The Amateur vs. The Professional

I haven’t posted on my blog in a long time. Part of the reason is I tend to be a perfectionist and don’t trust my own writing skills. Carry that over into my piano life and I might as well stop doing what I do: teach piano, to a wide swath of skill levels. From the very beginner “amateur” adult to the scary talented “possible future professional” 7-year old pianist.

Today I’m going to post without any fancy schmancy photos because I want to focus on what is being written here.

Yesterday, a FaceBook colleague of mine posted an article on the topic mentioned in the title of this post. Please spend two minutes reading this:

The Difference Between Amateurs and the Professionals

I purposely posted this on the adult Sonata Piano Camp yahoogroups for open discussion, knowing that it’d bring out quite a conversation. I adore my “piano peeps,” for whom, some have spent 10 days a year for 30 years in a row, coming to my home to study piano. I am aware of their burning desire to learn more.

Here are some of their responses:

The premise of this article is a bad one. The issue is not black and  white, good versus bad, professional versus amateur. Setting this up as a dichotomy is just a bad idea, especially given the pejorative nature of the description of amateur.
No one I met at Sonata qualifies as an amateur according to this author’s definition. We were there because we are dedicated to the art, open to criticism, willing to be vulnerable and grow. And we were not trying to become professionals. Like ______, I saw the episode of Mozart in the Jungle where Rodrigo said amateurs do it for love. We were all the epitome of that particular definition, whether or not it was the source of our income (and for some of us it was). 
A couple of my “professional” musician friends (paid to play) admitted to me that they might hesitate to take the risk of that kind of an experience. And they don’t have the time. We made the time.
So I would like to suggest a third word that we might find more comfortable. (If someone has already suggested it, I apologize. I may not have read all the responses, I was getting too angry at the author.)
I think we are STUDENTS of piano, all of us, whether we are paid or not. We don’t know all that we want to know, we are not as good as we want to be, we want to do justice to the beautiful music we have grown to love. And so we take lessons, admit our incompetence, leave ourselves open to corrective instruction, and practice. As someone else suggested, the amount of time we can give to practice is really a better gauge of whether or not this is our life’s principal work.
And yet, not completely. I practice at least five hours a day because I have that luxury and I am in love with the piano. (My husband often accuses me of “finding a mistress”) I take theory courses at the local community college. And I have no desire to be a professional. I am literally terrified to play for anyone, and if friends ask me, I always respond “You couldn’t pay me enough to play.” So definitely not a professional. But not an amateur by this author’s definition.
I am a student. And “in my own little corner, in my own little chair,” to borrow from Oscar Hammerstein, I am getting better every day. 
I suspect that is true of a lot of us.
I found the article “The Difference Between Amateurs and
Professionals” to be ridiculous and insulting.  To take just one of
many examples of falsehoods in the article, consider this one:
“Amateurs see feedback and coaching as someone criticizing them as a
person. Professionals know they have weak spots and seek out
thoughtful criticism.”  People who attend Sonata certainly
don’t follow this stereotype; why else would they sign up for
ten days of intense scrutiny and feedback?Or how about this one: “Amateurs think they are good at everything.
Professionals understand their circles of competence.” The more I play
the piano, the more I become aware of how much I don’t know.  Watching
a YouTube video of Evgeny Kissin or Emil Gilels (or trying to play a
Chopin Etude) tells me instantly how far I have to go, and I’m well
aware that I will never get anywhere near that level.
No doubt the author wanted to make his point, but he could have done so without all that arrogance. I’ll try not to think about his off-base contrasts while investing an hour trying to get just 3 or 4 bars of a Brahms poly-rhythm into my hands and brain. As a rank amateur, why should I even care?
I find very little in this article to be actual.  I am a professional piano teacher, with a degree, but I know of many amateurs who play better than me.  They have the time and dedication to practice more than I do.  However, I have continued my studies at our local university, which has a music department.  There is always more to learn.  No one who goes to Piano Camp (Sonata) would be there based on this authors definitions of an amateur.  I rest my case!
This shows the limits of language. He describes two things, amateur and professional but then freezes his observations and those two words, making them static, unchanging. But we are more than that. Every moment we are changing, moving, learning, exploring,crossing from one state to another. So I say hooray for the gerund. Let’s all make music!

