Monday, February 22, 2010

Amateur Hour

Professionals play for pay. Amateurs pay to play.

You'd think it would be easy, given a distinction so stark, to define yourself as either/or, but it turns out, for me, to be insanely complicated. Partly this is because the dichotomy is nowhere near as pat as I made it appear: I have known professionals to pay -in one way or another- to play, and I have known -and played with- amateurs who, once in a while, cash checks.

In addition, there's more determining professionalism than dollars. At a minimal level, there's professional training and associated questions. Can someone self-taught ever really be a pro? It's insanely rare for a self-taught player to make her living playing classical music, but other genres are another story. How much training makes you a pro? Majoring? Minoring? Having the knowledge to offer formal training to others? What if you have the training but do not play?

Then there's your living. If you make 25% of your living -say $10,000- making music, are you a pro? What about 50% of your living? Would you be more of a pro if you made the same $10,000 but did nothing else? Does it make a difference if you have an archetypal "day job" versus a bona-fide second career?

I probably made a third of my income playing this year and the other 2/3 working in a completely unrelated field. Last year I made a little less playing and a lot more in the unrelated field; I was still trying to work full-time while gigging. Yearly, I struggle to locate myself on the pro- to amateur continuum. The question is not, at least according to the IRS, academic.

Perhaps most interestingly, there's the question of love. An amateur plays for love; a professional plays for...what? It's not entirely love, otherwise you'd never take a gig you didn't like. But it's not entirely money, either, or most of us musicians would be doing something else. In my case this truth is particularly stark: I can earn 2 times as much money per hour as an SLP as I earn as a musician. Therefore, every hour I spend gigging, practicing, or teaching comes at a hefty opportunity cost. In a way, you could say I pay to play-

which puts me back in the amateur category.

But I don't feel like an amateur, in the sense of taking unadulterated, uncaring joy in what I do. I'm more often tired from traveling, or worried about sounding excellent, or concentrating very, very hard on getting it right. There's room for joy in there, but it's mediated joy, joy tethered to very hard work and high stakes.

Contrast this with singing. This weekend I attended a reunion of my college Collegium, an early-music choir in which, for four years, I sang soprano. Like most people in the choir, I was a musician but not a singer: looking around the room at Saturday's rehearsal -a full six years after our last meeting- I saw organists, instrumentalists, people who'd chosen other paths but still loved music.

We were amateurs, in the best sense of the word. We sang for love. We tried hard but not too hard, forgave ourselves our mistakes, celebrated our achievements. We hit most notes, missed a few, sang with gusto and un-self-consciousness.

I miss being an amateur.

Guess I've answered my own question. Time to tackle the damn Schedule C.


wombat said...

I feel compelled to offer the following snark: What if, hypothetically speaking, $10,000 isn't 25% of your income but rather about 300%, and you made a net total of -$3 last year performing. Are you still a professional musician?

wombat said...

Also, I approach all my music making as you describe in the last paragraph. Maybe that makes me a worse musician, but if I weren't enjoying it, I'd quit in a heartbeat. Would you allow me to crosspost this to Brandenbourgeoisie?