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Winter 1996, Volume 13.1



Wayne C. Booth

The Last Amateurs or: Why Bother to Learn Thumb Position on the Cellow When You're in Your Eighth Decade?

Wayne Booth (Ph.D., University of Chicago) has taught at Haverford and Earlham Colleges in Chicago. He is author of
The Rhetoric of Fiction, Modern Dogma and the Rhetoric of Assent, Critical Understanding: The Powers and Limits of Pluralism, The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction, and The Art of Growing Older.


Note: What follows is a draft of the "Overture" and a bit of the "Coda" of a book I'm writing in defense of "the amateur" and "amateur pursuits." I am not at all convinced yet that a single book can be mined from the many disparate lodes prospectors will detect here. But I go on trying to improve it, just as I go on working to improve my playing of chamber music. Most of what I include here was written last year, when I was 73. Now I'm 74, with one draft sort of completed. But it's still at a stage where suggestions from readers will be welcome.

But yield who will to their separation
My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight.
Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For Heaven and the future's sakes.
            Robert Frost, "Two Tramps in Mud Time"

Music is my bliss. —Ed Bradley


Stop! Stop! We've lost Zimmie! Let's go back to 'D' and take it a touch slower and…"

"Oh, come off it, Mink, there's no point in stopping us just because somebody flubs a note…

"Dammit, let's go back to 'S' and work it over a couple of times, half as fast, so that…"

"I hate all this 'going back.' What're we here for if not to just get on with it, feeling it as a whole and moving on…?"

"I don't agree at all; we're having trouble with it and we ought to try to perfect it. That's the whole point. From now on we ought to…"

"The fact is, we're all dragging. After all, Beethoven's marking was 84 per dotted quarter…"

"Sam, the trouble isn't our dragging. It's you're counting it in threes; it'll feel a lot better if you do it just one to a measure. Dance it, for crying out loud…"

Yes, I'm afraid our evenings sometimes sound a bit like that. But fortunately, a lot of our conversation sounds more like this:

"That solo was terrific, Sal. Even though we all were a bit ragged, you just kept it moving…?" Or: 

"Hey, that was grand, you guys! [This from a woman, with only one man in the room.] Isn't that movement about the best ever written? The way that viola part just…" Or:

"Golly, that was wonderful; I don't think we've ever done it that good before." (Grammar is the least of our worries, as it ought to be.) Or:

"Louisie, your solo there was terrific—you must have really worked at that…." Or:

"Man alive, the way you two [the viola and first violin] did that duet of sixteenths: that was thrilling. How do you do it?" Or even:

"I'm afraid you'll have to give me a minute till I can get these tears cleared away; that was… that was…wasn't that…?"

Sometimes the talk wanders pretty far away and has to be called back:

"That final section reminds me of the time when Solti was rehearsing the London Philharmonic, and he shouted out…"

"Oh, come on, Harold, we don't have time for another story. Let's get on with it…"

And once in a great while one of our companions gets her courage up and says something like this:

"By the way, Wayne, you speed up every time you have a rapid solo. Why not just relax and enjoy it…?"

To which I'm likely to reply:

"You know, I don't think I'll ever be able to do that solo right, up there in thumb position. I keep working at it, and…"

Fortunately, the talk always—except at the end of an evening—turns back to playing:

"OK, ready? Tricky opening here. A measure and three quarters for nothing. One, two, three, four; one, two, three…"


And we're off, into the heavens. Well, we would have been, last night, but just as we raised our bows, Deborah, who had arrived late, looked across at Dorothy, playing first, and burst out, "Oh, Dorothy, I love what you've done to your hair." And Dorothy answered in kind: "I think yours looks lovely, too."

Even if you've never played a note of chamber music, you can guess that it took a few moments to get our bows, and our spirits, back into the challenge at hand.

The point is that we never play without a lot of talk; only two amateurs whom my wife, Phyllis, and I have played with, both of them timid about everything, have failed to join in conversation. Most of the talk is about music, praise God, and most of that talk is friendly talk, even loving talk—about the music we're playing, about how we're doing it, about how we should be doing it, about what it means that we are doing it.

"Life" does interrupt, sometimes dragged in by our egos, sometimes by the depth of our emotional engagement: not just talk about coiffures, cataracts, broken ankles and hips, not just business deals and teaching problems, but the whole range of "birth, copulation, and death." What does it all mean? We bring not only our "selves" to the sessions—our sore backs, our arthritic fingers, our unappreciative or even destructive mates; we bring questions about God's creation and where chamber music fits into it. On the whole we remember not to talk too much only when everything goes as it should.

