How great it is to be an amateur musician
In the violin world it’s often only about child prodigies and becoming a pro. Sometimes we tend to forget that music is a fun social activity that is open for all levels and ages. When I got this wonderful e-mail from Charles, I immediately wanted to share it with you, so I’m doing so with his permission:
Written by: Charles Gagnebin, retired attorney
I have been nothing more than an amateur musician since childhood and have loved what it means to me to stay an amateur and not worry about the inability to be professional.
There is so much you read online which takes a negative view towards being an amateur musician.
I find that frustrating since to me being an amateur, mainly on piano and violin, is a gem of my life at age 80.
I was never allowed to take music lessons in my youth because of a fear of my parents that I might spend too much time in music which was a problem of a nephew at the time. My father had been in the Harvard Banjo Club in the 1920s so I played with and taught myself how to play his old tenor banjo still residing in our house. I remember a high school teacher condemning that instrument.
After I graduated from Harvard and started a job at MIT on a track towards my career as a patent lawyer I warmed up musically by buying a used piano from a technician there to help me try to learn to sing so that I could pass the audition to sing in the MIT Choral Society. The singing turned out to be a total failure but playing the piano became an early amateur music gem in my life. I taught myself the basics of playing and early on discovered the beauty of playing fakebook style in which the left hand music was essentially chords matching the melody of the right hand music. Many books were and are available with fakebook music of all styles presented in a relatively easy to play form. Many people still look on that form of playing as bad but if you focus your music life at the amateur level those comments are meaningless and it makes you play easily, comfortably and joyfully. I only started taking piano lessons over 30 years later when my wife and I stopped on the way home from work at a music store for her to take guitar lessons that left me sitting for half an hour with nothing to do. That encouraged me to start taking piano lessons from the nice teachers there. She gave me no serious pressure to abandon fakebook but encouraged me to learn both hand playing in the normal style to develop my hand skills on the piano. We became such good friends that several years later she and her spouse to be asked me to become ordained and perform their wedding in New Hampshire which of course I did gleefully.
About the time I started a brief period of piano lessons my wife and I started contradancing and I was so impressed to see live fiddle playing at contradances that I convince myself to take up playing a bowed instrument, starting of course with a viola tuned the same as my father‘s tenor banjo. A few months later I got a real Violin and three months after that went to Mark O’Connors fiddle camp outside of Nashville Tennessee in June 2000. I remember with total comfort taking a lesson from Martin Hayes who’s one comment stuck with me endlessly and that was “keep it fun”. That establishes the value of being an amateur, playing as well as you can at an amateur level and loving the results of what you do as an amateur. I continue to play both piano and fiddle with endless comfort. I play classical, folk and bluegrass mainly. I have even made a few short recordings for professional level use by friends after a period of working on the tune.
This all comes down to being an amateur musician needs to be seen at a level of fun and simplicity that makes you enjoy your playing to the maximum possible. Continuing to learn is of course important but without the pressure to aim toward a professional level.