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Saturday morning quotes 5.9: Amateurs again

July 18, 2015

“Yea, so that thou haue any skill in [playing the lute] be not ashamed at the request of honest friends to shew thy cunning: but if thou chancest to get an habit of perfection, prophane not the Goddesse, with making thy selfe cheape for a sleight gaine.”

– John Dowland, Varietie of Lvte-lessons, 1610 (after Besard, 1603).

Having received feedback from a few amateur lutenists over what seemed an unquiet excess of bile emanating from this quarter, we revisit the topic to offer a clearer perspective.

First of all, we love amateur musicians and we count several amateur lute enthusiasts among our friends.  In many respects, amateur lutenists make the world wobble round for professional early music specialists involved in teaching, publishing and music-making.  Amateur lutenists also provide the primary source of income for some of our better luthiers, enabling them to eat regular meals as they indulge in and refine their craftwork.

People from all walks of life are drawn to the lute for a host of good reasons. The lute appeals to the artistic because of its aesthetic beauty and its graceful form.  The lute appeals to historians because of the abundance of written records describing its ubiquitous presence in the noble circles of early modern Europe.  The lute appeals to specialists in historic literature and poetry; for music and sweet poetry are indeed the sister and the brother.  The lute appeals to those with a scientific bent because of its unique design elements and its geometric proportions. The lute appeals to woodworkers because of the unusual challenges of its shape and construction.  The lute appeals to librarians and archivists because there was so very much historical music printed and scribbled for the instrument that wants to be organized and cataloged. The lute appeals to hoarders for the same reason—and they must have it all.

Most importantly, the lute appeals to sensitive musicians drawn by the quiet elegance and beauty of its sound, and because it is a “perfect” instrument—it is capable of producing at once, melody and harmony together.  In the right hands, the lute is capable of producing true polyphony with separate and distinct interweaving lines.  While in the lute revival’s recent past emphasis was placed upon hollow virtuosity, more refined ears today favor the playing of sensitive musicians who understand the music’s depth and the spaces between the notes.  Those who possess taste and judgement mark this to be the most important happy result of the lute’s inherent magnetism for the simple reason that sensitive and musical performers provide inspiring examples for all types of amateurs mentioned above, as made evident through the availability of recordings and through public concerts.

Public performance and commercial recording is the point at which the path forks for amateurs and professionals.  A dedicated professional musician working as a specialist in the field of early music today unfortunately faces nearly insurmountable financial hurdles just in order to survive.  And anyone who approaches playing the lute with an informed sensitivity, taste and judgement soon discovers that it takes a lifetime of committed work to play the instrument well, and constant practice to maintain a technique.  And any vocalist in possession of an informed sensitivity, taste and judgement who has attempted to sing appropriate repertory with lute accompaniment soon discovers that a generic modern technique simply will not do.

Early music is a very narrow niche market, and music for the lute represents a paper-thin slice of that market.  Within the confines of that thin slice, early music that features voice and lute must be measured in microns.  In today’s unfortunate environment of music as a vastly undervalued commodity, we see that nearly all professional musicians are clinging to the frayed threads of a once viable livelihood.  Making matters worse, we also live in age that has seen the dramatic opportunistic rise of the pretentious and competitive amateur.  You know the type.  Armed with generic skills in Photoshop or Garage Band, or alternatively armed with ample funds to pay others for an unnatural result, we see the same pattern affecting different areas of the arts.  Much to the detriment of the less assertive, if more talented and capable professional, this dynamic has a particularly toxic effect when competitiveness is coupled with increased selfie opportunities for the morbidly narcissistic.

I (RA) became a staunch defender of the fundamental right of a professional musician to make a living at his or her art in 1978 when a folk group I was performing with shared a concert program with Tracy Schwarz and his family.  Schwarz, best known for his long tenure with the legendary folk revival group, the New Lost City Ramblers, had very pointed remarks about amateurs performing public concerts for free: They were interfering with his ability to feed his family.  For the same reasons rehearsed above, Schwarz had no problem with amateur musicians indulging in a passionate love affair with music and in fact encouraged the same.  The tipping point is when amateurs play in public for free because, momentarily leaving aside questions of quality, it is plain and simple a matter of patently unfair competition.

As for quality, while an audience may be comprised of individuals who possess taste and judgement, any gathering of people tends toward the lowest common denominator.  This maxim is particularly true when “free” is factored into the equation.  A case in point is the absurd wholesale acceptance of low-fidelity mp3 format as the current standard for listening to music of all types.  While some individuals will notice the difference and opt for the better format, standards are subject to group norms, and large groups behave according to the laws of Brownian motion.  Good judgement will nearly always be deferred if the choice is between free streaming and\or downloading, and paying for a higher-quality format.

