Differences between amateurs and pros

August 26, 2016 at 08:16 PM · It was mentioned on another thread that the real differences between violinists, particularly between amateurs and pros, is the last 5 - 10% of skill.

It'd be interesting to explore: What's that last 5 to 10% of difference, both from the perspective of the (perceptive) listener, and from the perspective of actual technical and musical execution?

EDIT: My intent was to ask what that last 5-10% of refinement was, more so than the amateur/pro distinction, which can be pretty blurry.

Replies (65)

August 26, 2016 at 08:39 PM · A couple of quick thoughts as I head off with my keyboard to a jazz gig.

1. The pro is the finalist who got the orchestra seat; the amateur is the one who didn't. So, I would ask those who are on the receiving end of that business where they found the clearest differences.

2. I have heard people -- on this site -- say that a certain international star plays out of tune and therefore can't possibly be practicing scales daily. Is that person still better than the stronger amateurs?

3. If you look on the piano side of things, for example at the amateur edition of the Van Cliburn competition, you're going to hear some very good pianists, but the folks in the main competition really are noticeably better: They're faster, cleaner, more powerful, clearer in their conveyance of subtlety.

4. Among pros, I often wonder what a CM like David Kim or Martin Chalifour is thinking while performing the accompaniment to Josh Bell playing a concerto. Are they thinking, "this guy is twice as good as me, I could never play like that," or are they thinking, "Bell is only 5-10% better than me, I could be the one standing there, and hardly anyone in the audience would know the difference," or are they thinking, "I'm just as good as Bell, but my job is just different; I'm here in the CM seat because this was my dream, not globetrotting playing the same 10 concertos over and over," or are they thinking, "This guy needs to practice scales."

August 26, 2016 at 08:50 PM · I'm all the way with Paul. To sum my opinion up, I'd say there're no "pros" or "amateurs", there're violinists that play music, and depending on the opinion of each individual, one will be better than the other, and viceversa.

For example, Joshua Bell can play a concerto and impress a lot of people. But I could listen to him and think "wow, that interpretation of the piece was a mess, I didn't like at all how he played this and that, it sounded "horrible", that's not the way you play that piece, now Hillary Hahn should teach him how it's done. And, what's even more important, he was happy playing it that way, thinking it sounded good. That worries me even more. He clearly has a master technique, but so a robot violinist could have. He's not a great musician"

August 26, 2016 at 08:57 PM · A professional is paid to play, an amateur plays for the love of it. I have heard some amazing amateurs and some not so amazing pros in my time. I think it comes down to a career choice.

Cheers Carlo

August 26, 2016 at 09:07 PM · From the listener's point of view, a professional musician is someone whose performance is worthy of paying for to watch.

From the financial point of view, a professional musician should be able to earn one's living entirely or a big chunk of it by playing music.

From the performance point of view, a professional musician has put enough time and effort to master the last 5% (or whatever small percentage) and actively maintain the high level to stay competitive and relevant.

All the others are amateurs.

August 26, 2016 at 09:15 PM · Agree with Sung.

The differences between people who get the job vs people who do not get the job: near-perfect intonation vs "pretty good" intonation, perfect rhythm vs inability to maintain an absolutely steady tempo and/or inability to play subdivisions exactly correctly; beautiful sound vs not so beautiful sound; correct phrasing vs incorrect or nonexistent phrasing; knows how the piece goes vs learned a lot of notes on the page; can make a line vs unaware the line exists; superb bow control vs not-superb bow control; able to make an adjustment instantaneously vs can only play something the way they practiced it. And so on.

August 26, 2016 at 09:17 PM · "4. Among pros, I often wonder what a CM like David Kim or Martin Chalifour is thinking while performing the accompaniment to Josh Bell playing a concerto. Are they thinking, "this guy is twice as good as me, I could never play like that," or are they thinking, "Bell is only 5-10% better than me, I could be the one standing there, and hardly anyone in the audience would know the difference," or are they thinking, "I'm just as good as Bell, but my job is just different; I'm here in the CM seat because this was my dream, not globetrotting playing the same 10 concertos over and over," or are they thinking, "This guy needs to practice scales.""

Probably none of the above. I'm usually thinking, "wow, this is so beautiful." Occasionally I'm thinking, "I hope there isn't an encore because I really need to..." oh never mind.