Since most of us most of the time are not playing as well as we wish we could, there's a lot of talk about failure. Phyllis is not the only one who has said to me, "You should just stop distracting us from the main point by apologizing about your own playing." But most of us commit that kind of distraction—because, well, because—because we long for perfection, sometimes feel it hovering closer and closer—and then it flees, pursued by a straight E that should have been an E flat. Or, even worse, a note halfway between.

So what will be the main point here? Well, obviously not the totally, finally inaccessible perfection but the playing itself, good and bad. We usually manage to rise above the distractions and play, for the sake of the playing. While much of the rest of the world is negotiating costs and benefits of a different kind, we are negotiating interpretations—and when things go well, the pay-off is beauty, friendship, and joy. (About the many in the world who can afford neither kind of negotiation—the impoverished, the hungry, the deprived—I'll not say much, and what I say will be said guiltily. To fiddle while much of the world burns is surely wicked, but everyone who has read this far is to some degree already caught up in the wickedness. Will I be able to say any more in my defense than that some kinds of fiddling come closer to redeeming the world than some other kinds?)


This book by an amateurish amateur began as an attempt at an article—one that got out of hand. About fifteen years ago I was trying as I still am to "master" thumb position down toward the bridge of the cello—that is, up toward the high notes where you see professional cellists looking so comfortable in TV close-ups. We were playing a lot of chamber music, as we are now—Phyllis playing very well, almost professionally, myself more or less badly yet with immense pleasure. I thought I could amuse the world with an essay exploiting all that, to be called something like "Why Bother to Learn Thumb Position Approaching Your Seventh Decade?" Actually, though, the book in a sense began long before that, before I'd even dreamed of writing anything about such matters, far back in 1952. That was when I first "took up" the cello, at 31, discovered how difficult it was, and often asked myself (never in writing, that I can remember): "Why bother, in your fourth decade, already 'getting on,' to learn to play this aggressively resistant instrument? You know that you'll never reach the major leagues. Since you didn't get the tough drill into your bones and muscles and neurons when you were young, you'll never play even as well as Phyllis does, let alone as the poorest of the professionals. Why attempt the impossible?"

Only recently has that uncompleteable essay turned itself into this overly-ambitious effort to address the broader questions that flower out of (or might I say "threaten to drown?) any amateur's labors and rewards. "Why bother, at any stage in life, and especially in the later decades, to work for any new skill or know-how, when you can be certain that you'll never fully master it, or even come close to professional competence?" Or, "Why bother, at any stage in life, to do anything except make a good living and have fun?" Or, "Why bother to learn to play the cello, when there are so many more obviously important tasks that the world demands of any thoughtful person?" Or, turning in another direction: "Isn't anything worth doing worth doing really well—better than you'll ever play the cello?" Or, turning to problems of the larger world, "Why have so many professionals—people who have learned to do some one thing to perfection—lost the amateur spirit?" Or, "How do the amateur's 'useless,' loving labors in learning to play chamber music relate to the world's desperate need for more practical ways of spending 'leisure time': in politics, philanthropy and charitable work, elementary or high school teaching, church work, or simply—in the language of my childhood—'visiting the sick and afflicted'"?

Finally, "What about the inherent value of music itself? Philosophers from Plato through Schopenhauer to the present have been unable to separate thought about music from thought about metaphysics and religion. Are you going to ignore them? Why tout music rather than, say, stamp collecting, breeding dogs for sale, or bungee jumping?"

Thus the questions seem endless, once one goes beyond practicing thumb position (and all the other difficulties) and starts to think about why we should—or should not—devote ourselves to any amateur pursuit. Thinking about some of those questions and figuring out how to avoid some others has turned that original rather jokey essay into a project that has often felt just plain unmanageable: three or four different voices calling for quite different books, some of the voices attempting to sound quite professional as they insist on taking over the whole project: Make it an autobiography! Make it philosophical! Make it religious! Make it "a celebration of music"! Make it a lament about what our professionalized, expert-ridden world is doing to our leisure time!

What I hope will harmonize the debating voices is an unqualified celebration of what it means to take on any difficult and complex task for the sheer love of the task itself, with no possibility of future pay-off. In a world filled increasingly with easy pleasures why take on a tough love that requires daily practice, burdens you with a sense of critical failure, and risks leading others to accuse you of wasting your time—and theirs? Or, if you are bored with the easier pleasures, why not instead give yourself more of the pleasure yielded by getting ahead professionally? Steady devotion at the office will get you somewhere, while steady devotion in front of a music stand or learning jazz trombone or gardening—well, won't you just end up about where you began?


