Amateur musicians are a vital part of the classical music world, but don’t always get the recognition or opportunities they deserve or need. It’s time for the music establishment to bring them into the fold
Last week I played the violin with Nicola Benedetti. Well my whole band, Corinthian Chamber Orchestra, did, but I got your attention. And she certainly got ours. I’ve never seen us collectively more alert, focused and responsive in rehearsals – and quiet.
If those sound like prerequisites for any orchestra, let me explain. Corinthian Chamber Orchestra is one of the many amateur orchestras in London. We like to think we’re one of the best, but that’s not for us to judge, and there are many other wonderful ones, some of which I also play in. Generally we play well and our concerts are usually exhilarating, but essentially, we do it for the sheer love of it and no one is going to confuse us with the London Symphony Orchestra.
My colleagues are doctors, lawyers, classical music industry people, teachers, administrators, nurses, teachers and IT specialists, among many other professions. Many studied at music college and could have become professional musicians (I studied at postgraduate level at the Royal Academy of Music, for example). Instead, we all have day jobs, but put on six concerts a year, each with an intense series of rehearsals. Many of us play chamber music and work with other groups, and some of us go on summer chamber music courses and take lessons.
‘We want to be the best we can be’
Over the last few years our most regular conductor has been Mike Seal, ex-CBSO violinist who is now storming a career as a conductor. He explains, solves, reveals, cajoles, bullies and inspires. Most importantly, he accepts nothing less from us than the very best we are able to give. And that’s exactly what we want. We want to be the best we can be.
And yet, among the UK classical music establishment, it sometimes feels like amateurs are the metaphorical profligate uncle – the lazy one whose bad manners and drinking habits might set a bad example to the children.
On a very practical level, few classical music organisations engage with adult education. (In the US they seem to call it ‘lifelong learning’, which is a much more positive way to frame it.) While there are many initiatives to get young people into concert halls and to be able to play an instrument – which is obviously a supremely vital task in today’s educational environment – there’s hardly any offering for those at the other end of the age spectrum.
In some quarters, there’s an active snobbery about amateurs. We were all utterly grateful that Nicola Benedetti was open to playing with us and valued running through the Mendelssohn Concerto with us before a bigger gig – and that she did so with her characteristic grace and commitment. Indeed, we provide several concerto slots a year for young soloists and orchestral players who otherwise might not have so many opportunities. And yet I’ve heard of performers being instructed by agents not to play with amateur orchestras. One up-and-come conductor asked for his name to be taken off the list of conductors of an amateur orchestra’s website (unlike the likes of Colin Davis and Martyn Brabbins, neither of whom ever felt their reputation sullied by working with amateurs).
‘We are on the same journey as professional musicians – we’re just taking the scenic route’
So there are two things I’d like to change. The first is the underlying attitude. Amateurs have enormous value to offer the classical music world, and this should be respected. What we do is no different from professionals, except in strength of focus, perhaps. We all want to express ourselves through music – to improve and learn. Maybe our parameters are narrower than those of hotshot players. Maybe we take more time to fix things – and less time to forget how we fixed them. Maybe we expect to enjoy the process more than professionals (is that a bad thing?). Maybe our intonation, alacrity, range and listening skills aren’t quite as refined. But essentially, we are on the same journey as professional musicians – we’re just taking the scenic route.
Our amateurishness is not contagious, but maybe our passion, knowledge and enjoyment are. I’ll never forget playing quartets with some star students of the Verbier Academy as part of the Amateur Chamber Music Week there. They had been shanghaied into playing with the grown-ups and were not enthusiastic. But within a few minutes of starting to play and rehearse Brahms quintets, their demeanour changed as they realised we actually knew what we were doing – and probably had more knowledge about chamber music than they did, for all their concerto practice. We earned their respect.
Secondly, I’d encourage the classical music establishment to incorporate amateurs, just as they do children – whether conservatoires, orchestras, venues or other organisations. Conservatoires could offer lessons, chamber music coaching, masterclasses, lectures and orchestra rehearsals to adults, maybe not in a rigorous daily fashion – we are often busy, after all – but as part of their ‘outreach’. They can only benefit by it. They make money, their students get teaching experience and audiences and they welcome in potential donors and patrons. This is further advanced in the US, where Juilliard offers classes for adults. In the UK, as far as I can tell, Trinity Laban and the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland have made steps, but there’s a long way to go in refining their offering to a range of needs.
I can only see advantages to such organisations being more inclusive. The classical music world is a giant ecosystem in which everything feeds into every other part. Rather than being out on a limb, amateurs should be at its very heart.
17 ways amateur musicians contribute to the classical music world:
We go to concerts
We offer solo performing opportunities for young stars, orchestral players and international celebrities who need try-out gigs
We support venues by booking concerts in them and usually filling them up
We promote classical music to our non-music friends who might never have engaged before
We commission composers and perform new works
We raise money for charity
We hire music from orchestral libraries
We buy gear – strings, music, accessories, cases, sheet music
We buy instruments – old and new. (Judging by some of the intense conversations I’ve had about modern instruments, there seems to be more openness and enthusiasm towards them in amateur orchestras than among professionals)
We benefit local schools by paying to rehearse in their halls. (We’re usually desperate to find good rehearsal spaces. Are you listening, whoever is planning Simon Rattle’s new concert hall?)
We offer an alternative outlet for conservatoire students who choose not to become professionals
We pay musicians for lessons
We influence young musicians – whether as parents, relatives or friends
We support young conductors, both through concerts and masterclasses
We offer chances for recording engineers to practise their skills
We support young players by going to their concerts, spreading the word and lending them instruments
We support the local economy. (Rehearsals usually end in the pub.)