August 26, 2016 at 09:18 PM · Of course, "pro" isn't one category either....

August 26, 2016 at 09:43 PM · My intent was more to ask about the last 5-10% of refinement, not the amateur vs. pro distinction per se.

To me, much of that last 5-10% is in reliability and control, along with musicianship (that sense of line and phrasing, along with ensemble skills). It's the ability to know just what you want to do, and to make it happen, almost 100% of the time, with complete precision. A completion of the brain/body interface, so to speak. The great soloists, I think, both hear something especially beautiful in their head -- and then are able to precisely render just that on the instrument.

There are plenty of pros who don't have that last 10%, much less the last 5% (or the last 1%). At the same time, some amateurs essentially hit a professional level of playing without having sufficient daily practice to be able to maintain that full level of reliability and control. (That includes, of course, non-professionals who had conservatory training and then went into another career.)

There are at least two local pianists who are previous amateur Von Cliburn winners. I've always wanted to play chamber music with them. :-)

August 26, 2016 at 09:58 PM · These days (in retirement) I play with (good) amateurs. They do full time jobs, or are writing theses etc, so they do not practice enough to become totally "at one" with their playing. Some have as much technique and musicianship as many profssionals, but will have "off days" and lapses of concentration.

The 5 or 10% "missing" is enormous in terms of time and investment.

As soloists, the amateur can often move us as much as anyone, despite shortcomings.

Amateurs bring their friends to concerts, and buy lessons for their children. They are the salt of the Earth!

August 26, 2016 at 10:04 PM · I agree with a lot of what has been said above. To add my two cents, I would say the last 5-10% is consistency. A good amateur may be able to give a stellar performance, but not all the time. A professional has to be able to give a stellar performance all the time, and never let one performance be less good than the last no matter the circumstances. That is a tough thing to do.

August 26, 2016 at 10:23 PM · I've just been watching the BBC Proms on TV - with The Aurora Orchestra conducted by its founder Nicholas Collon at the Royal Albert Hall performing Mozart 41 (the "Jupiter") entirely from memory and standing, except for the cellos, bass and tymps. I'd put that performance and the quality of playing at 100%+.

What was striking was the clarity of the sound - none of it lost by being filtered through a forest of music stands, and helped by the players standing, which of itself almost automatically improves tone and projection. Also the visual interplay between the musicians (rather like a good string quartet) - no sheet music to distract the eye and brain.

The performance should be available for viewing on BBC iPlayer.

[Thinks: I wonder if this is going put ideas into the head of the conductor of Bristol Chamber Orchestra ;). Rehearsals for our next concert start shortly, the main work being Mendelssohns' 3rd Symphony]

August 26, 2016 at 10:30 PM · @Helen Smit. "A professional has to be able to give a stellar performance all the time"

Heifetz is said to have remarked in a conversation about "off-days" with another musician something along the lines of, "it may be all right for you, but I have to be Heifetz all the time".

August 26, 2016 at 10:41 PM · I agree with Lydia about the reliability and reproducibility being part of the 5-10% - my teacher's teacher was a student of Galamian and Shumsky. From one of them he got the concept of perfect motions - exact replication of exactly the move to needed to produce exactly the intended sound.

I also think range - those really superb violinists who occupy the top 10% are convincing across an enormous amount of repertoire and will bring something remarkable to a program (as an example Vengerov's 2015 Sydney program had Bach Chaconne, Pagannini, Ernst, Beethoven etc on the one program). I've heard better Thais's, but only someone with the top couple % was going to get everything else so beautiful and then follow with a completely different program for the next concert.

August 26, 2016 at 10:42 PM · Putting apart what the OP asked.... :)

I agree with Trevor Jennings......

And agree even more with Carlo Ballara.... :) But not only in the field of playing music.........

A pro earns a living from what we're talking about. The amateur earns a life...... :) (IMHO).

August 26, 2016 at 11:11 PM · Another question is, can that last 5-10% be achieved by anyone by following the correct process, or is it out of reach for many simply due to personal limitations? I suspect that for most people it's the latter.

August 26, 2016 at 11:32 PM · I wonder who came with those 5-10%?

What exactly is measured and what are we talking about?