As a first move toward harmonizing all—or at least some—of those questions, I must unravel that tangled word "amateur." Sixty years ago, when two amateur German musicians, Aulich and Heimeran, were doing a jokey little book about chamber playing, The Well-tempered String Quartet, they were already aware that the word "amateur" was in trouble:

What a terribly hard word it is to define, how difficult to describe those true devotees of music! 'Amateur'—how much it may mean!1

The word has had really bad luck in English lately. While in many European languages it still manages to maintain most of its original inheritance from the Latin love word—amo- amas- amat-, in English it is increasingly used to suggest incompetence.2 Recently a father complained about the death of his soldier son in Somalia: "It's going to be hard to convince me that my son's death was not caused by amateurs." And at least one full-length book, by Donald Spencer, has claimed that Jimmy Carter failed as president because he was an amateur—that is, he was amateurish, not the kind of expert who has learned the professional arts of governing.

Here is how the dictionaries record the word these days:

Am-a-teur (am'a-choor, -toor, am'a-tur') [F. fr. L. amator lover, fr. amatus, pp. of amare to love]. n. 1. One who practices an art or science or sport for his3 own pleasure, rather than as a profession. 2. One who does something without professional skill or ease.

Occasionally Phyllis and I play with other amateurs who would be annoyed by the second definition: they play for love but with professional skill and ease.4 Usually, though, we are all amateurs in both definitions: we play for the love of the playing, and we too often reveal signs that we lack professional skill or ease.

I am an amateur cellist with an uncomfortable vulnerability to that word "lack" in the second definition. I do love to play the cello—especially when others are playing with me; over the years it has come to feel less and less like a mere addendum to life, a pastime, a hobby, and more and more like something beyond even an added luxury: it's now a necessity. But though I "practice" the art lovingly, "for my own pleasure," practice at least an hour a day, I often practice it with little ease and never with any skill remotely resembling "professional."

Give me a few measures of rapid thirty-second notes, as Brahms did with his first sextet (op. 18) last night 

Four line of very difficult cello music consisting of constant 32nd notes.

—give me anything even close to that level of difficulty and I'm almost sure to flub some of those notes. If I'm really tired or stressed, I may miss most of them. Give me a passage in "thumb position," far up on the neck (that is to repeat, in fact down toward the floor), and I may, even after all these years of lessons and practice, produce sounds that would make any listener, amateur or professional, wince.

As amateur of the second kind, still radically amateurish, I do want some credit for how hard I've worked and am still working. The dictionaries say nothing, in their definitions, about that required "hard work." They should put that word "practice" in boldface. Most of your true amateurs will never entirely escape being amateurish, but they don't just dabble at something that they sort of like to do occasionally: in short, they work at learning to play better. And like an amateur tennis player I met recently, they revel in the one joy denied the top professionals: "They all know," he said, "that fairly soon they'll be 'losing it'—playing less well than they did at the top. But we amateurs are so far from the top that we can go on improving indefinitely: we'll never get there but we can go on getting closer almost to our dying day."

MAY 9, 1994, JOURNAL

All that was written months ago, and here I am, not just 73 but 73-plus-almost-three-months-toward-74, and still not even a first draft of the book completed. And still practicing "impossible" stuff, intolerably. Last night I got really discouraged as I tackled for the first time Popper's Etude #25, assigned by my new teacher for the next lesson. Am I really getting any better? At our chamber music weekend in Sleepy Hollow, Ingrid, a not-bad violist, reported at breakfast that she had dreamed she had a B-flat bicycle tire. I thought of the dream as I felt really deflated last night about how badly my practice was going. What I later dreamed about, though, was my broken clarinet reed. [I played the clarinet as a boy]5

Anyway, I know that as amateur of the first kind, the purely disinterested lover, I really ought to cut here everything but the rarified, ineffable bliss that comes when…But to start in that elevated vein is to get ahead of my story….

Obviously there are other amateur pursuits that could well represent the larger issues I'm grappling with: what for the moment I'll call "genuinely worthwhile leisure-time allocation": jazz, painting, organizing charities, gardening. In a Coda to the book itself, I'll list more than a hundred amateur pursuits that unlike time-killers and ice-cream addictions seem to me worth the effort entailed in the pursuit. But no matter how I try, I can't fully disguise my conviction that some amateur choices—some of these love matches—are better than others, and that mine is among the best. Though different loves reward different lovers in different ways, I'll not be able to resist some open pleas to join me in playing and singing music, and especially chamber music. Everyone who has had even a smattering of musical experience, as player or listener—and that surely includes just about everyone in every culture—ought to give a good try at the making of music in groups.6 Whether it's jazz combos or church choirs or madrigal societies or local baroque orchestras or gamelans, you'll find that joining the practice will… but why should I give away my argument so quickly?

