Bits and Pieces

Bits and Pieces

Sarah Zaslaw

Do-It-Yourself Music: In Praise of Amateurs

By Sarah ZaslawPosted October 22, 2012 3:52pm (EDT)
Of the six friends of the couple playing at this wedding, only two make their living as instrumentalists. (Photo: Jon Reis.)

Of the six friends of the couple playing at this wedding, only two make their living as instrumentalists. (Photo: Jon Reis.)


On the radio I play you recordings by professional musicians, I promote professional concerts and I cheer on the pros who add so much to our cultural life. But here’s a confession: I have a weak spot for amateurs, too. In fact, full disclosure, I am one.

An amateur is someone who does something just for the love of it, not to make a living. Amateur music-makers generally have less training than their paid comrades, and they almost certainly practice less, having other day jobs. But they can still be expressive, gung-ho musicians who get a lot out of making music themselves.

There’s a lot to be said for do-it-yourself music. What better way to get to know a tune than from the inside? It can be a more moving experience to sit in the middle of a so-so orchestra yourself than to hear impeccable artists play the same piece from a distance. You feel the stage vibrate through the soles of your shoes as you play your heart out, contributing to the whole, engulfed by sound. Sometimes "amateur" may veer into "amateurish," but so what? It's not about perfection. It's about experiencing music from within and sharing the joy. Given some baseline level of competence, the heart of the music can shine right through. And there you are in the thick of it.

Maybe you get together with friends to play through music for fun. It’s illuminating to even attempt to sightread a great piece. You'll notice all kinds of things you might not pick up on as an observer about how the parts fit together. And then the next time you do see that work in concert or hear it on the radio, you’ll have a deeper appreciation for the artists who make it sound so effortless. "Wow, did you notice the spotless intonation on that run?...What precise rhythm!...You can't even tell they're playing double stops there!"

Don’t have the chops for virtuosic passagework? No problem. Hard isn’t everything. You can give and receive pleasure by offering simpler fare with heart. In the community where I’m a volunteer musician these days, I’ve got a gratifying niche as a peer making music for peers. The stuff we do isn’t finger-twistingly fancy, but it’s fun and meaningful and people love it. Being a medium fish in a small pond has its pleasures. Consider joining a church choir or pickup band or other community group that performs now and then.

And there's always just doing it all alone. Belt out a favorite song at the piano or pick a tune out on the guitar.

I hope you find yourself a musical niche too. Any setting works, with or without onlookers. If it feels good to you as an outlet, it counts. When you think about it, music used to be exclusively do-it-yourself, right? Songs especially. Lullabies, drinking songs, sea shanties, serenades, ballads, on the hunt, at spiritual gatherings, around the fire.

So go for it! Express yourself. Find a likeminded crowd or a quiet corner, and yodel or toot or tinkle or saw or strum away.

Music: Like other essential human activities, it’s too important to be left to the professionals.

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