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  • Writer's pictureJohn Lyon

Amateur Music-Making and Starting with Why

With every amateur ensemble I have worked with, both in leadership positions and not, there are always two broad philosophies when it comes to members’ approach to their membership of the ensemble. The first is ‘I want to have fun/relax/keep my instrument/voice going, meet new people, I like or even love the music we’re working on’. The second is ‘I’m not a professional musician (but possibly used to be), but I am very serious about music, I’m pretty good at it (and probably have good credentials/qualifications), I’m here to do a great concert’. It’s important to say it’s not a cut and dry binary, more of a spectrum. Some ensembles are geared much more towards one or the other, most have a mix, some skew towards the extremes. Many people will relate to aspects of both categories.

It is easy to see why for the members whose primary goal is to relax, socialise, and who enjoy playing their instrument/singing, it could be frustrating to have ensemble members who seem to take things far too seriously and perhaps even seem a bit full of themselves. Likewise, for those who are more geared towards the ‘serious musician with very high standards’ camp, it may be stressful to see people who aren’t willing to go to the same lengths as them. I have certainly been in both camps (though I admit I’m usually more of the hardcore sort…), so as someone who now regularly runs rehearsals for amateur musicians, I struggled for some years to think about who is right, or at least where the sweetspot lies on the spectrum, if anywhere, because an answer to this question would mean more cohesion and a better result (and from a more self-serving perspective, I will have done a better job). As it turns out, I was asking the wrong question, and yet I think it’s possible for both camps to have their way.* It’s just a case of reframing it in terms of why we’re there, rather than obsessing over what or how. If you’ve read Simon Sinek’s excellent book Start with Why, you will recognise most of this, if you haven’t, I’ll very quickly paraphrase: the why is the reason or purpose that drives individuals or organisations to do what they do. It's the belief or cause that inspires and unites people around a common goal. The what is the product or service being offered, while the how is the strategy or process for achieving the goal. Sinek reasons that people tend to fixate on what and how, leading to a lack of cohesion and loss of purpose.

Weighing up the options and rationale for both approaches

Some possible arguments for a more relaxed philosophy:

  • I play my instrument/sing to relax and/or have fun

  • Going to orchestra to takes my mind of the trials and tribulations of life - going as hardcore as some of the others wouldn’t be relaxing. Everyone else is taking it too seriously, I’m stressed out with my day job (and probably my kids as well!), having fun and meeting people will relax me.

  • Playing my instrument is fun, I don’t want it to be a chore, I don’t want the pressure of having to do a high-quality, polished performance

  • I’m not a professional anyway, so how good could we really make this/will it really matter if I don’t perform note-perfect?

Some reasons for a more performance-focused approach:

  • I love the music so I want to do a good job

  • There are good musicians here so we should have high standards

  • I’m giving up my free evening/paying to be involved and a good concert will make that worth it

  • The way to get the most out of the music is to engage with it in greater depth

I can empathise with all of the statements above, but you’ll notice that almost everything here is about what and how. Before we can approach the juicy why and hopefully find a harmonious and cohesive approach that makes everyone happy, the question below is really important.

What does ‘amateur’ mean and why does it matter?

We tend to use amateur to mean ‘not professional’ or in many cases ‘not of high quality/inept’. The root of the word is the Latin ‘amator’, meaning lover of, which, en route through Italy and France over the years has left us with ‘amateur’. It makes perfect sense, really, as an amateur is someone who loves or is passionate about something to the extent that they do it without pay. It’s therefore understandable that we’ve come round to ‘not professional’ meaning ‘unqualified’. That may be factually true, but misses that it could also mean ‘doing it for love’. The reason I’d champion returning to the original sentiment is that the ‘unqualified’ definition focuses on what, yet ‘doing it for love’ focuses on why. It gives purpose.

Finding the correct objectives to bring everyone together

If ensemble members can be convinced that the why of an amateur ensemble should be to make music because we love it, everyone from both camps is immediately on common ground. The what and how can come later. Making music because we love music enough to do it for fun is just as good a reason for convincing someone that they should deeply engage in tone colour and being precise about articulation and dynamics as it is for convincing others that day-to-day life is stressful and being in an ensemble takes your mind off it. If making music because we love to make music is the primary focus, all of those whats and hows from both camps can be achieved along the way.

The main bulk of my approach can be summarised in one phrase: “get your kicks out of doing it well”. A friend said this to me a long time ago, but it’s the key to this whole dichotomy. If you pursue excellence in music-making (we can allow this how now that we have a why), the performance has a higher chance of being excellent, most importantly on the terms of ensemble members themselves. That obviously satisfies those in the camp of striving for high standards, but it can also satisfy those there to have fun. While fun with very minimal effort is fun, the returns diminish rapidly over time, because doing a mediocre job is never rewarding.

We can think of making music for the love of it as having the objective of feeding our souls. We’re not doing it for monetary value, rather for emotional value. Bunging a ready meal in the microwave because it’s almost immediate, requires minimal effort, it’s tasty, and you’re exhausted is fine and it’s a quick fix, but if it becomes too much of a pattern, you really start to feel it, physically and emotionally. You crave something, anything, that feels fresh, nourishing, and fulfilling. I’d say making music is just the same. If you do seek an escape, something to nourish your soul, what you feed it has to have high nutritional value, and that takes more time and effort. However, we’ve all experienced a perfect equilibrium of something we’re good at that is challenging in the right way, resulting in an outcome we’re thrilled with and a process that went by in the blink of an eye because we were so engrossed. This is known as ‘flow’. How do we go about convincing everyone this additional effort is worthwhile?

