Saturday, May 19, 2018

Why I Enjoy Teaching Amateurs

First I need to make a distinction between Amateur and dilettante.  Wikipedia gives what I consider an appropriate definition.

An amateur (French amateur "lover of", from Old French and ultimately from Latin amatorem nom. amator, "lover") is generally considered a person who pursues a particular activity or field of study independently from their source of income.

Some other sources define the amateur as unskilled and unprofessional.  I disagree.  While an amateur may not rely on the activity in question (singing in our case) for an income, the amateur by definition finds pleasure in the pursuit and therefore is willing to invest the effort to achieve standards at times equal or surpassing the professional.  I knew a math professor at the University of Florida who had a spectacular bass voice and performed with symphony orchestras throughout the United States in concert and oratorio.  I sang with him in Menotti's Amahl and the Night Visitors.  He was a magnificent Kaspar to my Melchior.  There was nothing about him that was of low quality.  He was the Bass soloist for the University's performances of Verdi's Requiem and was by far the best among the soloists, two of them hired professionals from New York and the third was the soprano pedagogue at the University.  He is not the only one I have known and I have taught several such singers.

Google defines a dilettante thus:

a person who cultivates an area of interest, such as the arts, without real commitment or knowledge.

Indeed there are sources that do not make a difference between the two terms.  I personally subscribe to the definitions above and more importantly, I place students of the art of lyric singing in two categories:  dedicated and superficial.  The so-called Amateurs that I have had the pleasure of teaching are very dedicated, sometimes more than those who call themselves professional.  The amateurs that I have taught come to singing with passion, a desire to become truly competent, an aspiration to achieve the highest level possible.  I currently teach several such students and they bring me a great level of energy and joy.  

One summer in Nice, France, while teaching alongside the celebrated collaborative pianist, Dalton Baldwin, I asked him why he had amateurs in his courses.  He could fill his courses with professionals and young aspirants alone.  He said (I paraphrase):


 the amateurs bring an element to his courses that the professionals often lose because they become jaded by the difficulties of the profession and the young singers often come to singing with a sense of haste because they have not had enough life experience to care about quality at the highest level.  The amateur retains a childish wonder and a fervent desire to become worthy of the art.  And because they do not rely on singing to make a living, there is an artistic purity in their pursuit that reminds of the rare young singer who comes into it wide-eyed before they are confronted with the darker sides of the music business.

When I organized the very first Härnösand Opera Academy in 2014, we had 24 students, a mix of professionals, college-level students, and amateurs.  One of the most memorable statements at the end came from one of the professionals who said:  "It was an unexpected pleasure singing with the amateurs.  They reminded me at every turn why I began to sing in the first place."

Perhaps I feel a kinship with the amateurs.  I sang professionally as a baritone for some 20 years.  When I started to retrain as a tenor, it felt like I had to learn to crawl and walk again.  I was making my living teaching singing to a mix of professionals, students, and amateurs.  I was not relying on actively singing to make a living.  This gave me the freedom to dig deep and become the singer I always wanted to become.  I continued to develop my piano skills.  I had time to look at my future roles deliberately, not only from a technical standpoint but also from a dramatic and musical perspective.  As I envision the possibility of being on the professional stage again, I consider my standards to be much higher than what would be expected of me.  I am not interested in just getting through a recital or a role.  After a grueling ten years of retraining, I desire to have the abilities I always dreamt about.  I wish for my instrument to be ready to execute the finest details of the score and for my heart and mind to be inspired to delivering the complete artistic message.  This fervent desire is something I experience regularly with the best among the professional singers I teach and with all the amateurs I am blessed to have in my care.  I experience this less with the average young singer who claims to aspire to professionalism, and this is often a source of frustration, knowing what awaits them around the corner when they must confront the brutal world of the music business.

In a way, the dedicated amateur, unfettered by money pursuits and the frustrations of the professional music business, is the best hope for the future of singing.  They may never see a professional stage, but in a church somewhere, in an opera chorus singing a single solo line, in a home concert, many of them will get up and deliver a song or an aria  in such a way that makes you wonder why the people who are paid for this and the youth that pretend to aspire to the highest levels so rarely have the presence, calmness of mind, and dedication to bring a performance to such a high level.

The professional singer has many challenges that make it difficult to do their best work.  Classical singing is a poorly paid job unless one sings at the highest levels. As such, singers find themselves often worried about money and not settled enough to produce their best work.  Incompetent conductors and stage directors often make the lives of singers a living hell to cover for their own inabilities.  Sexual harassment is rampant in the field and singers often do not have the means to defend themselves without retribution on them.

And yet, I remember experiencing a dreadful production, with the worst working environment I had yet been a part of and just before taking the stage, the wonderful conductor who noticed the weight on my face said lovingly:

"once you are out there, it is you, me and Mozart.  We can still make music!"

© May 19, 2018


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