In music, unlike when rewiring your house, ‘amateur’ does not mean ‘bad’


Amateur Toronto pianist Ricker Choi in recital at the Four Seasons Centre last November (Chris Hutcheson photo).

Throw the word ‘amateur’ around, and most people think ‘bad.’ It’s time to change that, at least in the world of music.

DIY home renovations have probably reinforced the amateur-equals-bad association. But anyone even remotely adept at diagnosing and fixing wiring can, through a series of tests and apprenticeships, become a licensed electrician and go on to get more work than he or she can handle. The same holds true for plumbers, welders, carpenters and all the other trades.

On the other hand, you can be a fine singer, violinist, cellist, trumpeter, oboe player or pianist, get lauds on tests and examinations, proudly collect diplomas, yet still not succeed at making a living wage with the instrument.

Only a handful of the thousands of music-performance graduates the world produces every year get good jobs in their chosen field. The rest become teachers, or they turn to something else.

But many also continue to enjoy the fruits of their musical education, joining choirs, playing in or running community and school orchestras, organizing local concerts, or creating impromptu musical salons for special occasions or just to get together with like-minded friends. Often, the musicmaking is very good.

The quality of professional concerts and recordings these days is so very high, and there’s so much of it in a city like Toronto, that it’s easy to dismiss amateurs completely, but they are as much a part of the cultural life of this city as the Canadian Opera Company and Toronto Symphony Orchestra.

It’s pretty safe to assume that, if there were no amateur musicians to serve as mentors and facilitators, there would eventually also be no audience for the professional ones.

One international and two Toronto events shine the spotlight on this underground economy of amateur musicianship this week — and give us opportunities to appreciate all this effort:

On Friday, about a dozen individuals and collaborators join forces in an all-Beethoven pop-up concert at Heliconian Hall. Even before submissions closed last week to the event, organized as  public-relations exercise by Universal Music Canada, there were 110 minutes of music on the programme. The concert will also be streamed live on the Web. I’ll have all the details later this week.

On Saturday at 7:30 p.m., pianist Ricker Choi shows off at the Glenn Gould Studio in his latest annual benefit concert, where the proceeds go to the United Way (admission is $20 — $10 for students and seniors).

UPDATE: Choi informs me that the concert is now sold-out.

His programme includes, among other, four pieces by Franz Liszt (three Petrarch Sonnets and the Mephisto Waltz), a solo reduction of the second movement of the Yellow River Piano Concerto, Bela Bartók’s Romanian Folk Dances and a solo arrangement of the “Soirée de Vienne” from Die Fledermaus by Richard Strauss.

Joining this already substantial programme are trophy winners from the 2012 North York Music Festival.

Choi works as an analyst by day, but devotes most of the rest of his waking time to practising, ongoing learning (he participates in every master class he can get into, and takes regular lessons with Toronto pianist Boris Zarankin) and entering amateur competitions.

I first met him about five years ago and, thanks to the hours and hours he spends working on self-improvement — on a digital keyboard, so that he won’t disturb his condo neighbours — I have seen him make incredible progress.

In March, Choi took third place at the 23rd International Piano Competition for Outsanding Amateurs in Paris, and got to perform in front of 1,000 people at Salle Gaveau. You can find out more about him here.

For a taste of his work, here is Choi playing a bit of late Brahms:

One of the world’s prime amateur pianist competitions, organized by the Van Cliburn Foundation, opened video submissions for its third Amateur Piano Video Contest on Friday. Submissions are being accepted until July 15. The competition is for a spot in the 2015 International Piano Competition for Outstanding Amateurs (details here).

The first entrant is Judi Darst, who submitted this home video of the Op. 45 Prélude in C-sharp minor by Frédéric Chopin at the Galliarde from Ancient Airs and Dances by Ottorino Respighi:

John Terauds

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3 thoughts on “In music, unlike when rewiring your house, ‘amateur’ does not mean ‘bad’

  1. Not just music performance graduates, but also others who have university or college training in other fields but still spend hours making music, for the love of it (the true meaning of “amateur”, after all).

  2. er John . . . Your heading is a slur on those of us with a short fuse. I (B.Mus, A.R.C.M.) re-wired my house a quarter of a century ago and the lights still come on when I click those little switchy things.

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