An excerpt from
For the Love of It
Amateuring and Its Rivals
What Is an Amateur and Why Amateuring Matters
The project began as an attempt at a spoofy article about the many hurdles that cellists stumble over. About fifteen years ago I was trying, in my early sixties, to conquer thumb position down toward the bridge of the cello (need I remind you that on this instrument physically down means musically up?)—the territory where you see Yo-Yo Ma and Rostropovich and Starker and a bunch of twelve-year-old prodigies looking so comfortable in TV close-ups. Phyllis and I had been playing chamber music ever since I took up the cello at age thirty-one. I thought I could amuse the world with a brief essay to be called something like "Why Bother to Learn Thumb Position When Moving into Your Seventh Decade?" Wouldn't it be fun to play with the perpetual mixture of bliss and bane, exaggerating your age with that "seventh"?
The trouble was that every time I tried to write briefly about my persistence as bumbling cellist I was quickly pushed into thoughts about other amateurs. The questions I faced were precisely those that everyone might well ask about ways of spending time—or wasting it, or salvaging it.
As I look at it now, the emerging book had begun long before I'd dreamed of writing about such matters, far back in 1952. That was when I bought that first cheap cello and bow and began to face the weird problems all cellists face in getting those two defiant creatures to work together. Having begun with boyish confidence, I quickly learned that I could never even approach the minor leagues. I was always going to sound like the "mere amateur" that Daniel Gregory Mason sneers at: the "hack in some scratch group, capable of producing no more than tones as unrelated [to one another] as the words of the schoolboy reciting 'The boy stood on the burning deck.'" Since I had never as schoolboy drilled the exercises into my muscles and bones and dendrites, I soon had to admit that I'd never play as well as Phyllis already played the violin. If Mason ever heard me even at my best, he'd hoot.
So the question of why I should keep on scratching at it became more and more intriguing. Why attempt the impossible? While actually playing I seldom had any doubts: this is the way to go. But when I tried to think about it, the questions became more puzzling. Why bother at any stage of life to work for some new skill or know-how instead of dwelling comfortably with skills already mastered? If you can be certain that you'll never even come close to professional competence, what's the point? Isn't anything worth doing worth doing really well—better than you'll ever paint or photograph or golf or play chess or surf or row a boat or perform the role of King Lear in an amateur production? And meanwhile, what about all those rival ways of spending what everybody these days calls leisure time?
Even when feeling hopeless about articulating an answer, I never consciously thought of escaping the commitment—though some of my nighttime dreams of disaster seemed to advise it. As the ratio of joyful to painful moments slowly rose, the rightness of my choice—what I am now tempted even to call the wisdom of it—became clearer and clearer. But simultaneously this quite different amateur pursuit, the mental probing of the why question, occupied more and more of my hours. The attempt to reduce the possible answers to essay length proved even more hopeless than the attempt to play Bach's unaccompanied suites the way they sounded on the Casals recording. Notebook and journal entries and drafts of possible chapters multiplied, as broader and broader questions flooded in, sometimes even intruding on my hour-a-day practice time.
Thus the inevitable connection of amateuring to every corner of life has turned the original drafts of a light essay into a project that has often felt simply unmanageable: many different voices calling for quite different books: "Keep it a playful autobiography!" "No, no, make it philosophical, even religious!" "Absurd: just confine it to a celebration of music." "Ridiculous: it should be a polemic about what our professionalized, expert-ridden world is doing to our leisure time; we don't even have any real carnivals any more!" If you are annoyed by books that are in any way polyphonic or contrapuntal, perhaps you should just stop reading now and go write a history of Occam's razor and the law of parsimony.
What I hope finally harmonizes most of these basses and tenors and sopranos and contraltos is a celebration of what it means to do something worth doing for the sheer love of it, with no thought of future payoff—in a world where you can't even survive unless you do some thinking about payoff. As a first move toward that final harmony I must rescue that corrupted word "amateur." It relates in troublesome ways to other nouns applied to people like us: avocationists, connoisseurs, would-be or pre-professionals, leisure-timers, recreationists, hobbyists or hobby-horse riders, dabblers, dilettantes, novices, freaks, nuts.