Speed, accuracy, intonation, coordination, artistic impression....

August 26, 2016 at 11:53 PM · k d, I suspect those personal limitations for a late starter are largely time constraints - bringing up a family, acquiring more education in one's own time to further one's career, a busy job with regular training and up-dating if it is in a profession, for instance.

A youngster doesn't (or shouldn't) have such limitations and constraints, and if they have good teachers and a supportive family behind them, that goes a long way to producing a 15- or 16-year old who has an enviable mastery of technique at concerto and caprice level. The next 10 years are the beginning of a lifetime of learning to become a musician.

August 27, 2016 at 12:45 AM · In addition to what others already suggested, I would throw in adaptability, resourcefulness, and attitude as a professional. These are hard to quantify, but I think those qualities belong to the last 5% (10%?) that a professional musician should possess. Amateurs may develop such qualities over time, but they are not crucial simply because the stakes are not high enough for the weekend violinists. And that makes a huge difference.

August 27, 2016 at 12:52 AM · Trevor, I was referring to the individual limitations as a musician. ie Can genius be cultivated in anyone with the correct training (from a young age) or is it out of reach for some?

This is a very interesting documentary that touches on this matter:


August 27, 2016 at 01:05 AM · k d,

I think a genius is 70% genetics and 30% everything else, e.g., luck+training+....

August 27, 2016 at 02:22 AM · As far as that 5-10% is concerned, first of all that's a premise, and I think it's not unreasonable to challenge it. I also would push back against the idea that the "frosting" is merely "musicality" because whenever you are talking about conveying music, that requires incredible stores of control and power. The same is true of singers, pianists, etc. And that means technique. So the question is really whether it takes *twice* the technique to eek out that last 10% of violinistic control and expression. That's why I wondered how the CM of a top orchestra feels in comparison to a huge star like Bell or Mutter or Kavakos or Hahn.

August 27, 2016 at 02:45 PM · Another way to look at this question is--what do people who can turn in a solid Sibelius at age 17 and get a full scholarship to a top music school spend 4, and usually 6, years doing? These questions are very hard to articulate verbally but if you go to YouTube and listen to the same piece played by a 10-12 year old, a graduate student or someone at senior recital stage, and almost any well-known soloist, you can get a sense of the difference. (Assuming all of these are played with technical mastery.)

August 27, 2016 at 03:29 PM · Alice that's a very good point. Yet another way to look at it is how we polish the pieces we're working on. So we've got the basic stuff all right, but then we want to put a real shine on, say, a concerto movement. In my experience, that last "little bit" is one hell of a lot of hard work.

August 27, 2016 at 06:10 PM · What Paul Deck just said above me here. And the pros are doing that last little bit all the time so it gets easier for them to accomplish.

August 27, 2016 at 11:46 PM · To be fair, it's just a word. I have seen many current "pros" let their playing decline to such level that I bet many an "amateur" can do better-no exaggeration.

The technical difference is "pro" meaning income solely from violin playing duties; accomplished amateur, playing at a possibly high level, but not necessarily getting full (or any) income from such activities. I feel it's hard to generalize how many percentage points are they from each other, performance-wise, though feel free to agree to disagree-likely responsible "pros" will have the edge by virtue of being able to keep working daily for hours at their craft, but I've seen the dark side of "professional playing" as well.

Edited to add that Mr. Ballara summarized my thoughts above in a much more succint manner.

August 28, 2016 at 01:17 AM · My cello teacher's pragmatic definition was that an amateur practices until they get it right, and the professional until they can't get it wrong.

August 28, 2016 at 07:53 AM · A different perspective,

As an amateur who has contact with pros and aa a returnee to violin, I have been speaking with pros who I knew from long ago regarding their experiences as pros and their suggestions for me the amateur.

My conclusion:

A pro is someone who after 20 years of playing music must continue performing on their instrument even though they no longer find joy in pro gigs in order to earn money.

An amateur is a person who pursues their instrument either because they enjoy it or because they want to be a pro.

August 28, 2016 at 11:16 AM · I think that last 5 to 10 % of difference Lydia alludes to consists mainly of reliability, i.e., the ability to nail it not just once in the practice room, but consistently and reliable in performance situations. I think a good amateur who is knowledgeable about proper technique and knows how to execute and has practiced it, can basically play all the repertoire if he/she can put enough time in it. But the rock solid reliability will remain an unachievable goal. Which does not mean he/she will not have a lot of fun, basically during the whole life, progressing further and further towards that unachievable goal.