Achieving a flow state for the whole ensemble

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of ‘flow’ is about achieving a state where our skill and the level of challenge are perfectly matched. If the challenge is too great for the level of skill, people will quickly lapse into anxiety and worry. If the variables are flipped, people will drift into boredom. The ‘flow’ state is achieved when the task is very challenging, but people are up to it and they’re really cooking on gas: everyone has a fulfilling time. You will no doubt already be thinking that this is a very difficult thing to achieve, not least because everyone’s skill level in the ensemble is different. Surely, then, a great challenge for some will leave others feeling bored and disconnected, and simultaneously might leave others feeling overwhelmed and anxious. The likely issue here is that the objective is wrong, and that’s where the ensemble leader and people who programme the repertoire have to take responsibility. There is a lot of music on my conducting bucket list that in theory I reckon I could convince an orchestra to work on, but that would be highly irresponsible and self-centred. When I was a student I performed Mendelssohn’s Italian symphony with the student orchestra I was conducting. It was a bad choice and my conducting teacher told me so, but I loved the piece and wanted to do it so arrogantly pushed ahead. They were a great orchestra but it was really quite unfair of me to place on them my aspirations of the technical facility of the Berlin Philharmonic, especially for such a technical piece. The orchestra played well and gamely persisted through a challenging rehearsal period, but I don’t think it was as good an experience for anyone as doing a much better job of playing something that wasn’t so bloody difficult! So, picking the right repertoire is obviously important, but now you’d be right to flag the remaining issue that whatever you put in front of the ensemble, the skill level of the players still may vary hugely.

Ensemble directors: focus on what the ensemble can do, not what it can’t

Any ensemble director worth their salt knows that it’s important to pick your battles, but this is much more than knowing when to give up on an aspiration you had. Could the players actually achieve that goal? Was it realistic when you set it? Where we bring this back to ‘flow’ is in picking objectives that the whole ensemble can focus on and positively engage with. We conductors get very wound up thinking about things that the ensemble members can’t do. Perhaps, their skill level isn’t up to it at the moment, which is why they shy away and don’t play or sing with the conviction you desire. That’s the conductor’s fault, in my opinion, which I’m happy to say as I’ve so regularly been guilty of this sin. The important takeaway is that it should be a constant learning experience for the conductor as much as everyone else. If an objective didn’t quite work out, treat that as though it’s your fault and you need to find a solution, even if you feel it’s someone else’s fault. Store the experience and refine your approach next time. The objectives you give the ensemble and how you engage them to reach those goals will directly impact which segment of the ‘flow’ diagram ensemble members find themselves in. None of this is to say that you should write off an objective completely, just that to achieve it you need a very good plan, a well-structured route, a realistic appraisal of everyone’s skill, a layered approach, differentiated learning, and essentially, the toolkit that is second nature to an experienced teacher.

How to blend ‘Starting with why’, ‘flow’, and other good leadership choices together into a success smoothie.

‘Doing it because I love doing it’ (i.e. being an amateur) is the best reason to strive for high standards because it will be emotionally fulfilling. With help from good ensemble direction and appropriate leadership choices, you will be in ‘flow’. If it nourishes your soul, you’ve been challenged and you’ve done a great job, you will definitely have had a great time and taken your mind off things, yet the time will also have flown by. This is not to forget that you will also be sharing this experience with lots of people who have a common purpose, giving you lots in common and the perfect reason to socialise and keep coming back. In other words, we've ticked off all of the things the people from both camps wanted to achieve.

That’s the aspiration. I know I’m certainly not there yet, but I am confident I’m making progress, which, incidentally, is definitely not linear. We all have good days and bad days where any number of things affect our engagement, judgement, and enjoyment. A orchestra member said to me recently that they are still keen to come and work hard at rehearsals after working a gruelling shift just before and arriving late. It would be wrong for me to take sole credit for that, as the great environment is down to everyone in the room and the culture we’ve built, but it does suggest to me we’re headed in the right direction.


* One of the key messages of Chris Voss’ book, Never Split the Difference, is that by finding that compromise, you give both parties something they don’t want. Nobody is happy. In hindsight, this is why my initial goal of finding the sweetspot on the spectrum of relaxed to hardcore was never going to be successful.

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3 comentários

13 de abr. de 2023

I should have read your blog four times instead of three, perhaps without 5-year old distraction - your meaning was clear enough the fourth time! Your point in response, that one can always work on the musicality, ensemble, colour and phrasing, is spot on, and often missed in the desire to get the notes right first - it’s a way that all groups can aspire to a more objective type of excellence. Baslow Choir is a local example of an amateur choral society which does brilliantly in this regard. Where did you play with Peter Stark? He conducted Hertfordshire CYO while I was a youngster, but that would have been before you were born!


13 de abr. de 2023

Very interesting, John. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experience. I agree with everything you say, only to add that doing something “well” is a relative concept in amateur music making. The same benefits (satisfaction of a job well done) can generally be acquired by striving to do something to the best of one’s ability, even if this does not sound polished to a professional ear. I agree that choice of repertoire is important in helping everyone to feel they are accomplishing something special, but there is a place for selecting challenging repertoire if the players/singers are really keen to give it a good go and learn to perform it as well as *they* can. That sense of challenge (if…

John Lyon
John Lyon
13 de abr. de 2023
Respondendo a

Thanks for an excellent comment, Daniel! I completely agree in what you say about 'a job well done' being a description of the best of someone's ability, and certainly not from the conductor or any other pro musician's perspective. This is what I was aiming to touch on with 'the performance has a higher chance of being excellent, most importantly on the terms of ensemble members themselves', though perhaps I should have explained in more depth. Another thing I perhaps should have elaborated on further is what you rightly say about the level of challenge of a piece - I absolutely agree that an easier technical challenge will not necessarily satisfy ensemble members, even if they can play with a higher…

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