It's curious that our language lacks adequate nouns and verbs to cover this neglected subject. Even if "amateur" is recovered as the term for the lover, what do we call the thing loved?

—my love? ambiguous
—my "hobby" or "pastime"? trivializing
—my "avocation"? too much of a negative hint in that "a-" (after all, what we're talking about is not a non-calling but a calling)7
—my "amateur activity"? my "amateur pursuit"? My "genuinely worthwhile leisure-time allocation"?


So, though I have always been suspicious of other people's neologisms, I find that in writing of the amateur world, I need three.

Note that unlike the noun "amateur" some of our nouns do provide the quadruple grammatical load called for here: active noun, verb, gerund, and inactive abstract noun. I am a lover: active noun. I love you: verb. I give you all my loving: gerund. I have found my true love, which is loving: inactive abstract noun, the practice itself. Only a few other words have that same quadruple richness: "work" and "fuck" are obvious candidates: I leave it to you to run through the list.

For some reason the word "amateur" has never developed beyond the simple actor. I am an amateur. I like to—amateur? I think we need that verb, with its gerund: I'm fully alive when amateuring. So far so good. But what do I call what I have chosen to do? Obviously, that must be my amachoice, unless I want to call it—my craft? My forté? My proficiency art? My field? My gig? My line? My schtick? My bag? My secondary field of expertise? My knack? My thing?—the thing I do when I'm doing my thing?

No, no: here it'll be my amachoice, whether you like it or not:

am-a-choice. n. 1. Any vigorous, demanding, human pursuit performed for love of the pursuit itself. [amator, -oris lover amare to love; choice, of chois, choisir, to choose].

If you are still with me after all that, it is time to talk a bit about who I hope "you" are, with your divergent interests implied by my talking of various competing books. Thinking of you and not just of competing literary genres, I find the kinds of hoped-for readers multiplying to seven: all of you whom I hope to unite in a chorus not just lamenting what is happening to our leisure time but celebrating the whole world of amateuring.

1. You who have been feeling lately that what was once your active amachoice (whether music or photography or sailing or whatever) is being infringed, curtailed, or corrupted by professional or vocational pressures—or just by a plain need for cash:

Unless your original amachoice was some form of music-making, you're likely to begin feeling like an outsider fairly frequently here. But since one of my main hopes is to tempt you back into the—dare I say the "fold"?—I hope that you can at most points simply translate my celebration into the terms that fit your love. Just get cracking on whatever amachoice appeals to you. You may even be tempted to say something publicly about the problems your kind of amateurs face these days, attempting an explanation of why so many people we meet, holding "high-class" jobs, lament that they have given up the amachoice they once practiced.

2. You who are amateur musicians, already "caught" and actively engaged:

Regardless of how you would now grade yourself, as player or listener, my accounts of my lousy playing may tempt you to say, "The players in my groups are not that bad." You may well ask, "Why a whole chapter devoted to a comedy about the plight of the beginner? And why bother to explain the problems that every musician already knows about?" Well, I'm asking you to think about the parallels between the problems we face and those faced by other amateurs. Let's just be patient and discover just what our pursuit of music for the sake of the pursuit says, as representative case, about the rest of the world. Besides, discovering how poor a player I am ought to make you feel good.

3. You who are (or were once upon a time) professional musicians:

If you are really a pro, you will find a great deal here that will seem obvious, perhaps even boringly so. You'll want to do some skipping, but I hope to talk you into more not-for-pay playing than you have lately been managing. And if you're a pro who for whatever reason teaches others to play, you may well learn something here about how to do it better, at least when you're dealing with adult learners like me. [In Chapter Five I reminisce about teachers, good and bad.]

My title is deeply misleading if it suggests that in celebrating the amateur I mean to attack you as a professional: my barbs will be aimed only at a certain kind of professionalization, the kind that leads its victims to lament that love has little or nothing to do with what they practice.

Here is how Daniel Barenboim, so famous as a pianist and conductor that one might never think of him as an amateur, describes how a professional feels about the decline of the amateur world:

The idea of chamber music as the essence of music making is gradually disappearing for a variety of reasons. First of all, it was very much linked to playing music in private homes—not only by amateurs, but by professionals, too. Now people have less time, and a greater interest in passive musical appreciation and listening. Today there are so many more millions of people listening to music, but far fewer playing chamber music just for the pleasure of it. It is a tradition that has been lost….