The same concept is put to the test when a concert audience is faced with a choice to attend a free lunchtime concert that hosts amateur musicians, or a higher-profile concert that features higher-quality music carefully prepared, packaged and presented by well-known professional musicians who perform for a fee.  Invariably, the free program is well attended while the other is often less so, depending upon the stature (or PR) of the artist.  Excepting pop-tinged performances, which aim for a different target, the current US market for early music reflects this unhappy phenomenon, and even affects performers who are—or should be—at the top of the heap.  The result is that even some top musicians end up playing the free lunchtime concerts in order remain remotely relevant, creating an ugly Catch-22 situation in which mere survival takes a back seat to actually earning a living.

“The dilettante and the amateur should, as a rule, stay out of paid positions, or at least they should not work gratuitously in those which should yield pay: and in those few cases where it seems fair and desirable for them to do any public work at salary they should stubbornly maintain a price and conditions which will aid professionals to hold the same ground.”

– Charles E. Watt, “A Square Deal for the Music Teacher: Let Us Have a Better Financial Status for the Professional Musician,” The Etude, Vol. 39, September 1921, p. 561.

I (RA) have met amateurs who may not be top-notch musicians but who are wonderful human beings.  I have met amateurs who may be capable musicians but who are also ids-on-a-stick in possession of oversized egos paired with a distinct lack of social skills. Although many teeter on the brink, only one particular amateur lutenist I have met falls squarely into the category of a blight upon the earth, which is a remarkably low statistic.  Mostly, I care not a whit whether a lutenist is an amateur, a semi-amateur, a semi-conductor, or semi-truck driver.  What matters is this: Are you performing in public and, if so, are you charging for your performance?  Or, as Dowland chastises, do you “prophane the Goddesse”?

4 Comments
  1. Bruno permalink

    I do agree 100% with your statement. If amateur musicians want to play in public, they should also charge for the concert otherwise it is an unfair game. Most of them are frustrated musicians who did not have the guts to start a career. They get a job for a living and later in life decide to catch up their music skills (which is super fine and healthy), however what they really desire is to perform in public, and as they don’t have guts to charge it is often times for free.

    It should be illegal to perform in public for free, it kills us musicians. And by the way I would extend that to recorded music in stores and public spaces. Imagine if someone decide to offer food for free on the street? Maybe beer or even water for free?

    Thanks for the article.

    • Thanks very much for your supportive words, Bruno. You are absolutely correct in pointing out that a free performance is a “safe” diversion for amateurs seeking a small ego-boost. But if it is a free public performance, it essentially dishonors all the many extra hours a professional musician puts into refining his or her art to perform at a higher level for fair compensation.

      An additional problem arises when promoters or potential audiences lack interest in sponsoring a concert performance by a lutenist – because they’ve only ever heard amateurs who do not bring out the best in the music. And how will the public ever know the difference if legions of amateurs effectively interfere with the ability of professional musicians to get gigs?

      I think we need to revive the Guilds.

  2. David Tayler permalink

    I think there is now a problem worldwide that did not exist before, which is there are lot of new players coming into the market, and this is really depressing wages for ensembles. Many small touring ensembles will work for small fees, and presenters are more than willing to show “young” musicians as a selling point. It’s not a good situation, as, for example, a concert that I would routinely play for Euro 1200 (this is chamber music) now is being pushed into the dreaded 500 Euro mark. Or lower. On the other hand, “baroque” orchestral base pay has risen steadily in the last 30 years, and it is pretty good right now–different market forces at work here, and there are to be sure local problems with cutbacks.
    As far as free goes, I believe that free is the way to go as far as building a worldwide base. I just don’t see that nowadays one can compete in a “less-than-global” market. The main problem with working full time at music (that is, just concerts) is the marketing problem–there’s plenty of people who work who don’t play well, and plenty who play well that don’t work. Some do both very well🙂 And, fortunately or unfortunately, these fairly straightforward marketing strategies are not taught in schools.

    • Thanks, David. As you point out, today’s overall economic environment tends to result in fees for concert performances – and the price of recordings – being driven downward generally. It seems like this condition is a reaction to the cost-cutting austerity attitude and has nothing to do with the usual measures like quality or availability.

      Effective marketing is certainly the key to success, given that even early music promoters have been conditioned to respond to bright shiny objects just like everyone else today. But in the US, the early music scene is very cliquish and, even with effective marketing, promoters simply do not reach out to “new” performers unless they are proteges of the (progressively very, very) old performers. That is the reason why we have had to build our own networks and audiences, which we have done very successfully via the old-fashioned method of hard work. The amusing result is that we have effectively reached out and engaged more converts to early music than the cliquish organizations who continue targeting the same old audiences.

      It’s my observation that effective marketing strategies are not taught in schools simply because those doing the teaching are unwilling to foster competition for the limited number of good-paying gigs. We all know that measurable success has nothing to do with quality – and everything to do with connections. We have effectively sidestepped that fact of life but it takes a great deal of hard work and time.

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