Amateurs

I recently watched They Came to Play, a documentary about the Cliburn International Amateur Piano Competition. Contestants must be over 35 years old and NOT professional musicians (i.e., they don’t derive their main source of income from playing or teaching piano). Pianists from all over the world submit a CD and the top 75 are invited to Texas to compete.

What struck me was the sheer level of dedication among the contestants. Among the pianists featured in the film are a retired tennis coach, an eye doctor, a manager at Lockheed Martin, a lawyer, a church musician, a dental assistant, and an AIDS survivor. All of them are highly accomplished musicians who happen to have day jobs. I doubt anyone listening to them would think they are unskilled simply because they’re not professional concert pianists.

The word “amateur” has its root in the Latin word amatorem, which means “lover.” The first definition of “amateur” in The American Heritage Dictionary is “a person who engages in an art, science, study, or athletic activity as a pastime rather than as a profession.” Being an amateur simply means doing something primarily for love rather than money.

But somewhere along the way, “amateur” became a dirty word, especially in the arts. I’ve read so many articles over the years highlighting the differences between professional writers vs. amateur writers. These articles assume that amateurs are unskilled and uncommitted to improving their craft. I suspect many articles about amateur vs. professional musicians are the same way.

Where does this assumption come from? Perhaps it’s because our culture loves to attach a market value to everything. As Austin Kleon noted in Keep Going, we compliment people by telling someone they’re so good at something they love that they could make money at it. But the flip side of that view is that if someone isn’t making money at something, they must not be any good.

In artistic fields, where luck and access to resources are huge factors for commercial success, the push to “be professional” makes little sense to me. Perhaps “be professional” is used as shorthand for “treat your craft seriously,” but if that’s the case, I think we should be clear about that.

Professionals aren’t automatically more committed or “better” (whatever that means) than amateurs. People choose not to make a living from their art for all sorts of reasons, such as lack of opportunities, not wanting the pressure, not wanting the lifestyle, not being marketable at the time, whatever. Denigrating amateurs simply because their art isn’t their job ignores the complexity of the decision and the fact that there isn’t enough market demand for most artists to get paid a living wage, or at all. Amateur artists can be as serious, skilled, and dedicated to improvement as professionals, and we shouldn’t automatically assume they’re dabblers (and if they are, that’s fine too–not everything has to be taken seriously).

If you have a chance, check out They Came to Play (I borrowed it from the library via Hoopla). Be wowed by the featured musicians and then give the amateur artists around you some love. Check out a community theatre production or a community band concert or an open mic night or a self-published book. The level of skill may surprise you.