ethnographic interviews with successful amateur ensembles, and access to the International Journal of Community Music and International Journal of Lifelong Education. And courses designed in a new field I have called Applied Sociomusicology. Clues could come from surprising domains like karaoke. I especially enjoy reading about the research conducted by Robert A. Stebbins of the University of Calgary. His blog is entitled Serious Leisure and his findings are some of the most important discoveries of this century.

Given the crisis of audience attendance experienced by many professional art music organisations, it would seem that this academic direction is crucial to the future of music-making. Music-makers are the core of music listeners.


Robert A. Stebbins (1996) The Barbershop Singer: Inside the Social World of a Musical Hobby

Harris M. Berger and Giovanna P. Del Negro (2004) Identity and Everyday Life: Essays in the Study of Folklore, Music, and Popular Culture

Thomas Turino (2008) Music as Social Life: The Politics of Participation

Paul Fleming (2009) Exemplarity and Mediocrity: The Art of the Average From Bourgeois Tragedy to Realism

David G. Herbert (2012) Wind Bands and Cultural Identity in Japanese Schools


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