Wow. Talk about creating causality where there’s no evidence it exists! Looks like he just grabbed a bunch of attributes and assigned them to one group or the other. And he is generalizing to life in general.

Here’s something my teacher has said about the difference between piano amateurs and professionals that I’ve found very interesting:

An amateur practices something till they finally get it right.
A professional practices it until they can’t possibly get it wrong.

He also said that one of the main differences between an amateur and a professional is TIME. If you had the time to practice as much as a professional, your playing would reflect that. Since you have other priorities in life, you do as much as you can and know that you’ve given it your best…for your situation.

Note that he didn’t say the difference was any of those characteristics listed in this article. It wasn’t approach, or talent, or mindset. Quite often it’s just time.



OMG, is this timely for me! I’ve been struggling with this issue for some time now and been wanting to write about it but not sure how to approach it, so I’ll just brainstorm, I hope this makes some sense. Although I’m talking about myself here, perhaps this could be useful to somebody else:

I’ve always considered myself “just an amateur”, and qualified my playing as “not bad for an amateur”, which are, in reality, ways of putting myself down. That started to change after my first Sonata, and later, while watching TV,  “Rodrigo” from Mozart in the Jungle gave me something to really think about, which is, the word “amateur” has the root “amor”, which means love, so, it means somebody who loves something, or does it out of love. We even have a Spanish expression, “por amor al arte”, which translates to “for the love of art”.
However, loving something is not necessarily enough, as there are the technical challenges that must be learned, conquered, and overcome, and the more I try to stretch my limits, the more challenges come up, so sometimes it feels like I’m hitting the wall constantly. But then, the fact that I’m “just an amateur” gives me a convenient excuse, a hiding place, since there are no repercussions, like, say, losing my job, if I perform poorly. On the one side, it does take the pressure off performing, but on the other hand, it feels limiting and constricting. While being an amateur is a wonderful experience, there are things that are beyond my reach unless I can get the training so I can get the skills to become a professional. But do I really want to go through all of that, and for what?
Although I’m now retired, I have been a professional in another field, and one thing that I know is that it’s not the same looking at something from the outside, than to actually making a living out of something. The grass is not always greener on the other side, and sometimes it all becomes just work. It’s harder to enjoy something when there are professional pressures to deal with.
The article seems to talk a lot about discipline, and while I could use a little more structure in my practice, I think it’s possible to be a disciplined amateur, so maybe I would venture that there are two types of amateur, what I would call a “recreational” amateur, vs a “serious” amateur, I think that I have been making the transition between the former and the latter.
I’m not sure I would like to be a professional musician, if that means becoming a concert pianist, or teaching, I can’t see myself doing those things, but would love to play like a professional, but not sure how far can I go as an amateur. But where do I really want to go?  Ultimately, I would say that the label that we attach to ourselves may be less important than how we feel about it. So, if I’m an amateur out of my love for music, that’s as equally wonderful as becoming a seasoned, wise professional. I also think it’s not necessarily an “either-or” situation and that some overlap may be possible.
I hope this makes some sense. I’m not sure how much of what’s going on for me is typical or not, but I hope it helps somebody.
It would take an incredibly myopic person to come up with such sweeping generalities. Of course, it is within the writer’s prerogative to define “professional” and “amateur” as contrasting mindsets, and this is stated at the outset of the article. However, such labeling strikes me more as eliciting sensation than offering insight. Just consider a performer at the Cliburn Amateur Piano Competition and it becomes obvious that the writer is writing about stereotypes rather than something realistic.
I am at _______’s house on the Jersey shore with my good friend and piano teacher (when I was taking lessons).   We thought this was interesting and it provoked a conversation.  What is a professional – for example, she has been teaching students and is a very good pianist.   She is definitely not an amateur but she doesn’t make a living as a professional musician.   Does give recitals. We ate dinner last night with Yuja Wang and tonight with an early Martha Argerich.  Rachmaninoff in both instances.   Professionals in spades.
I thought there were plenty of good pointers toward improving any aspect of your life in this article, but I wanted to strangle the author by the time I was done reading it.  There are more effective ways of teaching than name-calling, which is what this amounted to, ie, substitute “jerk” for “amateur” and re-read.
