Violin Pedagogy: How Did They Learn?

Definition of Amateur Musician
by Dr. Robin Kay Deverich

What is an amateur musician? The word amateur is a derivative of the Latin verb amo meaning:  to love. Therefore, an amateur musician is one who loves playing music. Common usage of the term, however, often differs from this meaning. Some of the definitions of amateur found in the Oxford English Dictionary include:  (1) "one who loves or is fond of," and, (2) "one who cultivates something as a pastime, as distinguished from one who prosecutes it professionally; hence, sometimes used disparagingly, as-dabbler, or superficial student or worker."[1] It is this second definition, a condescending view of amateur musicians as being inferior dabblers, that often prevails in our era. Historically, this has not always been the case. As one author noted:  "At other times and places, musical amateurism has carried with it a very high level of status indeed, a status significantly higher than that of professionalism."[2] For example:

In the Medieval and Renaissance periods, distinctions of ability between professional and amateur musicians were not at all clear: the professional made his living with music, whereas the amateur-often of the aristocratic class-had the luxury of making music for the sheer love of it, and amateurs often outstripped professionals in the quality of their training and musical skills! History is dotted with such musical amateurs: King David, singer and lyre player; Frederick the Great, flutist; Thomas Jefferson, violinist. The late Renaissance composer Gesualdo was an aristocratic amateur whose economic independence freed him to make audacious experiments with harmony, and-more recently-Charles Ives' profession as an insurance mogul gave him the financial resources to experiment boldly without worrying about pandering to the public or even to the critics. Amateur musicians, no less than their professional brethren, follow in the footsteps of giants.[3]

Up through the early twentieth century, it was fairly common for individuals to be amateur musicians. Musicologist Ralph P. Locke examined factors which shaped the developmental path of art music in America, and found that one of the primary differences between those who attended concerts in the early twentieth century and those who go to concerts today, is that concert attendees in the past were often musical amateurs. Locke explained:

Art music was hardly a new or foreign experience for many first-time concertgoers, whether they were housewives or lawyers, schoolteachers or college students.  Quite the contrary, the music of the opera house and the concert hall was a direct extension of the primarily European or plainly European-derived repertories that many members of the audience-from the rising classes as well as, or even more than, the elite-regularly sang or played with relatives or friends at home, or in the church choir or amateur choral society (thanks to Lowell Mason and his co-reformers), or in the town band.  This is perhaps the most striking difference between the concertgoer of a hundred years ago and of today:  whether interested in "classical" or "popular" music, she or he was often not only a consumer but an active and sometimes interactive player or singer.[4]

Numerous factors contributed to a decline of musical amateurs in the twentieth century, including technological advances that led to the widespread availability of recorded music.  Musicians such John Philip Sousa predicted that the phonograph and other music recording devices would produce dire consequences:

Sousa feared the replacement of music making with passive listening; the gradual silencing of the town band, the amateur singer and pianist, 'until there will be left only the mechanical device and the professional executants'.  'Wherever there is a phonograph the musical instrument is displaced.  The time is coming when no one will be ready to submit himself to the ennobling discipline of learning music. . . Everyone will have their ready made or ready pirated music in their cupboards'.[5]

Another interesting factor that led to a decline in musical amateurs in the early twentieth century, was a trend for concert audiences to become educated, passive, listeners:  "Active amateurism was supplanted by a culture of musical connoisseurship grounded in the cultivation of high orders of ordinary literacy.  Musical education became highly dependent on reading about music."[6]

Some individuals, alarmed by a decline in active music making, suggested that an increase in musical amateurs would help elevate musical culture, a view that is applicable today:

Berlin music critic and polemicist Karl Storck closed the second edition of his History of Music with the lament that musical culture was at a startlingly low point.  The cause of the "impoverishment" of musical culture, Storck thought, was that music was no longer practiced in the home.  Chamber music, for example, had become exclusively concert music.  The level of musical education left the public without the capacity for true musical judgment, a fact that, in turn, made vulgar popular musical taste the norm. Despite the growth in the size of the audience, the numbers of those who could "take part" in musical life had grown smaller. The need was for a new form of Gebrauchskunst (practical art), written by professionals, which could encourage the revival of a high level of amateurism.[7]

Amateur violinists, those who love playing the violin, have existed since the early days of the violin. Whether they were members of the aristocracy, playing for pleasure, or schoolchildren learning how to play the violin in a group class, amateur violinists have played an important role in the history of string education.