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."
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."
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.
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.
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.
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:
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'.
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."
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
music critic and polemicist Karl Storck closed the second edition of his History
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.
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.