Amateur Hours

Language is a funny thing. Words with neutral, or even positive, meanings can come to take on negative qualities. These turns say a lot about our cultural values.

Here are some of my favorite examples:

Frugal (literal definition): economical with regard to money or food.
Frugal (implied meaning): cheap, stingy, miserly.

Adolescent (literal definition): developing from a child into an adult.
Adolescent (implied meaning): irritatingly self-involved and under-developed.

Abnormal (literal definition): outside the range of what is most common.
Abnormal (implied definition): undesirably different from most.

My favorite such word has taken on very different flavors for me over time:

Amateur (literal definition): one who engages in a pursuit on an unpaid basis.
Amateur (implied definition): sub-par.

For a few years in my twenties, I taught a handful of chamber music ensembles at Caltech as a guest coach. It goes without saying that Caltech is not Juilliard. As a young violin jock, I came to feel that my time was better spent serving students with more aptitude for music. I joined the chamber music faculty at Colburn, and have delighted in working with gifted children — mostly bound for promising careers in music — ever since.

Flash forward ten-plus years. I am now in my third year as Director of Chamber Music at Caltech. Today, I resigned from Colburn's chamber music faculty.

What changed?

* * *

Amateur comes from the French word meaning "lover of." An amateur is someone who undertakes an activity for passion's sake alone. There is no expectation of income. More specifically, there's no pressure to earn financial recognition. (This lovely concept is, clearly, a luxury.)

Historically, amateurism meant the purest form of engagement with an activity. Dozens of "gentleman amateurs," for example, made landmark contributions to scientific inquiry. (Charles Darwin was one of them.) In fact, being a professional generally relegated one to a *lower* socio-economic and intellectual status.

Until the 1970s, all Olympic athletes were required to be amateurs. Earning a living practicing your sport was grounds for disqualification. So how did amateurism, the noblest of pursuits, turn into something inherently lesser-than?

In our capitalistic culture, success and achievement are worth dollars and cents. When an activity doesn't amount to financial compensation, the converse becomes true. If no one is willing to pay you for your skill, then your skill isn't worth much.

My life experience has opened my eyes to the false binary of the distinction between amateurism and professionalism. At Caltech, I oversee a program serving between 75-100 students per semester. I teach 12-15 hours per week, producing 8-10+ student performances annually.

Caltech students' musical skills range from intermediate to astonishingly advanced. Aside from fierce intelligence, these amateur musicians all share a passion for music. They are highly curious, and hungry to learn more. And they all respect the craft. Carving out time for music in their lives gives them both a creative outlet and an energizing sense of meaning.

You know who this sounds like? Devoted audience members. You know how I learned to recognize that? Interfacing regularly with Salastina audiences over the years. (Incidentally: guess who the audiences and donors of the future are? People like my Caltech students.)

My work with Salastina is all about digging deeper into what music means, and what I can help it to mean, to other people. That's been an extremely humbling and fulfilling process. I am continually touched by the many conversations we have with our audience members.

For the past few years, I've seen my own personal mission statement as the following:

"Maia helps people who want to be inspired by the beauty of chamber music to deepen their connection to it."

So you can see why, in my less -- err -- adolescent wisdom, I jumped at the chance to apply for the position at Caltech. Providing that meaning for amateur students, pre-professional students, and audiences alike fulfills and inspires me.

* * *

For several years, we had a devoted graduate student in the program. She played French Horn. One day, I asked her to tell me what she was working on at Caltech. She nonchalantly informed me that she was the only person charged with monitoring the space shuttle Voyager 1.

Ever since I started, I can count on one of our finest pianists always being in the Music House practicing whenever I arrive. I have no idea how he makes time for this, as he is a graduate student in a branch of Physics I cannot begin to comprehend. A few weeks ago, he and three other of our finest musicians performed the entirety of the Brahms Piano Quintet -- beautifully, I might add -- alongside the LA Phil's Principal Concertmaster, Martin Chalifour.

Last week, we had the Talich Quartet give master lessons to a few of our most advanced groups. After working with this particular group, the cellist offered to return to perform side-by-side with them. The testimonials and looks on the faces of so many other students who'd worked with the quartet that day made mine.

One of our students, who plays the accordion with abandon, has made nearly a dozen of his own original arrangements to perform with others in our program.

I hold a special fondness for my least advanced groups. It’s worth noting that these students are as perfectionistic and high-achieving intellectually as their more musically-advanced counterparts. These students' earnestness, self-awareness, and humility lead them to push through their relative lack of skill. They are willing to put it and themselves out there for the sheer pleasure of learning and sharing. I’m often touched by the thought that these are the students who will succeed the most at life in general.

Our amateur students' performances mean so much to their regular audiences at Caltech. This, too, is humbling! Perhaps most humbling for me personally is being the "musical expert" in a room full of brilliant scientists. Two years ago, a Professor of Astrophysics, i.e. an expert in nothing less than the universe itself, wrote a lovely note to share just how much he had learned from me. This struck me as both touching and comically absurd. (I told him as much!)

* * *

I see a cultural trend towards greater respect for the amateur. Perhaps this has to do with the equalizing effect of the internet. Or how technology levels the playing field. Amateur artists can create with computer programs like Garage Band and iMovie. Amateur actors, comedians, and countless other personalities can find fame and build careers through YouTube, blogs, and other online platforms.

I'm hardly endorsing the cultural value of the Logan Pauls of the world, which is full of second-rate performers whose capacity to earn a living boggles the mind. Likewise, there are plenty of gifted creatives who, either by choice or circumstance, earn their living by other means.

That said, I think the sharp distinction between the respect afforded to amateurs and professionals isn’t so black and white. To free one's creativity from the burden of earning income, inasmuch as that’s possible for anyone, is both healthy and a joy. (My husband Philip is a great example of this: he earns his living composing music for film and tv, but writes music for the stage sheerly for the purpose of personal enjoyment.)

Lastly, professional musicians rely on the enthusiasm and passion of amateur players and audience members to do their part to support the arts ecosystem. The more that in itself is supported, the better for all of us.

* * *

Five years ago, I never would have thought I’d quit Colburn, letting go of its institutional cachet and my lifelong tie to the school. (It’s where I trained, and it’s always meant a lot to me to serve on the faculty.) But like I’ve told all my pre-professional students: it’s important to stay open to your evolving interests and the changing dynamics of your life.

Certainly, being the Director of a thriving program, enjoying health and retirement benefits (despite being part-time), and building both stability and a short commute into my schedule counts for a lot, practically-speaking. But the decision was more about what I described above. How all of these things integrate into my life made the choice surprisingly easy.

Extra teaching became too much to juggle along with Caltech, Salastina, studio recording, and the LA Chamber Orchestra. While variety is the spice of life, managing so many spinning plates easily becomes tiresome not just for me, but for the rest of my family as well. While I found teaching at Colburn immensely fulfilling, I can now direct that pre-professional-grooming energy into developing Sounds Promising.

I think the humility and sense of balance imparted to me by my amateur students itself helped me to let it go.