August 28, 2016 at 03:48 PM · I think that amateurs who are working towards being pros are in a different category -- they're really pre-professional students.

It's worth noting that many pros never achieve rock-solid reliability, either. (And because we're talking about the violin, such reliability does not mean that they never have little slips. Even Heifetz had off-nights, even though his off-nights were still phenomenal by any standard. I suspect that last little bit is more a function of concentration than anything else.)

August 28, 2016 at 07:49 PM · I would propose that no one actually practices until they can't *possibly* miss anything. In fact, no one achieves absolute perfection all of the time, because we are but mere mortals. You don't have to be perfect to be a professional. Just ask the meteorologist!

The pursuit of perfection on the violin is part of the charm of learning it, but does become foolhardy at a certain point. I notice with some sadness that not one person has mentioned "creativity" as something that separates the amateurs from the pros, not even our resident jazz musician, Paul. Unfortunately, most people do not associate creativity with the violin, and for good reason. I'm encouraged to see the recent development at the Isaac Stern competition requiring the competitors to write their own cadenzas. This is something I've been clamoring about for years. Great to see it actually happening!

August 28, 2016 at 08:44 PM · For example, I was in the audience when Clara-Jumi Kang won the IVCI in 2010. Her Beethoven was one of the most exquisite performances I've ever heard of the piece. Truly, it was artistry. IVCI audiences are generally extremely savvy and I think it was immediately obvious to everyone in the hall that she would be the winner. However, she did play one high note (I think an A?) very slightly sharp, and again because of the education level of the audience, most of us did hear it. But some people were scandalized by it and mentioned how "bad" they felt for her when it happened. Really? Jaws were on the floor for the entire piece, and that's what some people took away from it? Sometimes I'm just disappointed by classical audiences. Anyway, rant over.

August 28, 2016 at 11:16 PM · Sarah I always enjoy your posts. I don't really agree that creativity separates amateurs from pros. What amateurs lack is the technique to bring that creativity to the fore without making a mess of other stuff in the process. It has been argued that the relentless focus on technical perfection ultimately stifles creativity. I don't really buy that, but I do wonder if the audition and competition circuits tend to reward safe playing. As for amateurs, at least those at my level, we know we're not going to play anything perfectly, so while we do our best technically, we figure we might as well at least try to make it musical, and I think our audiences appreciate that.

August 29, 2016 at 02:30 AM · Thanks, Paul; I enjoy your posts as well. It's not that I'm saying creativity *is* a quality that separates the amateurs from the pros; I'm saying that it *should* once again be. Not so much in an orchestra audition, for obvious reasons, but at the very least for soloists. Why did audiences love Mozart so much? To be sure, he was a genius composer and no doubt technically brilliant, but he was also a dazzling improviser, which just makes for a great show.

I don't think that the relentless focus on technique necessarily must stifle creativity, but neither do I think creativity is actively taught or even encouraged. I know very well the rationale that we must learn the technique first in our formative years so that we can later do anything we want creatively, but I don't think that "later" ever comes for most string players. The problem is that there is so much to learn in terms of technique, so many trails that have already been blazed, that it's hard to find time to devote to trying something new. But I do think it's critical, and apparently the powers that be are starting to agree with me!

August 29, 2016 at 02:50 AM · Incidentally, I'm irked by this narrative I frequently see of the bitter old pro who hates music by now but must soldier tirelessly on, playing Pachelbel's Canon resentfully all the way to his early grave, because it's all he knows how to do. This creature is mythical. Anyone who can actually earn a living as a classical musician, even if it's not a very good one, almost certainly has the intellectual resources to earn a better living somewhere else. I've never met a professional musician that I didn't think could cut it doing anything else in life. Many people can, and do, leave the industry for something more lucrative. They leave to become doctors, nurses, lawyers, IT people, etc. Others stay because their situation is such that the rewards of being a musician outweigh the drawbacks. But really, pretty much anyone who is working as a musician is doing so by choice. Even if they don't like their job all that much anymore (which does sometimes happen), they still like it more than they would any other job.

