In High Praise of the Adult Amateur 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. And 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 in 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 (affiliate link), and sometimes get paid for performing. I’m 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. I apparently didn’t fit any preconceived notions about The Attendees beyond the fact that I played clarinet. 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 kind of used to being the odd duck and a bit of a loner, so I wasn’t uncomfortable. I know that a couple of my peers wanted to attend, but the scheduling just didn’t work out for them.

Things to ponder

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, 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’re 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. 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 an examination of the past. How much time could/should I 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

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’re 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. Why do we play in this group? 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 and improve ourselves. Above all, we 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 hosting our own Clarinet Day. We’d have a few master classes and a mass choir that includes those who don’t regularly play with us. Yes, we want to encourage our high school (and even middle school) players to come to the event and participate. But I also 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 believe that an event like this would add great value to our community of musicians, and we can make it happen.

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.

Lori Archer Sutherland

Lori Archer Sutherland earned a Bachelor of Music in Theory and Composition degree from the Ohio State University and a Master of Library and Information Science degree from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She composes, performs, and teaches clarinet. She plays bass clarinet with the Crystal Lake Community Band and the Woodstock City Band, clarinet with Winds Off the Lake Woodwind Quintet, and is the founder and organizer of the Knock on Wood Clarinet Choir, where she plays an even bigger clarinet. Check out her site and podcast at tonaldiversions.com

2 Responses

  1. Brian J Crow says:

    Wow, this is very similar to my story. I didn’t even pursue a music degree, instead opting for a liberal arts theology degree. My goal was to be able to play a few tunes on the organ for family at holidays and maybe fill in at church every now and again. I stopped taking lessons altogether in college because I chose not to devote the time. Little did I understand the shortage of trained organists in the church which would lead to me playing every Sunday. People are often confused when they ask me to accompany a choir, a soloist or an instrumentalist and I politely decline. “But, Brian, you sound so good every Sunday, surely you can play a wide ranging, arpeggio filled, piano technique piece with 16th notes and syncopation. Nope, just a slightly beyond amatuer organist who isn’t an American Guild of Organists member because I don’t fit in there and only recently bought a new pair of organ shoes because I’ve gotten brave enough to start relearning decent pedal technique. I am thankful and blessed to have the gifts that I do, enjoy listening to those who have more talent, and find music conferences intimidating and probably not for me. I’m going back to my two-octave handbell choir that is under the delusion that I am a good conductor in spite of my never taking a conducting class in college and simply mimicking the high school director’s hand motions.

    • Bravo to you for taking new steps! May you summon up the courage to do even more. (And thank you for introducing me to the concept of organ shoes. I had no idea such a thing existed! Makes perfect sense, though.)

      It’s hard to be in that chasm between being too old for one thing and not feeling like we’re good enough for the other. But I’m certain there are a LOT of us in here together (and I’d also wager it’s not just in music that this happens).

      And just maybe, by talking about it in the open, we can start to find ways to help each other create opportunities. And encourage others to take some of those big scary steps (to use your examples, joining the Guild or going to a conference) that help us stretch and grow.