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LISTENERS - Professional or Amateur? March 2002

No one questions the professional status of physicians or surgeons, barristers, bank managers and the like; though one might sometimes wonder about the status of boxers, footballers or plumbers; after all the latter might only be a D.I.Y enthusiast (though this could be lethal - and indeed illegal - when it comes to gas fitting). And while sportsmen can earn a vast income from playing professionally, there seems to be no particular legally-qualifying gateway they must pass through such as society demands from doctors, accountants or lawyers before they are allowed to call themselves professionals.

With musicians however, there has always seemed to be a perceived, though really quite unreal social dividing line between professional and amateur practitioners of the art. In a very real sense professional musicians are akin to professional sportsmen: they earn their living from the practice of music making. It is probably reasonable to assume that in the very earliest days of mankind’s perception of music as an art, the practice of it, whether as composer or performer, was merely regarded as some kind of pleasant social attribute to be indulged in by those who had ability to communicate with or entertain those not gifted in this way. In the very, very basic sense perhaps it was never regarded (perhaps it still is not) as an essential to life in the way that growing food, making clothes, building shelter or other similar life-sustaining, practical ‘work’ obviously is. In the earliest days of music there were no professionals at all, it was essentially a recreational — amateur — phenomenon. This of course, is grossly to over-simplify a deeply philosophical question: are the arts necessary ? are sports necessary ?

Whether a musician earns his or her living by practising the art of music (a ‘professional’) or merely indulges in it as a social accomplishment without any financial reward (an ‘amateur’) is almost irrelevant to a person’s ability to appreciate the art. In the best sense of the word all who make music, or only listen to it in a passive way are or should be ‘amateurs’ — ‘lovers’ of music. Unless one ‘loves’ music (i.e. is an ‘amateur’) there seems to be little point in being involved with it at all; one might as well do something else: archaeology, lorry-driving,deep-sea diving,carpentry. market gardening or politics. The point about all this is to dispell that artificial dividing line that so often be-devils the attitude of professional versus amateur in musical affairs. While some musicians claim to be professional — in that they earn a living from music in some way — it does not mean they are necessarily superior in musicality to the person who earns a living in same other vocation but who might well be every bit as musically aware and sensitive as the so-called professional. It is accepted that in one, purely technical, sense, the highly-trained professional executant (or even composer) could be superior to the person who has had no such involvement, because he or she practises the art and craft of music as a full time job. The world-class solo performer, conductor, or orchestral player in a full-time orchestra is expected to be able to perform to the highest possible level of skill; to give as near a flawless performance as can be expected; but even such persons are only human and can — and do —quite often give less than perfect performances. (Perhaps it can be argued that even surgeons sometimes kill a patient, barristers fail to win a case, plumbers botch a fitting, footballers lose a match). But by and large our expectancy is that the professional in whatever field can be counted on to carry out an efficient task. On the other hand, in music at least, there is an attitude that takes it as a foregone conclusion that if it is an amateur effort it is bound to be flawed in some way and can never be equated with a professional performance.

While this might often have to be an accepted truism it is not necessarily so: many good amateur performances have turned out, by common consent, to be superior to a comparable professional performance. Why should this be so ? A not infrequent reason could be that a professional performance notwithstanding technical efficiency, can sometimes lack spontaneity and commitment: the performer gets stale with having performed too often, whereas an amateur performance can, in spite of lesser technical accomplishment, just sometimes achieve an emotionally-moving and utterly compel1ing performance because of the sense of occasion that is experienced by the performer.

So what of the listener ? Professional musicians are generally more technically informed about the music’s purpose and intent, and are thus more likely to be accurate in an assessment as to a performance’s ultimate technical success, but they are no more capable of being emotionally communicated with than any other listener, amateur or professional. Being communicated with through the language of music is not primarily a matter of sophisticated technical awareness, it is a quite indefinable quality that people possess in infinitely varying degrees, no matter what their musical status.

I am sometimes inclined to think that professional musicians are not as good at listening as their amateur brethren. The professional is often just too technically critical altogether: cannot enjoy a performance because he or she is unable to put aside considerations of technique for its own sake, whether it be the technique of executant performers or the intellectual content of the music itself from a composer’s point of view. So often one reads critiques by distinguished authorities who seem to have had no pleasure or delight at all in what they have heard. They might retort that by comparison, the uninformed listener — the amateur — is naive and so unsophisticated as to be unable to judge the finer points of a performance or of the music being performed.

Both these views have a validity: the informed professional, whether he or she be performer or critic, certainly has some intellectual advantage in bringing to bear an informed assessment, but this is just as often despoiled by a jaundiced hyper-critical, or biased attitude, born of over-familiarity, personal envy or other sense of partisan regard for the music or the performer. The uncommitted listener on the other hand is generally far more impartial — unlike the professional he has no axe to grind.

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