Recently, a colleague and I were discussing the difference between amateur and professional musicians. Both my husband and I spend some of our time with musicians who do not play professionally, and a lot of them have become dear friends of ours. Even Robert (husband) refers to himself as a 'professional amateur'. We've been blessed to play in many different types of settings, bringing lots of music and joy to audiences alongside people who play purely for the fun of making music.
Naturally, there comes a bit of frustration with amateur groups since there are limits and challenges in the musicianship you don't normally deal with in professional groups. Therefore, I find myself looking at my husband and ask - How is he so good? He has no time to practice, just like any other amateur musician. Yet he always sounds fantastic in any rehearsal or concert. (I've come to prefer playing with him over any other timpanist... and not just because we're married!)
Here is what my husband does:
- He listens and studies.
My husband has a queue of classical albums waiting to be listened to. However, he doesn't spend hours locked away in his study beneath a pair of headphones. He listens to everything in his car - wherever he drives.
He also works to get his hands on the score (from amazon or ebay) of whatever he will be playing in the near future. But again, he doesn't pour over his scores for hours and hours. Having a full time job and working on a Masters in the evenings barely leaves him free time to read a book or play the odd video game. The moments I see him with scores are when he has a lot of downtime - usually on a flight, any kind of trip, vacation, or a family holiday where there will be stretches of time when things aren't happening. He saves his studying for when he knows there will be a moment of peace. He usually gets those moments of peace whenever we travel.
- He shows up early to rehearsals and concerts
Robert doesn't practice much. It's kind of impossible since his main instrument is timpani, and a set of those cost A LOT of money. Plus, I don't think we could fit a set anywhere in our house right now.
Therefore, he always shows up at least half an hour (but it's more like an hour most of the time) before a rehearsal and concert. To me, it almost looks like he spends that time reacquainting himself with his old kettle-drum friends. He tunes them each for a while, plays some fundamental rhythmic exercises that will come in handy for the upcoming performance, and then hits up important passages he knows he'll need to play well. He does it all like clockwork.
By listening to recordings and glancing at scores, Robert is mentally prepped for what is ahead of him. There are usually no surprises for him. He also is comfortable on his instrument, even though he does not spend 3 hours a day on it (believe me, I know he'd like to). His practice time is scarce and he takes it seriously: starting with his musical basics and then expanding to specifics needed for the task at hand.
And this is what my colleague and I concluded in our recent chat: it's those fundamental building blocks that people need. Everyone needs fundamentals, pros and amateurs alike. Most often this is the difference between professional musicians and the ones who play for the joy of it. I've noticed a lot of amateurs either practice very little or go straight to the difficult stuff with no kind of mental or physical warm up. I understand the thought behind this: there is so little time, so let's get straight to the stuff that matters. But believe me, fundamentals matter. In my opinion, they matter more than the notes of the page you're about to play.
Therefore I strongly encourage you, if you play music of any kind and in any type of capacity, to give at least 5 minutes to those fundamentals. Some long tones, some scales and arpeggios, some simple rhythmic exercises. Not only will you witness improvement in your playing, but you will enjoy a comfort level and familiarity unlike what you've felt before.
Stay tuned this week for tales from the BOA Grand National Championship! I went last year for the first time ever and had a blast. Can't wait to go again!