August 29, 2016 at 04:06 AM · "Good point. That's assuming that the musician is under the age of 55 and has the resources and time (youth, future years in the workforce) to pursue a career change. It is a choice to be a musician, but the alternative isn't necessarily another career; it could very well be no job (or a minimum wage job)."

Oh please. This 55-year-old musician still loves music and feels fortunate to be earning my living with the violin. I think a very large majority of my 50s and older colleagues would say the same. I am with Sarah; the trope of the jaded old pro hating life is tiresome (not to mention inaccurate). Most of us are not resentfully trudging back and forth to rehearsal because we're economically trapped. I take as much joy in making music as I did at the start of my career 32 years ago.

August 29, 2016 at 04:39 AM · I've certainly met jaded pros, but I don't know if there are actually any more of them in music than they are in any other profession. I've personally had a teacher who was a superb player and teacher with an enviable career, who was nevertheless a deeply cynical alcoholic, though.

I will say that pros who are barely cobbling together a living with a combination of freeway philharmonics, teaching, and random gigs, are much more likely to be cynical, especially if they're not married to a spouse with a steady income that can support a family. They are pretty likely to discourage folks like April (or for that matter young people whose level of accomplishment suggests they're not headed into a steady job in music) from joining their ranks.

August 29, 2016 at 04:48 AM · I never said there were *no* jaded pros, just that most of the long-career people I know don't fall into that category. On the other hand, I have a steady job and so do all the people around me. So there is that.

I don't actually know very many people who hang in there at the freeway philharmonic level as a career choice for the long term. I warn my students, those with professional aspirations and ability to match, that such a life is far more attractive at 25 than at 45. But honestly I think people get out and move on before they've been in that world long enough to get jaded.

August 29, 2016 at 02:30 PM · I definitely didn't mean to say there are no jaded pros. There certainly are, in every industry, I would imagine. My point was that I don't think many people who are musicians truly have no other options.

August 29, 2016 at 04:16 PM · Differences between amateurs and pros? Until 4 years ago my my exposure to pros over 70 years had been limited to the violin teachers of my childhood up to the MSM and the cello teacher in my teens (who had played with the Minneapolis, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Atlanta symphonies). I don't count my high school or college orchestra conductors and through most of my adulthood the conductors of my community (amateur) orchestra were hired professionals - some who even made most of their living my actually performing their instruments. But I never really felt their professionalism - maybe because our orchestra was just not good enough.

But 4 years ago i left conducted orchestras to play in a conductor less "amateur" chamber orchestra. A surprising number of our musicians have MM degrees. We are generally fairly old, we have to be because we practice in the morning - so most of us are retired - the music teachers among us just leave that morning open for rehearsal. We have hired a number of different coaches over time to prep us (not conduct us - mostly for phrasing and dynamics) for some concerts, especially during our first 2 years. These were all professional performing musicians, mostly from the San Francisco area - but also a few from further east (as far away as Iceland). The locally based coaches earn their livings with such organizations as the New Century Chamber Orchestra, San Francisco Ballet Orchestra, San Francisco Opera Orchestra, etc.

What I have observed about these professionals is that they know* exactly how the music should sound and are able to control their instruments to make it sound that way and impart that wisdom to us lesser beings. This does not mean there is only one way to play particular musical phrase, but that a professional knows how that phrase is going to sound when he performs it (in some performance context) and succeeds in doing so. To me this is the uniqueness of the professional vs. the amateur, who feels lucky to get to the end of a performance without it falling apart and thinking it has been in tune.

* in their opinion!

August 29, 2016 at 04:48 PM · "EDIT: My intent was to ask what that last 5-10% of refinement was, more so than the amateur/pro distinction, which can be pretty blurry."

I think it's the next quantum level (at minimum) of technical control. I was just thinking about bowing, for example. With YouTube, we can all watch the great masters play anything and as long as the camera is trained on them, we can write down their bowings. But bowings that work for Oistrakh or Kavakos or Mutter might well not work for me. They might be able to accomplish something in 6 inches of bow that would take me two thirds of my bow. Just to give one simple example, the whole notes in the second movement of the Bach A Minor, can you play those with beautiful tone and a nice crescendo building, and developing a vibrato and adjusting your sound point the whole way? Well ... I can't, at least not as well as I'd like to. A pro looking at those notes will be spending their effort not on *whether* they can make it sound passable, but only "how* they want to do it to make it sound interesting and appropriate for the musical context. Passable and even beautiful -- these are already a given.