I grew up in an environment where it was usual to play chamber music at home once a week. Even as late as the early 1960s we were playing regularly for our own pleasure in our London home.8

He goes on to show just how a professional can behave as a true amateur. When he met, for the first time, Arnold Steinhardt, violinist, Abraham Skernik, violist, and Jules Eskin, cellist, they rehearsed for a symphony concert, suddenly discovered musical rapport—

and went to Abraham Skerniks' house afterwards, had something to eat, and then played chamber music all night. I did not return to the hotel and when we finished playing the next morning, we had breakfast and went to the next rehearsal (102-3).

That's what chamber music can do to you; you never get enough. That's what any full amachoice does for you: you never get enough but you keep on doing it and trying to do it better. Whether you get paid for it or not, whether or not you win prizes, whether or not other people praise you for it, you never get enough.

None of this means that you should feel attacked here because you happen to be paid for your playing. All amateurs must feel grateful to all of you paid professionals who show us what music can be at its best. I surely would never have become an amateur cellist if I hadn't listened and listened and listened, always to pros who were being paid. What's more, it's impossible for anyone but players themselves to know whether the playing, or teaching, is done mainly for the love of it.

I'm especially eager, in this amateurish rescue operation, to rescue those old pros amond you who have given up playing because your skill has audibly fallen off. Nothing is sadder in the musical world than giving it all up because you can't cut it now with the kind of impressive spicatto arpeggios in the higher registers that impressed listeners two decades ago. Let me talk you into discarding all that worry about lost mastery and simply join us: keep on playing until the rest of us say right out, "It's time to stop."

4. You who are "mere" listeners who say, "I know nothing about music but I know what I like."

If you didn't have any music lessons as a kid, if you've never learned to read music at any level even though you like to listen or perhaps sing along, you will meet a few difficulties here, at precisely the points where those professionals I just lectured will complain about obviousness. If you were baffled when you saw that illustration from Brahms, you'll have trouble with some of the details about cello playing and the illustrations from works we've played, or played at. If you couldn't tell, in that illustration, that the heavier black marks stood for individual "notes," that the lighter black marks over the notes meant something about "play 'em very fast", and that when the notes move toward the top of the page they stand for a musical tone that goes "up," not "down," I'm surprised that you got this far—but now I welcome you and hope you'll hang on, even though you'll want to do some skipping of the very passages that the pros will attend to. You'll find yourself about where I find myself in reading scientific books and articles whenever the author throws in equations in a notation entirely different from what I was taught in calculus class.

But you could do something better than skipping or giving up: just go to a bookstore or library and buy one of the many primers on the market, such as Imogen Holst's An ABC of Music. You'll learn there more than enough to carry you through this amateur romp, and you'll be comforting Barenboim in his lament that the ability to read music, common in earlier times, has "almost totally disappeared today."

You might then join various protest efforts against the widespread cutting of music programs in our schools. One point of this book, more often implied than stated, is to join Barenboim in his plea to education authorities to restore or increase music budgets. Why are they failing to appreciate, he asks, "how easy and necessary it is to teach children to read music, and how much their lives would be enriched by it, either as players or simply as listeners in adult life." Or you might find some musical friend who could teach you in a couple of hours enough of the elements of reading music to follow my illustrations—at least roughly. And then, once you get hooked, you could go out and buy yourself—not a lousy but a good cello or viola, and an even better bow (bows are more important, believe it or not), and then find the best teacher within a hundred-mile radius—and in less than a year you can be not just playing the easier Haydns by yourself but playing with other amateurs.

Just how naive of me is it, I wonder, to think that what I have to say here about the rewards, with all of my troubles dramatized, could make you want to go through what I've gone through and arrive at the point where bliss triumphs—at least a good deal of the time?

5. You who had lessons as a kid, forced on you by music-loving parents, and escaped as soon as you could.

At a week-long coaching conference recently in Racine, Wisconsin, I met player after player who in adolescence had rebelled, put the instrument away "forever," and then, in a move now seen as almost miraculous, recaptured it in later years. One of the best cellists "took it up again" at 45. A violinist came back into this special world at 37 and is going strong at 83. Go to your storage closet or attic, pull out that abandoned, perhaps even detested instrument, get it repaired and restrung, and discover—well, I'll say it right out: discover what life is for. That sounds a bit strong to you? I can't blame you—but you'll discover here why it doesn't feel exaggerated to me.