Too many specific points to address one by one.
It is better to think of these comparisons in terms of approaches rather than people.
Strictly speaking, an amateur pursues hobbies; professionals pursue vocations. Even that oversimplifies.  After all, one can be a professional as a performer, and approach hobbies like an amateur.  Thus did many a famed entertainer perform professionally in Las Vegas, only to lose all at the gaming tables!
One isn’t either or … I’m an amateur at piano, overhauling engines, writing stories, … but I’m a pro at the areas I where I made my living.  I suspect all of us are both, and know what each means…..
The distinctions are much to general. Are these attributes of particular professions, personality/psychological/genetic traits, culture, family etc. I have no question about fitting into the amateur category re musical talent. Yet, in my former profession, I probably would be defined as a professional. I can make the same case for my adult children and various former colleagues.
I think he chose the wrong words for comparison. There are amateurs who act in a professional manner and professionals who don’t. Really the blog is more about attitudes that can help or hurt, and those attitudes can apply to either a professional or an amateur. I object to his use of the “amateur” and “professional” to differentiate the mindsets.
My thoughts on this:
I believe what distinguishes adult amateur pianists from the professionals they look up to is their incredible desire to learn and their wish to get better at playing or performing the piano.
It is deep within them to keep pushing because of their love for the instrument and how it makes them feel. Some have chosen to play because they want to get back to the routines of their youth; some to prove that they can play despite having been knocked down in the past; some to soothe wounds; some to challenge themselves.
As amateur pianists they don’t need to prove anything to anyone else beyond themselves. For they can make their own terms in regard to how much time to spend, to keep their fingers moving or the brain working, to perform or not, to choose the repertoire they want to learn or learn the pieces that inspire them. In Alan Rusbridger’s book “Play it Again: An Amateur Against the Impossible,” he sets a goal to learn the First Chopin Ballade by a given deadline. Many Sonata Piano Camper’s read the book and were inspired.
I am often asked how I can stand teaching adult amateur pianists with a limited skill set of technique, theory and understanding of the music. Every time I’m asked, I wince. I’m driven by how much these individuals want something so badly and if I can be the person to give them some direction, some hope of improving, I’m going to do it 100%. Some bite off more than their chops will ever allow them but isn’t that true of professionals as well? The desire to learn is what advances the amateur as well as the professional.
I’ve worked with professionals too – they want feedback from a colleague. These lessons tend to mean spending less time with work on technique and the mechanics and more on phrasing and interpretation. But, as seen by a response, above, some pros are rusty and may need technical help as well. I don’t care what is put in front of me as long as there is a mutual desire to learn. You know, sometimes I learn more about teaching from beginners than any other subset because I have to think about what they don’t know. This keeps me on my toes!
As an amateur athlete, I have done a number of races or rides on my bike. In fact, I have bragging rights for having done a crazy double-century bike ride in one day, aptly named “The Longest Day” as it was a 218 mile ride for the entire length of New Jersey. While it took me 14 hours to complete, I know that there are many cyclists who couldn’t or wouldn’t be able to finish the course. My point being that my cycling form probably wasn’t pretty but I got the job done and I can still freak people out by mentioning this achievement. Not bad for being an amateur!
Amateur pianists are like the Little Engine That Could. They have drive. I’m driven by them and won’t stop because they’ve hit a wall. In fact, I’m going to help them climb it so they can feel good about themselves and then I can smile with them.
I want to thank all the of the Sonatafolks who responded to my query.

About Polly van der Linde

Pianist, teacher, director of International Piano Camps in VT, for adults and children of all levels of ability
This entry was posted in Amateur, Performance anxiety, Piano, Piano challenge, Piano practice, Practice, Practice incentive, Sonata, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Amateur vs. The Professional

  1. Janet Mitchell Auburn Hills Michigan. says:

    Thank you Polly. Your comments were inspiring. I have been to your camp and loved it. I hope I can go again. Several of the members of the piano performance group I belong to have been to your camp. I am sure it will be discussed at our musical after we all play our piece. Jan Mitchell

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