August 29, 2016 at 05:43 PM · It's important, too, to note that there are different levels of "professionals." Not every astrophysicist is Neil DeGrasse Tyson. But the thousands of average Joe scientists working at NASA and other space programs around the world are still professionals. Similarly, very few working musicians sound like Oistrakh, but that doesn't mean they aren't professionals.

August 29, 2016 at 07:44 PM · Sure that's true -- very few play like Oistrakh. But I'm not really sure whether I could have determined that all by myself. I mean, I listen to some of the performers in these competitions, and maybe there is one whose performance really stands out to me ... and then they get cut in the first round.

August 29, 2016 at 07:48 PM · @Sarah Skreko "Not every astrophysicist is Neil DeGrasse Tyson"

And we can be thankful for that. He's no far from the average Joe that work at the NASA that you mentioned.

In reality he is more of a public figure. The Lindsey Stirling of physicists I'd say.

August 29, 2016 at 07:57 PM · Haha, I don't have the physics knowledge to speak to that! I was disappointed in his Cosmos, but greatly enjoy the annual Isaac Asimov debates that he hosts, so I have mixed feelings on NdGT.

August 29, 2016 at 08:23 PM · "What I have observed about these professionals is that they know* exactly how the music should sound and are able to control their instruments to make it sound that way..." What Andrew said.

August 30, 2016 at 01:11 PM · Some 10-15 years ago I read a paper by a german group of brain scientists looking at differences between brain activity in amateur and professional violinists playing the same part of a Mozart concerto. I can't remember the details, but what I noted was this: Violin playing increases brain activity in the motor cortex as well as the auditory cortex. But during difficult passages the amateur brain has most activity in the motor cortex while the professional brain has most activity in the auditory cortex. In other words the professional violinst has the task of moving the fingers more or less "automated" and can focus on other things such as playing in tune, interpretation etc.

August 30, 2016 at 03:26 PM · Interesting. Here are the relevant links:

Layman's summary: http://www.themusiciansbrain.com/?p=851

PubMed link: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14642491

August 30, 2016 at 03:49 PM · I wonder how much of the automation comes from sheer repetition. How many times does the amateur play or perform a piece after polishing it? Vs how many times has Bell performed any given concerto?

August 30, 2016 at 10:36 PM · "I would hate to think I am not an amateur. An amateur is one who loves what he is doing. Very often, I'm afraid, the professional hates what he is doing. So, I'd rather be an amateur."

- Yehudi Menhuin, taken from "The Compleat Violinist"

I don't agree with this, based on my own observations/experience and the comments above concerning jaded pros. But it is interesting that Menhuin apparently wanted to be an amateur, and I wonder what drove him to write that. He was a professional, and he certainly loved what he did.

Anyway, that study mentioned above is quite interesting. Paul Deck, I had the same thought reading about the study and it begs me to ask another question: If a student wants to be a professional, should they memorize and perform every piece they learn? I memorize pieces even if I don't perform them, but I've never had a teacher mandate that I memorize everything. But I wonder, should it be the goal that every time a student performs a piece they should be at the point where more activity is in the auditory cortex? Or would that be more time and energy than necessary? Part of the equation may be that very often when a student gives a concert they are playing pieces at, maybe slightly below, but hopefully not above their technical capacities. But a professional has all their technique in place, so they are performing at or below their technical capacities,leaving more room to think about interpretation, style, etc.

August 30, 2016 at 11:13 PM · Memorization is the natural outcome of practice. However, repertoire that I memorized in childhood is still repertoire I can still fairly readily pull out now from memory, but repertoire I've memorized in adulthood is often gone from my brain pretty quickly.

i don't know that it's necessary to memorize everything but aspiring pre-professional students should memorize a lot of things simply because being able to play from memory is a skill that will be demanded of them later on.