"Amateur" has experienced bad luck in English. As long ago as 1904, in a book designed to celebrate the "amateur spirit," Bliss Perry was already playing with the rising negative connotations of the word: " If the connoisseur is the one who knows, and the dilettante the one who only thinks he knows, the amateur is often the one who would like to know, but is too lazy to learn." In some European languages the word still manages to maintain a bit of its original inheritance from the Latin love words, amo, amas, amat. But in English it's increasingly used to suggest merely incompetent dallying, as in Bierce's definition in my opening epigraph. 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 an amateur [his officer]." And one full-length book by Donald Spencer claims that Jimmy Carter failed as president because he was an amateur, the opposite of an expert who has learned the professional arts of governing.
German and Russian seem to have done somewhat better in preserving it to simply mean "lover" in the non-erotic sense. The word's relatively high standing in France can be seen in the titles of two fairly recent books, one, L'Amateur du poeme, celebrating poetry for the sake of poetry, the other 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. But in America it is on the defensive. The association of Amateur Chamber Music Players not long ago polled us members about whether we shouldn't drop the word "Amateur" from our name. Too many people, some were saying, see only the dismissive definition in the word. Many of us fought to retain it, and by now we who love the word seem to have won our battle to keep it in the title. But who knows what will come?
Here is how the dictionaries define 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 his 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. Usually, though, we are all amateurs in both definitions: we play for the love of the playing, yet we often reveal signs that we lack professional skill or ease. We are especially vulnerable to that word "without" in the second definition.
I do quite literally love to play the cello—especially when others are playing with me: duets with Phyllis, piano trios and quartets and quintets, string quartets, and on through the Schubert and Brahms and Mozart and Dvořák viola and cello quintets to Mendelssohn's miraculous octet. Over the years all that playing 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 fit the first definition, practicing the art lovingly, for my own pleasure, I still often practice it, after forty-six years of trying, with little skill or ease remotely resembling "professional." Throw me suddenly a few measures of rapid thirty-second notes, as Brahms did last night with his first sextet (Opus 18, B-flat Major), when I had been playing along fairly comfortably on second cello, and I may well panic and flub it noisily. Or I may take the wiser path, just lower the bow and listen to how the passage, intended to be played in grumbling unison by both cellists, is handled by the better player on first. The fact is that if you present me with anything even close to that level of difficulty, I'm in trouble. Give me a high passage in thumb position and I may, after all these years of practice, produce sounds that would make any listener, amateur or professional, wince.
Obviously any effort to deal with troubles like that calls for some wrestling not just with what the word "amateur" is to mean but with the lack of adequate nouns and verbs to cover the neglected subject. For some reason the word "amateur" has never developed beyond the simple actor: I am an amateur. Do I like to—amateur? I think we need that verb, as we need the gerund in my title: I'm fully alive when amateuring. So far so good. But what do I call what I have chosen to do? Should it be one of the terms I've listed already, or perhaps my craft? my forte? my proficiency art? my field? my line? my shtick? my bag? my secondary field of expertise? my knack? my frolic? my thing?—the thing I do when I'm doing my thing? Should I follow Robert Stebbins and call it just "serious leisure"? Or should I follow a famous amateur gardener, Harold Epstein, who insisted on labeling his "hobby" as a "garden insanity": I'm writing about my cello insanity? My crazy passion?
Am-a-choice (am'a-chois') [F. L. amator, -oris lover; amare to love; choice, O.F. chois choisir to choose]. n. Any vigorous, demanding human pursuit practiced for love of the pursuit itself rather than for any practical use or payoff.
Unfortunately almost every reader bridled at this coinage, one actually calling it—pedantically and mistakenly, I believe—"barbarous." I backed down only when a medievalist said that to her it sounded like what a desperate CEO would cook up as a logo. And that left me with calling our amachoices, throughout the book, by as many different names as we have for love itself. The generalized cello-reach remains unnamed.
Amateuring and Other Kinds of Loving Play
The dictionaries should follow me and put their word "practice" in italics, or add words like "vigorous" or "demanding." Although most true amateurs will never entirely escape being amateurish, they don't just dabble at something that they sort of enjoy doing occasionally. Instead, like any serious professional, they work at learning to do it better. Those of us who are lucky also love doing much of what we do. To talk only of doing things for the love of it, for the fun of it, thus opens up a huge domain of every conceivable disinterested pleasure—the massive world of "play" brilliantly celebrated by Johan Huizinga in his once famous but recently neglected book, Homo Ludens. "Why," I can imagine some reader of that book asking, "why on earth take up any laborious task (except to make a living), when you could use your leisure time just having plain carefree fun winning an occasional jackpot on a slot machine? Why downgrade joyful, loving though passive moments of the kind Huizinga celebrates just because they impose no requirements on the receiver? Aren't you simply expressing a moralistic bias?"