As I think about you out there I do take comfort in the results of a recent scientific survey showing that 39.7% of all Americans have taken music lessons when young. Exactly half of those actually played or sang long enough to be able to enjoy it. Of those, 47% have at least touched their instruments, or sung a little, since leaving school and college. And of those, 10% still do something active with music at least once a year—something beyond going to a concert or tuning in a TV program. Of the 53% who did not have lessons, 37% wish they had. When polled, 42% of those said they'd like to read a book about it. And the half of the remnant confessed that they were dissatisfied with their current amachoice—a word that our questionnaire did not employ. What these results mean, my accountant tells me, is that my potential sales now number 19,750,500give or take a couple-a-hundred thousand. Not bad. Assuming this book gets to half of those, and sells for at least twenty-five bucks, I'll make out of it a nice little pile. Right?

A tragedy! I'll lose my standing as an amateur!

6. You who like to probe professionally into large philosophical questions of the kind that amateuring raises:

If you are hoping for prolonged and even rigorous argument on behalf of some firm conclusions relating music, life, and the Universe, perhaps you should just go read Plato or Boethius or Chaucer's translation of his "Consolations of Philosophy." But if you enjoy amateurish speculation about such matters, read on; I'll be tempted into quite a bit of it.

7. You who are sure that your amachoice is superior to mine, and who thus feel offended by my proud claims for chamber music

I hope that my occasionally evangelical tone will goad you into some sort of public defense of your amachoice: battling on the golflinks to lower your personal best; mountain climbing—where the mutual dependence on others and the total thrills are at a height, as it were; motorcycle maintenance as a clue to the rhetoric of zen; gardening; poker; jazz combos; guitar or zither or sitar or noseflute playing; folk dancing; play reading; choral singing; painting; ceramics; philanthropical work. Though music is at the center here, it should be obvious by now that at the center of that center is a celebration of all real amateuring. If I can provoke you to proclaim from some mountain-top the value of amateuring of your kind, maybe we can together talk more people into finding a love worth pursuing for the sake of the pursuit—even if they have, like you and me, good reason to fear some kind of jilting at the end.

Finally a note about why I celebrate here not just the blissful moments but the comic difficulties and the failures. The answer lies in the difference between being an amateur and being a dabbler. Many pleasures lead their pursuers to feel, as the genuine amateur feels, that they never get enough. But the genuine amateur not only wants more but works to get more through the pursuit of the "more" itself. You want more not just because more will almost bring pleasure: more ice-cream will always give me more pleasure, but "loving" to gorge on ice-cream does not make me an amateur; working hard to earn more money to buy more "ice cream" does not entitle the worker to the title "amateur money maker" or "amateur ice-cream eater." I dabble a few hours each year at the piano, improvising highly unmusical stuff that I enjoy; that's fun, but it doesn't earn me the title of "amateur pianist. I "love" to watch my favorite sports team, the Bulls, win or lose, and in a sense I never get enough of them. But that doesn't make me an amateur at basketball. Only getting onto a court and trying to sink at least one shot, and then laboring to learn how to do it, and trying to do it better and better—only that would turn me into an amateur. As a boy I did that—with basketball for a time, and baseball for a time, and what not? As children, we're likely to try out everything that comes our way, everything that seems lovable. But as soon as we face failure, we turn to something else. The true amateur, in contrast, goes on trying. Is it absurd of me to "play" so much more aggressively in these other chambers, hoping to become just a little bit better all the time, but knowing that I face obvious physical limits and the certainty that physical failure and playing decline is just around the corner?

When Daniel Barenboim and I play chamber music (it will never be in the same chamber, alas) we are together in three essential respects: we are both making music, not just listening to it; we are both often playing the very same music, joining the same composers; and we are both eager to do it as well as we possibly can, with or without reward.

Whatever is or becomes your amachoice, I hope you'll finally agree with me that the joy of amateuring is quite different from pursuing a "pastime" or "hobby," utterly unlike finding a "time-killer." Out of this world, beyond ordinary time, it is just about the most serious "business" there is.


"Does your book have a plot?"

"How could it have a plot, when I don't know how it will turn out? I'm taking lessons and practicing as I write. Maybe by next month all the talk about fear of failure will look absurd. Or maybe some internal pipe will have burst and I won't be able to play at all…"

"But a book, even if it's not primarily story, has to have a plot?"