August 30, 2016 at 11:46 PM · I was never asked to memorize anything by my childhood teacher. I mean, I didn't even memorize the pieces I played at "Solo and Ensemble Festival." It was more shameful than I ever imagined. And, as a result, now I memorize but with nervousness and difficulty. I think a lot of students these days get good enough at memorizing that they can play something like a Mazas study from memory after about a week.

August 31, 2016 at 12:40 PM · My violin teacher regularly asked me to memorise a piece for the next lesson in two weeks time. It would usually be a page (rarely less) from one of the Suzuki books or a non-Suzuki piece I'd be working on. I'd be expected to be at least 95% successful. Another thing she did to to get me to perform in front of her as if I were on a concert platform in front of an audience. Professionally, she spends a lot of time performing in public so her advice was meaningful.

Many years before, in my youth, my cello and piano teachers would always get me to memorise a new piece, bit by bit as the lessons progressed.

A few years ago, the then conductor (not the current one) of my chamber orchestra surprised us at the start of rehearsal by asking us to play through the Elgar Serenade for Strings from memory. We have it in our repertoire but we hadn't played it for a couple of years. The play-through was deemed a success in that it didn't fall over! Even though most of us would have the occasional memory lapse there were always someone in the section who would cover the lacuna and keep the music on course.

Turning now to the full professional ensemble level, a couple of weeks ago the Aurora Orchestra performed Mozart's "Jupiter" at a BBC Prom entirely from memory - and standing (except for the cellists) - which is something they are accustomed to doing. What was so obvious was the eye interaction between the players and the liveliness of the performance. To the audience in the Albert Hall the sound would have been impressive because the performers were standing, which helps projection, and there were no music stands and pieces of paper to absorb the sound.

In the world of folk music, sessions and gigs are from memory, especially in Irish and English folk, the two genres I'm most familiar with. Typically, in a three-hour Irish ceili the only piece of paper you'll see on the band's stage will be the running order.

September 2, 2016 at 03:22 AM · There seems to be a trend towards professionals not playing from memory these days, though, especially for recitals. You'll see soloists play from music in concerto repertoire, even, if they're not the type of folks who play hundreds of concerts a year.

September 3, 2016 at 02:36 AM · I agree with an earlier post - Professionals are paid, amateurs are not.

There seems to be a misconception that professionals are somehow better at their instrument than an amateur, but that is not always the case. However, due to the likelihood that a professional will play more often, and because of that playing requirement, practice more often, he/she may be more adept than an amateur.

September 3, 2016 at 05:15 AM · A professional who sounds like an amateur is not going to be a professional very long. There are a small number of amateurs who play at a high level but to pretend that there is no real difference between the two groups is just silly.

September 3, 2016 at 05:53 AM · No. The 'real difference' is in dictionary definitions. There are overlays but they're interpretations and or relate to a type of prejudice.

September 3, 2016 at 05:54 AM · There's still a blurring. Community orchestras, for instance, mingle music-educator and other pros who don't principally make their living as performers, with ex-pros and amateurs, and (regardless of instrument) it can be very difficult to tell who was professionally trained and who wasn't.

September 3, 2016 at 06:28 AM · To clarify, I use "pro" to mean professional performer in this context. Not music educator--they are certainly professionals but not in a performance context.

September 3, 2016 at 11:47 AM · Maybe I can chime in as someone with experience in both camps. I spent 12 years in full-time orchestras, then felt I wasn't enjoying it as much as I should, and changed career. I now work in IT and play with my local community orchestra and do some freelance gigs.

I'd say the difference is in control - I like to think the reason I get booked for gigs is that people know I can be relied on to match and fit (if I'm not leading) and to come up with the goods when I am. That's an awareness of changes in sound quality and style etc.

September 4, 2016 at 01:15 PM · The kind of consistent perfection that Mary Ellen describes can be achievd by some amateurs. But not every day.

September 5, 2016 at 05:41 AM · I've encountered some amateurs who, upon introducing themselves, have strenuously emphasized that they are not merely an amateur, they're semi-pro -- i.e., get paid either regularly or occasionally.

I've never felt comfortable doing that. I always describe myself as an amateur.

September 5, 2016 at 10:08 AM · Here in France, "amateur" often means "bad" in many folks' minds: French musical education has an all-or-nothing mentality. I sometimes feel lika a missionary. So I use "semi-pro" to mean "I don't do everything, but what I do I do well".

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