In Praise of the Adult Amateur and Non-Pro Musician

I attended the first-ever Chicago Clarinet Symposium this weekend at Northeastern Illinois University. It was two days filled with everything clarinet: master classes, concerts, vendor displays and sample instruments. I enjoyed my time there. I took lots of notes, discovered new-to-me repertoire, heard amazing performances, and met some nice (and talented) people. I even met my bass clarinet hero. We were all kindred spirits in our love of the clarinet.

One thing that became clear to me, however, was that I was not part of the target audience for this event. I am not a college student, professor, or full-time professional performer. I have a Bachelor of Music in Theory and Composition, a Master of Library Science, and work as a cataloger for a public library.

Me performing "The Old Grumbly Bear" with the Crystal Lake Community Band, July 2015

Me performing “The Old Grumbly Bear” with the Crystal Lake Community Band, July 2015

I do cobble together some of my income from music. I teach private clarinet and piano lessons to middle and high school students, sell my compositions and arrangements at Sheet Music Plus, and sometimes get paid for performing. I consider myself a semi-pro musician in that I do make money from music, but it is not my primary income (and as of yet, does not come remotely close to matching my primary income).

I felt some inkling of not-really-belonging as I registered, as the master class performance options were nearly full already. Once I arrived and saw my fellow conference-goers, it seemed even more clear that I was an outlier. On the second day, I appeared to have completely flummoxed one woman I was chatting with in that I didn’t fit any preconceived notions about The Attendees beyond the fact that I played clarinet (and even that seemed to stump her when I said my degree was in theory/comp, not clarinet performance). She seemed surprised that I’d even heard about the event, much less had the interest and inclination to attend.

I do want to reiterate here that I did enjoy myself. I may not have been part of the target audience, but I still gained immense value by attending. Besides, I’m actually kind of used to being the odd duck and a bit of a loner, so I wasn’t uncomfortable by any means. I also know that a couple of my peers would have liked to attend, but the scheduling just didn’t work out for them this time.

But this did get me to thinking about so many of us musicians who are my true kindred spirits: those of us who took the practical route after getting our BMus degrees (or didn’t pursue music degrees at all); those of us who earn most or all of our income through non-music careers; those of us who still want to participate even if we’re not the ones taking center stage at a prestigious concert.

Those of us who still want to learn. We are in community bands, teach private lessons, have jam sessions with friends, play the local pit orchestras, and participate in any number of other musical activities. We’re out there.Just because we’re not full pros or still in our youth doesn’t mean that we are done learning. Click To Tweet

Just because we’re not full pros or still in our youth doesn’t mean that we are done learning. In fact, some of us finally have the resources (and some time) to put toward that goal. I have felt a pull toward taking lessons again myself, though finding a college-level teacher when you’re not in college anymore is a challenge. It’s hard to know where to start, how to discover who is willing to take on a middle-aged clarinetist who isn’t working toward landing a symphony job, how to work lessons and practice time into an already-crammed adult life schedule. And I don’t even have kids that I’m shuttling back and forth to their own numerous activities.

(Of course, this also leads to examination of the past, and how much time I could/should have spent practicing and networking, but didn’t. For a variety of reasons. But that subject will have to wait for another post.)

What, then, can we do to encourage and include the adult amateur and semi-pro? I believe there are large numbers of us. Do we start our own conference? Do we speak up to event organizers to see if they will include some tidbits for us? Some sports have pro-am events—can we incorporate this idea into our music world? Or do things like this already exist? I’m not sure, and I’m just starting to really mull all this over.

Knock on Wood rehearsal, January 2017

Knock on Wood clarinet choir rehearsal, January 2017

I am the founder and organizer of Knock on Wood, a clarinet choir based in McHenry County, Illinois. We are a community group of over twenty musicians. We range in age from teenagers to octogenarians and range in clarinets from the itty-bitty E-flat sopranino to the ginormous contrabass. We play in this group because we love the clarinet family and the gorgeous music that can happen when you get large numbers of us together. We want to sound good. We want to improve ourselves. We want to simply enjoy playing our favorite instrument with fellow clarinerds. (And we’d love for you to stop by our Facebook page to see what we’re about).

We’ve discussed having our own Clarinet Day, with a few master classes and a mass choir that invites those who don’t regularly play with us to join us for the day. While yes, we want to encourage our high school (and even middle school) players to come to the event and participate, I want to make sure we still give opportunities to our adult players.

This is still in the very early planning stages. We have things to consider since we’re not affiliated with a university, namely the budget. We also have a challenge that we’re “way out” in McHenry County and not closer to the city of Chicago (that said, I’ll mention again that we have over twenty clarinetists on our roster, with more who would join us if their schedules could fit with ours. People are out here and interested). I do feel that an event like this would add great value to our community of musicians, though, and we can make it happen.We exist, we want to learn, and we want to be included. Click To Tweet

But until we get this event off the ground, I want to encourage those who are beyond the status of amateur to remember that we’re here. We exist, we want to learn, and we want to be included.