"Well, my plot will be realized 'out there,' in you—if anywhere. The plot will be a curious kind of divine comedy—still amateurish, of course—provided that you, dear reader, know the right answer to give St. Peter, at the Pearly Gates, when he says:

I happen to know that a week ago your doctor informed you, in melancholy tones, that you had only a week to liveand that at only forty-three you had thought you had a long way to go. What we need to know, as we try to decide whether or not to let you "in," is whether you stopped playing music and canceled your cello lesson, scheduled for your next-to-the-last day?



I don't have space here to quote from my "Eleven Commandments of Amateuring" or the various judgments, some riskily negative, that I play with as I describe amachoices other than chamber music. For now I offer only my growing list of those that seem to me relatively defensible, judged by the standards implied throughout the emerging book.

I hope that readers of this first "take" on my subject will have other defensible choices to suggest—or perhaps arguments for taking one or another off my list. I've starred the ones that I have actually tried out, at one time or another, double-starred those that have at times become for me a full practicing practice, a full loving choice of some hours each day.

Many pursuers of those I list move after a time from being amateurs toward being professionals (with or without losing the love of the pursuit), or toward being mere dabblers, no longer really pursuing improvement but simply coasting. But I have either known personally or heard reliable reports of genuine amateurs under each heading.

At one point I applied grades, from A to C-, to each choice, as a playful incitement to public defenses. But the more I thought about it the more I realized that most of the following could deserve either very high or very low grades, depending on how the amateur pursues the practice. So I leave the grading to you.


Amateur Theatricals, including play reading groups


Animal Breeding and Training, for the fun of it; for the love of the animals and what they can do


Bagpiping—Joining a Marching Band


*Barbershop Quartet Singing




Boating, Windsurfing, Sailing, Canoeing,




*Body-Building Exercise, alone and silent


*Body-Building Exercise, while listening to music


Body-Building, in some kind of club




Bridge, with the same partners every time


Bridge in Clubs (and even in competitive meets, though these can quickly get poisoned)




*Carpentry, Woodworking


**Chamber Music, on any instrument


Charity, Philanthropy


Chess, with computer programs


*Chess, with people


Collecting With the Aim of "Having A Collection"
     —beautiful objects, paintings, reproductions
     —recordings of your favorite musical compositions
     —valuable objects
     —objects of no obvious "value" individually, only as collected


*Choral Singing


Composing Music (classical or popular)


*Conversing with Friends—about ideas, art, human nature, or other friends with no malice: over the dinner table, faculty lounge, in "study groups" or "reading groups" (compare "gossiping")


Country-and-Western Music Playing


Crossword Puzzle Solving (or constructing), or other word games


Dancing: folk, ballroom, "mod" or classical


**Debating seriously with friends or colleagues, in circumstances where nothing is at stake but ensuring that the debate gets somewhere


Dining, Giving Dinners, Dining Out—for the sake of doing it


Fishing; Fly-Casting


"Flower-Watching" (as in "bird watching"—strolling through gardens and fields, collecting specimens; seeking rare species




*Gossiping with friends, so long as the drive for understanding is at the center


*Gossiping, with malice at the center (I said above that I would list only the defensible ones? Is this one defensible? Well, malicious satire is done for the love of it, so?)


Gourmet Cooking; see dining


Sports: sandlot baseball, backcourt basketball; bowling clubs, rowing crews, etc.


*Hiking Alone


*Hiking With a Mate or Mates


*Historical Inquiring, for the sake of the inquiry




*Jazz Playing, following a score


Jazz Playing, improvising


*Jogging, alone


*Jogging, with a mate or mates


Jogging and Running in Competitions


**Listening to Music, Jazz and Classical


Martial Arts


*Meditation, of the kind that requires prolonged, daily discipline


*Missionary Work for a Church


Mountain Biking


*Movie Going, of the kind that requires developing critical skills


*Movie Watching on Home Video, followed by critical talk


Movie Making


Oenology—wine tasting and collecting


*Painting, Drawing, and Sculpting—by yourself or with others




Playing the Guitar—by yourself or while others sing or perform with you


**Playing the Piano By Yourself


*Playing the Piano While Others Sing


Poker Clubs (when stakes are kept minimal)


Political Campaigning, without being hired or on the ticket


**Reading Alone








review journals




biography and autobiography


other subjects—science, politics, etc.


*Reading Aloud With Others


*Poetry Reading Groups


*Reading Fictions and Discussing Them With Friends


*Reading Philosophy and other Speculative Works and Discussion With Others, as in "Great Books Programs."


Sailing, alone or with a volunteer crew


*Sewing Alone


Sewing in Groups: Quilting Societies, Etc.