I do indeed imply throughout that some pastimes are in an inferior class, what I'll call "ice-cream pleasures"—received, not in any sense produced. (Some recreations are even more questionable, being harmful to others; but I will not discuss them much). Some deserve the playful mockery that Laurence Sterne applies, in Tristram Shandy, to many a "Hobby Horse." Like him I see some steeds as offering a worse ride than others, and some readers here may very well feel that I have downgraded theirs to an ass. In contrast, amateuring not only entails practice, even what might be called laboring: it lands us in aspirations that can produce a sense of failure.
May 9, 1994 [Journal] — Here I am, not just 73 but 73-plus-almost-three-months-toward-74, and still not even a first draft of the book on amateuring completed—and still practicing "impossible" stuff, the sounds ranging from lovely to the kind of screeching that tortures not just neighbors but animals. Last night I felt really discouraged after a few minutes tackling for the first time Popper's Etude #25, assigned for the next lesson by my new teacher, Judy Stone. Am I really getting any better?
At our three-day chamber music weekend in Sleepy Hollow, Michigan, Ingrid, a not-bad violist, reported at breakfast on the second morning that she had dreamed she had a B-flat bicycle tire: she saw it as a comment on how she had played the night before. I thought of that dream as I felt really deflated last night about how badly my practice was going.
Even when amateuring does not produce minor disasters, it always reveals this one major difference from all the other kinds of loving play: the amateur works at it, or at least has done so in the past, aspiring to some level of competence or mastery or know-how or expertise. The amateur wants more of it not just because more brings more pleasure. More ice-cream will almost 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 or a bigger yacht does not entitle the lover to membership in our unsecret society.
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 athletes, the Bulls, especially when they win, and in a sense I never get enough of them. I sometimes watch Wimbledon, unless I'm obsessed with a writing task. But such watching doesn't make me an amateur at either sport. Only getting out there and trying to serve an ace or sink at least one shot or receive one pass, and then laboring to learn how to do it better and better—only that would turn me into an amateur. As a boy I did that, in a way—with basketball for a time, and baseball for a time, and chess, and Monopoly, and juggling for even longer, and whatnot. 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.
My definition raises many intellectual and moral problems, some of which I'll address—briefly in chapter 1, more fully in chapters 10 and 11. But one big issue—the challenge of celebrating amateuring's sheer "uselessness"—cannot be postponed.
Uselessness and Responsibility
In a world faced with innumerable practical problems that any responsible person ought to care about, how can anyone defend a "useless" task like practicing the cello? Wherever I turn I see social ills that I really ought to spend my time working on. Isn't my kind of amateuring, then, sheer social waste, even cruel neglect? Wouldn't pursuing the pleasure of doing actual good in the world—honorable politicking, philanthropy, working for a favorite social cure—be superior to fiddling? And isn't fiddling itself justified mainly by how it restores the fiddler for more important tasks?
Winston Churchill seems to answer with a "yes," in his lively little book, Painting as a Pastime, as he dwells almost entirely on the practical benefits of amateuring. Like me, he made his choice in his middle years—at forty. His very title hints at his downplaying the true feelings that he must have had when sitting at the easel. Amateuring as a "pastime"? Already I feel offended.
He states the problem with characteristic force, beginning as if he might join my claim that it's for the love of it, not for payoff:
Broadly speaking, human beings may be divided into three classes: those who are toiled to death, those who are worried to death, and those who are bored to death.… Rational, industrious, useful human beings [that is, those who are not bored and not worked to death] are divided into two classes: first, those whose work is work [only] and whose pleasure is pleasure; and secondly, those whose work and pleasure are one. Of these the former are the majority … But Fortune's favoured children belong to the second class. Their life is a natural harmony. For them the working hours are never long enough. Each day is a holiday, and ordinary holidays when they come are grudged as enforced interruptions in an absorbing vacation.But having moved toward celebration of doing-for-the-love-of-doing, Churchill turns back to utility: work for the love of the work is a wonderful blessing, but even the happy worker needs a break: "Yet to both classes the need of an alternative outlook, of a change of atmosphere, of a diversion of effort, is essential." As a statesman performing really important labors, presumably loving almost every moment, he still needs a break and seeks "a change of atmosphere," to be found in painting.
