Is it possible to be both professional and amateur at the same time?
I was recently asked whether I'd have rather been an amateur musician. Though the answer, I'm glad to say, is no, the question made me think about what the differences are. The cliché that it's a privilege to spend your life being paid to do what you love is undoubtedly true, but for your passion and your work to be the same thing isn't always a straightforward bliss that one might be assume. People are good at music because they love it and are lucky to have a talent for it. But to be good enough to become, and more importantly, remain a professional musician demands hard work on a consistent basis. To connect 'hard' and 'work' with something you love is a contradiction that can sometimes be complicated to resolve.
I'm aware of the 'grass is greener' syndrome but I can't help occasionally being a little envious of the amateur's lightness of being. I'm not suggesting they don't get nervous, and I know they make exceptional demands on themselves to deliver their best, but there's nevertheless a safety net which prevents a disappointing concert from having any affect on their livelihood. A certain devil-may-care attitude that amateurs bring to performances is extremely healthy and though there may not be many concerts each year, the stakes that fact raises always create a special sense of occasion.
Professionalism is double-edged. I admire the quickness of professional orchestras to solve any musical problems put their way. I'm in awe of their reliability under often intense pressure. But professionalism itself is a dangerous goal, and unless seen as a means to an end, can camouflage a fear of failure that prevents the greatest success. The football manger Luiz Felipe Scolari told his Brazilian team to 'feel more amateur than professional'. They won the World Cup. The professionalism necessary to achieve the highest results mustn't suffocate the amateur defining love for something that is ultimately what communicates so much to others.
The words 'professional' and 'amateur' used to have different associations. A hundred years ago amateurs were respected individuals, whereas the word 'professional' could be derogatory. Nowadays 'amateurish' implies casual and incapable, whilst 'professional' is a significant compliment. But Oscar Wilde's quip about the amateur musician being an example of all men killing the thing they love is unfair. Their commitment and zest create a wonderful sense of life and purpose, and the variety of professions they represent supply a rich hinterland to the expression of the music. After all, as has been pointed out, it was amateurs who built the Ark, and professionals who built the Titanic.
Financial considerations aside, are the two words mutually exclusive? Can professionals maintain an amateur's enthusiasm and spirited freedom every day? And is it possible for amateurs to approach performances with the discipline and reliability of professionals? The answer is yes. In fact, if you combine the best of both worlds, to be amateur and professional at the same time probably represents an ideal of musical performance.
Leading conductor Mark Wigglesworth is equally at home in the opera house as in the concert hall – and, indeed, the studio, where his acclaimed Shostakovich symphony cycle for BIS is nearing completion. In 'Shaping the invisible' Mark shares his passion for music and his fascination with the philosophies and psychologies that lie behind it. (Photo: Ben Ealovega)