c o m m e n t a r y
Too Important To Leave to the Professionals
. . . Music and the Passionate Life
by Joan Oliver Goldsmith
WHEN I WAS SEVEN or so, my younger sister, Vicki, bet me a quarter that I couldn't go for a day without singing. A whole day: a whole quarter. That was two Superman comic books in 1958. Sometime around three o'clock I forgot the bet and burst into "Thumbelina, Thumbelina, tiny little thing." So I lost. But I was the lucky one. When my older sister, Diane, was five, her kindergarten teacher had asked her not to sing, too. Not as part of a wager, but because, the teacher told her, she was making it harder for the group. Diane rarely sang in public after that.
By the time we've grown up, we've self-diagnosed: I'm a singer, or I can't carry a tune in a bucket. We do what we expect to do well. To avoid embarrassing ourselves we avoid the rest. So when our bodies are filled with more joy or sorrow than they can contain, we have nothing to mop up the overflow with. We end up pouring it into the ear of a therapist.
We separate ourselves into watchers and doers.
Amateurs are doers. Once upon a time, they were wealthy, respected men: the gentleman athlete, the gentleman archeologist. When did the word get to be a synonym for "incompetent dilettante"? I sing in a chorus that performs with major symphony orchestras. I call it my unpaid part-time job. Yet choral associations call us "volunteers" to avoid the dreaded stigma of the word "amateur."
Conductor Robert Shaw fought this connotation every time he repeated his maxim, "Music and sex are too important to leave to the professionals." Indeed, we seem to have forgotten that "amateur" comes from the Latin for "lover," not "can't make a living at it."
Amateur. Lover. A person who gives because it is a joy in the body to give. Sensuous: the way a full breath expands lungs and ribcage, bringing relief to a body calcified from sitting at a computer keyboard. The way singing massages the sinus cavities and chest with vibrating resonance.
The puny little breaths we take in real life, the meager sounds of our amplified voices making business presentations compare these to the joy of reaching down into the tips of your toes, further even into the core of the earth for a sound that is yours and not yours, for a sound that takes technique and control and freedom and asking, and, above all, letting go. Such extravagant joy.
And the pleasure of seeing the conductor's face, of responding with a wave of united energy. When he makes his movements smaller for a pianissimo and we don't get soft enough, so the gestures become tinier yet, until he gathers into those hands the power of two hundred voices precisely making almost no sound at all. With consciousness of the impending crescendo, but no increase in volume. Not yet... not yet... Now. YES! This is payment enough.
SOCIETY MAY NOT RESPECT amateurs, but we rely on them. What else is a jury of one's peers? Since the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215, systems of jurisprudence first the English and later the American have expected amateurs to distinguish between injustice and justice. The fate of the accused rests in the hands of a bunch of people who may never have seen a real courtroom before they were chosen for this jury.
The Olympic Games, of course, have struggled with issues of amateur versus professional since 1896, when Baron Pierre de Coubertin, disturbed by creeping commercialism in international sports, established the modern Olympics. Jim Thorpe was stripped of the decathlon and pentathlon medals he won in 1912 for having played minor-league baseball (at $2 a game), but by 1992, we had basketball's "dream team" the world's best players, but hardly amateurs, by any definition.
But are the best players always professionals?
Tom Bopp discovered Comet Hale-Bopp while looking through a friend's telescope. He didn't own one himself. He went to star parties, nocturnal gatherings of amateurs who love dark, spangled skies.
I WOKE UP ONE Saturday morning tired, with everything aching. Uh, oh. Bad day for the flu. Our only rehearsal with Doc Severinsen and the Minnesota Orchestra for a pops concert tonight. Ran to catch the bus, stocked up on cough drops. Dashed on stage: two hours and ten minutes to rehearse one hour and 40 minutes of music.
Dapper and trim in untucked T-shirt and jeans, sometimes Doc cues us, sometimes not. "You're going to have to get that entrance on your own, kiddos, I'm busy." And he is. With a music stand between him and audience (holding his solo music) and another music stand between him and the orchestra (holding his conductor's score), his choreography goes like this: Turn page of orchestra music, turn page of solo music, turn back to orchestra and conduct. Solo coming up. (Wrinkled brow, slightly shaky hands.) Put down baton, take off reading glasses, place glasses carefully on conductor's podium, pick up either trumpet or flugelhorn, blow through horn to warm it up, clear spit valve if necessary. Exhale, inhale, grin with clear brow, turn like peacock unfurling tail toward audience, play solo. Soar, glide, shine, swing, croon, caress. Turn back to orchestra, wrinkle brow, replace trumpet, replace reading glasses, pick up stick, resume conducting.
In rehearsal Doc turns to us to play "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face," not to point up any cues we'll have to remember in performance, but to play one tune just for us. The first three notes "I've . . . grown . . . a . . ." splash out: low, fat, hesitant, wondering. Doc's sound embodies the quiet astonishment Henry Higgins felt in My Fair Lady when he discovered he had come to feel something for a transformed guttersnipe. The orchestra musicians listen, their bodies attentive. They respect him, these classical players.
Three hours' break, then performance. Doc dons black and glitter for the first half, red leather trousers topped by gold and red silk for the second. By the time of our final, rousing "There's No Business Like Show Business," a spasm next to my right shoulder blade burns from hours of holding music in upturned arms, but the rest of the aches have disappeared lost sometime during the first minutes of rehearsal.
Of course, you can forget anything if you concentrate hard enough on something else, and I've been focusing all the resonance at my command trying to cut through the volume of symphony orchestra and jazz combo. But what about the energy infusing me? As if the music had been loving me back.
I have the best seat in the house. Maybe not for hearing the balance leans heavily toward altos, tenors, and the French horns seated in front of us but for being within the glory. As an amateur, I am indeed a lover. But I am more blessed than that. I am also the beloved.
Joan Oliver Goldsmith
sings with the Minnesota Chorale, the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, and the Minnesota Orchestra. Her meditation, "Playing the Invisible Instrument," appeared in this magazine in 1996, and has since grown into the book, How Can We Keep from Singing? Music and the Passionate Life, published in August by W.W. Norton. This essay is adapted from a chapter in the book, and is reprinted by permission.
UU World XV:4 (September/October 2001): 10-12.