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Music and the Amateur

Some Sundays ago, in the New Jersey section of The New York Times, a lengthy article entitled "On a Stage, Making Music, For the First Time" appeared on the Opinion Page. What, we thought, was an essay on music, illustrated with an oboe, doing on an editorial page?

The writer, an amateur oboist who had been playing her instrument for six years, describes the heady emotions she underwent on the occasion of her first orchestral experience. She had "abandoned the role of professional audience foot-tapper and phantom conductor and entered the ranks of amateur musician." Reading the column, one came away with the thought that the experience had proved to be not only a rite of passage for the writer/ performer, but a memorable step in her development as a person. She had taken something she loved, music, to convert her from user to doer.

In ages past, times without the miracles of mass media, without Telstars, video cassettes, home computers and entertainment centers, far fewer people had access to the arts and to other information than today. In making more data available to more people, our technology has been a resounding success and has brought about a global awareness, however perfunctory, never before achieved. Perfunctory because the media professionals soon discovered that no one, other than "specialists," had time for the assimilation of that much information. Better just to go for the comprehensive view. The headlines, a teaser or two. Better to entertain than overwhelm. And before many people realized what had happened — some did: see Neil Postman's Entertaining Ourselves to Death — we had been metamorphosed into a world of consumers.

The arts have not escaped the unwitting conversion. It is perhaps most visible in the most abstract of those arts, music. The late Paul Fromm, merchant, patron of contemporary music, and amateur musician put it succinctly when he talked of his own youth: "If you wanted to hear music, you had to make music.... We weren't passive consumers but active participants in music-making, and we were not the exception. Every professional person was deeply steeped in the humanities. The prospects of a new book by Thomas Mann or a new painting or musical work generated unbelievable excitement and made our adrenalin flow. Today we live in a technological society in which we can go to the moon without knowing or loving Beethoven."

Our world has become so boundlessly complicated, so cumbersome and expensive that we have become reconciled to specialization. Who can keep up with the advances of science? Science to the scientist, we say, and we will happily use what he has wrought without having to know how it works. L' art pour l'art may be a late 19th-century concept, but no previous time has integrated it so unabashedly as ours in absolving itself of judgmental responsibility. We have reorganized ourselves into two groups, a tiny nucleus of specialist/doers and a huge mass of spender/users. The renaissance man seems almost as distant from us as Neanderthal.

Nor have our academic institutions helped in the dilemma. They are, after all, as pragmatic as any other institution and inevitably attuned to economic considerations. Already by the time a child reaches junior high school, he is separated from his peers by his well-meaning teachers if he shows any unusual interest or talent. Attitudinally, he is put, at home and at school, on a professional track, inculcated with the belief that this interest or talent is the way he will earn his living when he grows up. Sometimes the prognostications prove true. People do win piano competitions and make careers as big time soloists; people do get hired to fill the ranks of American symphony orchestras, big and small; people do get engaged to sing in opera companies at home and abroad; people, all too few people, do compose music that gets performed enough so that they can subsist from their creative efforts alone. And if they don't succeed at any of the above, they might still get a teaching job.

But often the professional path is aborted. There is the discovery that only the very finest in any discipline can produce adequate earning power. The very mass media we so admire create a false impression of artistic significance, that only such and-such artists are "major league," the rest, in smaller places or having less effective boosters, being, if not bush-leaguers, at least "provincial." More and more, there is the perception of being isolated from the mainstream, of being insufficiently recognized by society as a composer or performer of concert music.

What happens to those who once thought that they might pursue music as a professional objective and change their minds? And more important, what happens to those who, as young people, have played an enthusiastic participatory role in music but never thought of it as a career? Do they continue to make music? Do they choose to invest their leisure time and energies in taking part in a continuum of our musical heritage? Paul Fromm was fond of quoting a Chekhov letter which stated: "You cannot bring Gogol to the people; you must bring the people to Gogol." It must have been clear to the Russian master that in order to bring the people to Gogol, one must first teach them to read and then hope they will choose to read Gogol. The program in which the New York Times columnist participated as second oboist featured the Prokofiev Sixth. It could have been another work by another composer, and her rapt sense of fulfillment would have been equally evident. And yes, on further reflection, it was wise of the Times editor to put this essay not on the music page but on the page representing the broadest base for ideas, the opinion page.

When Paul Fromm spoke with us on the occasion of his 75th birthday in 1981, he said that he could not imagine "a good life" which was not steeped in "humanistic aspiration" and expressed his fears that a society without the broad-based ideological tenets of humanism promoted robots and automatons. Without constant regeneration and rejuvenation, he said, music would cease to exist. "The musical experience is a unique interaction between composer, performer, and listener, based on a certain intensity of concentration."

He would have been happy with the second oboist who demonstrated that a music amateur is not a second-rater but a lover of music.

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