Polishing The Jewels
I've always loved studying music and the flute, but I never wanted to be a professional musician. Another ambition burned in my young soul, a fire I followed to gratifying work in special education and bereavement counseling.
At the age of 39, I left those careers behind and began teaching flute full-time. I earn money teaching, so I could be considered professional, but I happily consider myself an amateur flutist. I don't have a degree in music and I haven't reached a level of professional competence on my instrument. I perform often, but hardly ever for money. I continue to take flute lessons, and practice regularly, but I don't kill myself doing it. I have no particular goal, such as admittance to a conservatory or an orchestra position. I simply want to become a better musician, at whatever pace that happens, and enjoy the music and the learning process in a non-stressful way.
The word "amateur" comes from the French, and has its roots in the Latin word amator (lover). I play because I love to play, not because I have to. "Love is the most important quality to bring to any task. Love draws all that we have within us to the action in which we are involved. It brings trust and acceptance; it heightens the senses; it allows us to be completely immersed in our work. Love does not bring forth censorship and defensiveness, conditions that adversely affect our learning ability. It allows self-acceptance and total involvement" (Chase, M.P., Just Being at The Piano. Berkeley: Creative Arts Book Co., 1985:7). Playing the flute brings joy and light and beauty to my daily life.
Being an amateur gives me freedom to do what I wish with my musical talent. I can make mistakes, play less than perfectly, and allow myself to grow by the very process of learning to accept my imperfections. I learned in my early life to be highly self-critical and to berate myself for the slightest error. "Artists must constantly guard against these hidden expectations that flap around their natural gift like dark birds. They must focus instead on polishing the jewels already in hand. In this lies salvation from a fearful life, and for the musician, the way to actual music. Enter the polishing! Love the refining of mere vibration, those waves on your very shore. You can latch onto a single musical sound as if it were a material ray flying you through frightened air. The ray will guide you. It is the 'it' we all have, and it is enough" (Mathieu, W.A., The Listening Book. Boston: Shambhala, 1991:119). It has taken a long time, but now I can blow off a mistake casually. I believe in my heart of hearts that the spirit I put into my music is received by the listener; even with an occasional wrong note, my music is a gift to my soul and to the world. "Your own music is the child of your heart and you are entitled to love it, not because it's good but because it's part of you." All amateur musicians embrace a common task: "We are not here to play music perfectly but to love music deeply" (Stephanie Judy, Making Music for the Joy Of It. Los Angeles: Jeremy Tarcher, Inc., 1990:31, xi).
I feel free, as an amateur, to let my creativity guide me to unusual ways of doing things. I'm not bound by the restrictions of formality or proper etiquette. I can be as silly or unconventional as I wish. The amount of talent I have is not as important as my desire to create lovely sound. I believe that because I've been given a yearning to make music I've also been given the ability to do so. "How can I wake up to what I have? becomes the question, not How much do I have? You have what you need" (Mathieu, W.A., The Musical Life. Boston" Shambhala, 1994:xi).
Catherine Drinker Bowen understood: "I know what these people want; I have seen them pick up my violin and turn it over in their hands. They may not know it themselves, but they want music, not by the ticketful, the purseful, but music as it should be had, music at home, a part of daily life, a thing as necessary, as satisfying as the midday meal. They want to play. And they are kept back by the absurd, the mistaken, the wicked notion that in order to play an instrument one must be possessed by the bogey called Talent."
As an amateur musician, I feel special, and am aware that I can do something many people wish they could do. I get hugs, respect, gratitude, attention, praise, support, recognition, joy. Do I get million dollar recording contracts? Is my name in lights at a major concert hall? Am I interviewed for public television? No. But I've matured enough to know that love and personal connections nurture my soul more sweetly than fame or fortune ever could.
I certainly don't love myself much when I'm impatient with a store clerk or too lazy to do the laundry, but I love myself when I play the flute. I respect myself for having the discipline to practice. I admire my willingness to be vulnerable in front of an audience. I appreciate my inner strength that allows me to take constructive criticism from my teacher.
Because I'm an amateur, I don't have to struggle with my ego. I can let go of competitiveness. I can take a guilt-free break from practicing when I'm on vacation. I can engage in other activities in my life that interest me.
Sure, I occasionally wonder what would've happened if I'd had a better flute teacher when I was young, and I regret not having practiced more. Sometimes I think, "Gee, I wish I could play as well as…" But most of the time, I'm grateful to the guiding angels who've led me to be who I am today. I feel exactly right being an amateur flutist. Music is sweet joy and sustenance to me, not the source of payment for my groceries and rent. In Gerald W. Johnson's words, "I dare to think it is a gracious gift that enables the … musician to believe in a magic that can bring order and beauty into the world. Happy your amateur musician certainly is, because for him the road always goes on, for her, still ahead but in plain sight, there are water and green trees and the mountains al all delight."
© 1995 Helen Spielman