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FEATURE | Use it or Lose it: The Quandary of an Amateur Musician

By Robin Roger on August 13, 2015

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“It is hard to be an amateur – harder in some ways than being a career musician. […] amateurs, for the most part, are not taken seriously” (With Your Own Two Hands: Self-discovery Through Music by Seymour Bernstein)

In an era of protest, identity politics and struggles for rights, the plight of the serious adult amateur musician has not received its due. These passionate music lovers want to do more than hear music, they want to create it. This should not be dismissed as a first-world problem of those who were lucky enough to have music lessons as children. While their good fortune cannot be denied, the negative impact of losing those skills through lack of opportunity, or having that aspect of themselves thwarted after it has been carefully cultivated during the developmental years, should not be minimized.

This year the Toronto Summer Music Festival has recognized this dilemma and launched a significant solution: The Toronto Summer Music Community Academy, a week-long program for amateur practitioners of chamber choir, chamber music, and solo piano. Between Sunday August 2, when the 45 participants and their teachers first became acquainted in the middle of a holiday weekend, and Sunday August 9, when a top-notch concert was presented at Walter Hall, amateur musicians studied, practiced, rehearsed, were coached, attended master classes, lectures and films, went to concerts and immersed themselves in classical music.

The Academy was intended for advanced amateurs, a term which might have different meanings to different amateurs. I was aware that I was perilously close to the intermediate border of the advanced spectrum when I sent in my audition video, so considered myself very lucky to be accepted to the Piano Masterclass with James Anagnoson, dean of the Glenn Gould School. It was intimidating to find myself in a group of pianists many of whom are credentialed piano teachers, others of whom were veterans of nation-wide piano competitions, all of whom were significantly more advanced and experienced than I. Solo pianists do not collaborate the way chamber musicians do, so it is less critical that they all be at the same level in a masterclass, but the more parity there is amongst participants, the better. It was uncomfortable to feel that I might waste other people’s time, but this unsettling personal challenge was secondary to most of the program. For five straight days I listened to three pianists a day perform advanced repertoire such as the Bach Partita No 2 in C Minor BWV 826, the Brahms Intermezzo in A Major and A Minor, Beethoven Sonata Opus 110, and other great works by Chopin, Schubert, Mozart, Rachmaninoff, Ravel and other master composers. Two thrilling works for four hands, two pianos — the Shostakovich Concertino for two pianos Op 94, and the Rachmaninoff Third Piano Concerto Reduction—were included. The sixth day was devoted to works for four hands, one piano, giving those who dared the chance to play a secundo part to Anagnoson’s Primo, an opportunity usually reserved for his duet partner Leslie Kinton, with whom he has given over 1000 performances.

The masterclass performances, which ranged from impressive to astounding, were followed by Anagnoson’s critique and instruction, which could be described as the most entertaining aspect of the class, if it weren’t a drastic understatement to call his blend of lecture, demonstration, instruction, personal reminiscence and musical anecdote entertainment. We filled our notebooks with his observations about the genius of Haydn, the importance of learning a piece correctly at the outset (“there is no delete button and the error will haunt you in performance”) the need to count a piece out loud in proper rhythm, the importance of being able to play individual lines in a piece of music separately as well as the combined lines, the technique of ‘singing’ the inflection and dynamics of a piece of music, without pitch to express the musicality of the piece, correct thumb position and other painstaking exercises such as resting your hand on the keys then playing a note without using the arm, which Anagnoson did for 20 minutes a day when he was a student at Eastman, and much more. While his comments ranged widely depending on the repertoire and the performance challenges of each participant, the broad categories he addressed were rhythm, the physical approach to playing, and the laws of music that govern the process of tension and resolution.

There is an inherent level of tension in a masterclass, as the student presents him or herself for critique, and the other students measure themselves against each other at the same time as they empathize with the one in the “hot bench”. What dispels the tension is the shared commitment of the teacher, the student and the class to improving the performance. Even while passively watching from my seat in Walter Hall, I felt deeply involved with the performance under discussion and the progress of the performer. Watching as one student’s hand position was adjusted to spare future injury, another person’s execution of legato was tweaked, or extraneous body language was restrained as Anagnoson held his hand on a performer’s head or shoulders to enable them to confine their movements to the optimal muscles, I could feel my own system reacting to these prompts, attempting to internalize and replicate what I was being shown, (occasionally mimicking an action in my seat) and could feel from the attentiveness of every other participant, that each were doing the same. Our mirror neurons were firing at a furious rate. Paying such close attention for extended periods of time, and continuously learning new things, is a huge brain and mood booster, especially when done in unison with others and we departed Walter Hall each day in high spirits.

Even in a non-competitive, friendly master class, the stress of performing on stage in front of elite pianists is undeniable. There is no way to normalize this experience except to undergo it as it can’t really be simulated, even with multiple run-throughs for other listeners. Serious amateurs understand that they will not be professional performers but also yearn to do justice to the music they wish to master and know that performance is a spur to that mastery. It’s both bracing and inspiring to be amongst people who are doing their utmost to give a high-caliber performance. With a faculty of professional musicians sharing their skills, coaching seriously, and demanding high standards, new heights seem to be in reach. This was even apparent during the daily Academy-wide morning Chorale, when all of us, instrumentalists and singers alike, were conducted by Matthias Maute, who sought the correct diction, inflection, and musicality from all of us, even those who had no previous choral experience. Being part of the Alto Section of Mozart’s Coronation Mass was an unexpected experience for me, and that combined with the chance to chat with sopranos from Oakville, altos from Toronto, a bassoonist from North York and others who came from Fredericton, Richmond Hill, Uxbridge and other parts of the GTA over coffee and morning pastries made a delightful start to the day. Singing in a group creates bonds, reduces stress, elevates mood, soothes and relaxes, and for non-vocalists, teaches important breathing techniques plus a sensitivity to the vocal aspect within many instrumental compositions. For the solo pianists, it was a welcome chance to be part of a musical ensemble.

At the triumphant concluding concert the “three solitudes” of the chamber choir, chamber musicians and the solo pianists were happy to stay for a two and a half hour program to hear pieces many participants had been working on all week. This included charming selections that would seldom be on public programs due to commercial and logistical constraints, such as Two Complacencies for Bass Clarinet and Tuba by Kulesha, and Wind Quintet No 1 by Francaix, for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and horn. It was especially heartening to see how the solo pianists had integrated the coaching they’d received in the master class and during their private lessons with Anagnoson, making their performances even better.

Many elated participants lingered in the lobby of Walter Hall after the concert, reluctant to emerge from their musical bubble into everyday life. There were frequent references to next year, group photos taken, and plans for future music making get togethers made. The week was both a separate interlude and a catalyst to ongoing events.

Readers of Musical Toronto do not need to be reminded that music enriches life, but it’s important to recognize that the practice of musical skills is one of the pursuits that enables adults to keep their minds sharp, to function optimally as they age, and to feel engaged by life. The Toronto Summer Music Community Academy is much more than a pleasant “staycation,” it is a critical investment in adult health. Adults are defined by the Academy as 18 and over, and there were participants from every demographic cohort from pre-Boom to Boom to Bust to Echo in the mix. Whatever our age, the fatal decree remains “use it or lose it” and it is never too soon for us to retrieve and hone our musical skills. The Toronto Summer Music Community Academy brilliantly facilitates that goal.

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Robin Roger

Robin Roger

Robin Roger is a psychotherapist who emphasizes the importance of learning new things as part of developing and maintaining mental wellness.She is a committed amateur pianist as well as a writer, book reviewer and frequent contributor to Ludwig Van.
Robin Roger

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