As his choice of the word "pastime" suggests, and as his text later makes clear, Churchill thus has decided to talk of his newfound love as primarily useful in providing his overworked brain with a distraction from his more important political work: the painter serves the statesman. Though I suspect that in the hours of actual painting he often became a genuine amateur, he talks about it as in the service of something more important: it gives a holiday to the really useful part of the statesman's brain.
The same emphasis now comes from brain researchers who urge everyone to postpone senility by leading the brain into new territory—especially the kind of amateuring that makes intense demands. The July 1994 issue of Life magazine urges us not only to "do puzzles" or "fix something" but to take up dancing, or watercoloring, or—best of all—chamber playing. They quote the suggestion of Arnold Schneibel, of UCLA's Brain Research Institute.
Try a musical instrument. As soon as you take up the violin, your brain has a whole new group of muscle-control problems to solve. But that's nothing compared with what the brain has to do before the violinist can begin to read notes on a page and correlate them with his or her fingers to create tones.
Obviously there must be such physiological benefits from chamber playing, but should we turn that into the main point? G. K. Chesterton provides my answer, responding to those who reduce the value of music to its service to healthy digestion: "They do not see that digestion exists for health, and health exists for life, and life exists for the love of music or beautiful things."
Can I be so fanatical about amateuring as to suggest that the time Churchill spent painting was as important, perhaps more important, than many of the hours he spent deciding on war strategies and election moves? Yes—but I don't want to go too far: if some foreign nation were about to nuke London, and the prime minister spent his time practicing the violin or playing jazz with a combo, I'd say he had his priorities confused. But would I have been committing the same fault if, on the morning in 1962 when I really believed that the Cuban missile crisis was leading to our total annihilation, I had invited my wife and kids to play some chamber music with me until the bomb fell?
And Who Are You?
The voices I hear addressing such questions—readers who have managed to get this far—are so radically diverse as to seem beyond harmonizing into a chorus: amateur chamber music players currently active; amateurs of every other kind of music, instrumental and vocal; amateurs of non-musical kinds; professionals who see love of music as their center; lapsed amateurs—those who formerly played or sang or did photography or wrote poems or pursued a historical passion and then sadly drifted away; devoted listeners who have never played but would like to; and, finally, philosophical types who speculate about the point of doing anything, whether for love or not: what makes life itself meaningful?
Though I naturally want to capture all of you, I'll feel especially disappointed if I lose those professional musicians who think of themselves as above amateuring. Listen to what the other kind of professional, Daniel Barenboim, has to say about the loss of "playing for the love of it":
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. [my italics]
Barenboim goes on to show just how a professional can behave as a true amateur—what I'll call a pro-amateur. When he met, for the first time, violinist Arnold Steinhardt, violist Abraham Skernik, and cellist Jules Eskin, they rehearsed for a symphony concert, suddenly discovered musical rapport, and then
went to Abraham Skernik's 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.
When Daniel Barenboim and I play chamber music it will never be in the same chamber, alas. Still, 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. We are not killing time; we are living it, making something of it. We have worked at it, we work as we play, and we keep on working. Whether or not your choice is in music, I hope I can provoke you to proclaim the value of amateuring of your own kind; maybe we can together talk more people into finding a love worth pursuing for the sake of pursuit—even if they have, like us, good reason to fear some kind of jilting at the end.
I also hope you'll agree with my claim, addressed more fully in chapter 3, that the joys of amateuring deserve celebration of a kind undeserved by many leisure-time rivals. Amateuring is totally different from enjoying a time-killer or mere escape from boredom. It may be in a sense an "insanity," but, like very few other human pursuits, it carries us out of this world, into what I can only call the timeless.
"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 daily as I write, getting either better or worse by the hour. Maybe by next month or year I'll be so good that all this talk about fear of failure will look absurd. More probably, some internal pipe, mental or physical, will have burst and I won't be able to play at all…"
"But a book, even if it's not primarily a story, has to have some kind of a plot!"
"Well, my plot will be realized 'out there,' in you—if anywhere. The plot will be a curious kind of divine comedy, provided that you 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 live. Like most of your kind, you had thought you had a long way to go. What we need to know, before accepting you, is, 'Did you cancel your final session with your amateuring friends?' If you committed that sin, the only saving argument would be that you needed the time to spend on some other loving choice—would it be that serious yet joyful meditation that some people call prayer?"