Scuba Diving


*Skiing, downhill (necessarily alone, in effect)


*Skiing, cross country, chatting with friends


*Taking Lessons, in any "practice", but without finding other "pupils" to play with


*Taking Lessons With Music Teachers Who Arrange Group Playing


Teaching; working in literacy programs


Teaching the Handicapped


*Tennis, Handball, Etc.


Watching "Court TV"


*Watching Sports on TV


Watching Sitcoms on TV


*Watching "Arty" Stuff Like Masterpiece Theatre on TV


*Watching/Listening to a Symphony or Quartet Broadcast on TV or Radio


*Woodworking, Carpentry








**books like this one


**scholarship or criticism or other academic works


Zen Meditation, Vedanta, Etc.



1Those authors, those committed chamber players, give no hint in their book of any ironic contrast between their loving pursuits and what was happening to Germany as other passionate "amateurs," "lovers" of the Aryan race, embarked on their horrifying path of destruction. At the end of the war, as a member of the occupation army in Bremen, I met one Herr Günzel, passionate violist, who had kept up with string quartet buddies through it all, and who claimed to have been a "streng Nazigegner," always refusing to stop wearing his Esperanto button. He was not shy about performance: he invited me to come listen to his quartet for an evening, and I did. They were not very good, but I marveled at the power of music to keep itself alive through all that dreadful time.

2German and Russian seem to have done somewhat better in preserving its meaning as simply "lover" in the non-erotic sense. The word's relatively high standing in France can be seen in the title of a fairly recent book honoring the donor of a huge art collection to the National Museum of Modern Art at the Pompidou Center: Donations Daniel Cordier: Le regard d'un amateur. My guess is that for French readers that "regard" carries something like the word "Vision."

3Because the amateur at the center of this book is male, I'll feel free to use the general masculine occasionally. The relation of sex and gender to music is puzzling. Most of the composers I've learned to love are men; a majority of players I've loved to play with have been women. A majority of the famous professionals are men. The most annoying players I've played with have been men. My two worst teachers were a man and a woman. My best teachers have been of both sexes. And so on. Topic for an entirely different book? No topic at all?

4The association, "Amateur Chamber Music Players," has recently polled us members about whether we shouldn't drop the word "Amateur" from our name. Too many people, they say, see only the second definition in the word. My book could be considered a plea to them to keep the name.

5My story will include a lot of journal entries, and since many of them will come from a time before I ever dreamed of doing this book you may feel some justified suspicion about their manufacture. I can only cross my heart and swear that I have made none of them up at a later date. Though I've corrected occasional typos and revised a few utterly obscure sentences, the rest is authentic literal record—for whatever that amateur value is worth.

6For a good popular account of the universality of music—of music as sheer necessity for most human lives—see Anthony Storr's Music and the Mind. I'll be quoting him later on how music can actually serve as a justification of life itself.

7The kind of ambiguities our key words are vulnerable to is dramatized by a TV shot I happened on recently. A middle-aged business man, part owner of a sports team, was being interviewed and said, bubbling with enthusiasm, "Collecting sports card is my vocation"—meaning his avocation, or hobby.

8So far as I can discover, that tradition of professionals playing together regularly as amateurs has never been fully explored. Kerman reports that Beethoven, famous pianist and composer, "attended quartet parties that took place twice a week at the home of an older composer"—presumably playing viola with amateurs since his playing wasn't good enough to compete with top-flight professionals like his friend Schuppanzigh. (Winter, p. 10)



Aulich, Bruno, and Ernst Heimeran. The Well-tempered String Quartet: A Book of Counsel and Entertainment for all Lovers of Music in the Home. Trans. D. Millar Craig. Sevenoaks, Kent: Novello, 1951. Orig: Das Stillvergnügte Streichquartett, Munich, 1936.

Barenboim, Daniel. A Life in Music. New York: Charles Scribners, 1991. "Way of life," p. 56. Plea to school authorities, p. 167.

Churchill, Winston, Painting as a Pastime. London: Odham, 1948.

Spencer, Doanld S. The Carter Implosion: Jimmy Carter and the Amateur Style of Diplomacy. New York:Praeger, 1988.

Storr, Anthony. Music and the Mind. London: HarperCollins, 1992.

Wilson, Frank R. Tone Deaf and All Thumbs? New York: Viking Penguin, 1986. [A guide to taking up the piano in one's "later years"]

Winter, Robert, and Robert Martin, eds. The Beethoven Quartet Companion. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.


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