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FEATURE | Music And The Happiness Curve — Fulfilling The Dreams Of Adult Amateurs

By Robin Roger on July 5, 2019

A look at how the Toronto Summer Community Academy fills an essential need for serious music students who want to keep learning.

If you were asked to state to whether you agreed with the statement “I’m currently living the life I’ve always dreamed of” how would you answer?  This was one of the questions posed in an online survey conducted by the market research firm Leger.  Their findings, The Happiness Index, were released this week.  The index shows that Canadians are a happy bunch.  And consistent with other social science research about life satisfaction, the happiest bunch were Canadians over 55.

What I’d like to know is:  what is the life that these people have always dreamed of? The survey doesn’t say. Other research out there reports that older adults who claim to be happy attribute this to having reached the goals they set for themselves as young adults. As a satisfied friend in his seventh decade once said to me: “I wanted to live a certain way, and I’ve done it.”

This describes many of the advanced amateur musicians I’ve met over the years.  They worked hard to reach an advanced level in their chosen instrument when they were young, and they find it satisfying to be still playing music at an advanced level decades later.   Now that they are over 55, they are raring to continue for as long as they can.  Many are even ramping up at this point, now that reduced workloads or full retirement have given them more practice time to enter competitions and perform in community settings.

Not that advanced adult amateur musicians wait until retirement to get back to practicing.  They squeeze it in throughout their busiest years so that they’ll still be able to play once their time is their own. Consider some of the keenest participants in the Toronto Summer Music Festival Community Academy, which takes place this year from July 29th to August 3rd. Lawyers, physicians, professors, accountants, educators, and other hard-working folks have already begun preparing their repertoire.  For example, Darius Bagli, a highly accomplished pianist who has performed in the Brahms G Minor Quartet, the Brahms Horn Trio, the Brahms Clarinet Trio and the Beethoven Archduke Trio at past Community Academies, doesn’t have spare time to fill. He’s the associate head of Urology at Sick Children’s Hospital as well as a Professor in the Departments of Surgery and Physiology at the University of Toronto.   This year he’s performing the Brahms B Major Trio and the Schumann Piano Quartet.   Ann Sublett, who teaches a full roster of students in her piano studio, has set herself an ambitious practice schedule to master the parts she will be playing in the Trio in D minor for piano, flute and oboe by Loeillet, and the Beethoven Piano Trio in G Major.

Darius Bagli and Jonathan Crow
Toronto Summer Music Artistic Director Jonathan Crow and Dr. Darius Bagli playing for a SickKids benefit concert in 2017. (Photo courtesy of Toronto Summer Music)

They fit such demanding preparation into their schedules because they relish the chance to learn from the professional musicians who play with them and instruct them as well as to reach the high standards of the other amateur players in their groups.  As Bagli explains:

“I come from solo piano repertoire and training.  Playing chamber music creates a new sound world.  The embedded mentor is a non-pianist who speaks in non-piano terms which really frees me to solve and respond in purely musical terms. Moreover, it is very cool and emotionally rewarding to find oneself spontaneously carried into a moulded voice of chamber players —  like leaves on separate streams that eventually all flow into one river.”

The pleasure that Community Academy participants experience in this program is evident in the fact that over half the people enrolled this year are returning from previous years. (Enrolment is still open, though the spaces are filling up fast).  There will also be an infusion of first-time participants this year, with the addition of 11 bass players taking the new workshop being offered by Joel Quarrington.

Joel Quarrington
Joel Quarrington (Photo courtesy of the artist)

Quarrington, who has taught amateurs before, finds that they “often bring an enthusiasm and devotion to the study of the instrument and enjoyment in music that is sometimes lacking in ‘advanced students'”.  According to Quarrington, most of these participants play in community orchestras, so in the workshop, they will concentrate on their upcoming orchestral repertoire.  They will also receive a copy of Quarrington’s iBook, “The Canadian School of Double Bass”, which includes advice on how to use natural balance instead of muscles to play.  This prevents injury, which is also critical for adults to continue their musical pursuits as the years pass.

The Toronto Summer Community Academy is a challenging program for advanced players that stretches the abilities of its participants.  It fills an essential need for serious music students who want to keep learning.  Teaming the amateur adult students with the professional mentors forces them to turn in the best performance they can, the ideal way for them to hang onto their hard-earned skills. It’s the chance to use it so they don’t lose it.

At the same time, professionals benefit from playing with the amateurs.  As Jonathan Crow puts it: “I find the Community Academy inspiring as a professional musician. It’s easy to forget how amazing it is to have the chance to perform great music for a living — like any job it can become routine at times… When I work with the Community Academy, however, I see a group of people from all walks of life who have taken a week from their busy schedules just to have the opportunity to do what I get to do every day! It’s a great reminder for me of the power of music, and helps me remember how lucky I am to work with great musicians and to be inspired by the fantastic works that I get to play day in and day out.”

My hunch is that if they were surveyed during the week of the Community Academy, the professional faculty and the amateurs would both tell Leger that they are “living the life they always dreamed of”.

The Toronto Summer Music Festival Community Academy runs July 29 – August 3, 2019. For details on registration see www.torontosummermusic.com

For part one of this article, see, here.

*Interviews edited for clarity.


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Robin Roger
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