Amateurs, Beginners, and Students

A couple of weeks ago one of NewMusicBox’s readers expressed concern over my use of the word amateur in reference to students. The author wrote: “Students are not amateurs—they are beginners.”

This statement got me to thinking about the definitions we use in music. Semantics in our line of business can get ugly. For instance, what is one’s vocation is another’s career, and you better watch with whom you use what! How do these labels apply when composing music for young players? Indeed, what is a young player? A student? An amateur? A beginner? Whom are we dealing with here?

In Webster’s dictionary the definition of the word amateur is:


One who engages in art, science, or sport for enjoyment rather than money.

According to this definition, I would guess that about 90 percent of working musicians would be labeled as amateurs for I know of no one who entered this field in order to make money! It is more like we love making music so much that we could not think of doing anything else, often with the result of making no money!

What about the issue of being a beginner? Again, I refer to my trusty dictionary, which defines the term as:

One that begins [or starts] something; especially an inexperienced person.

Why should we assume that to be a student means one is a beginner? I know more than one graduate student that would take offense at this categorization. Indeed, in the bigger scheme of things, I like to think that we all are still students of music, if we follow yet another definition as presented in Webster:

Someone who studies, [being] the act or process of applying the mind to acquire knowledge.

According to these definitions, most of the people reading this column are both amateurs and students.

But, to get back to the crux of the matter, how do we categorize young players, and how does that affect the way we perceive composing for this level of musician? Although I disagree with my colleague in equating “student” with “beginner,” I do feel that, in strict terms, we can apply the term beginner when describing the qualities found in young players. Indeed, all three words discussed describe the young player: they are amateurs who are beginners at being students of music.

Now that we have some labels, how do we utilize them when writing music? Indeed, should we? All too often it seems to be the case that, once you categorize something/someone with a concrete term, you automatically limit yourself to the parameters of the definition of that term. And, in my experience, when composing for young players the one thing you should never do is assume. Time and again I have been humbled by a young player when I fell back on traditional expectations, only to have the young musician prove me wrong and open my eyes to another perspective.

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5 thoughts on “Amateurs, Beginners, and Students

  1. bb

    “All too often it seems to be the case that, once you categorize something/someone with a concrete term, you automatically limit yourself to the parameters of the definition of that term.”

    In terms of using a definition of an ‘amateur/beginner/student’ to direct our composition of works for young performers, I say throw it out. Instead, we should concern ourselves with the actual parameters of the young performers themselves (their technical skills, range, breath support, etc). And you have to get to know those young performers for whom you are writing, and get to know them well in order to suit them well with appropriate, high quality music.

    We’re talking about writing for young performers, and the key word is FOR. This really touches on the big question of why we do what we do. Are we writing to satisfy our own needs, those of the performer, the listener, or some combination of all 3? I know I aim for the latter possibility, and it’s not easy. Also, I do not feel that I am undermining my art in any way by staying within certain guidelines when writing for young performers. If anything, the ‘limits’ challenge me, and that usually means I’m learning something.

    Reply
  2. philmusic

    Beginners

    Ah, nameless me.. Anyway, us licensed k-12 music teachers don’t get mentioned much The reason why I gave you that comment personally and not in this blog, was to share some of my understanding of teaching children. Perhaps you don’t need any help. Its strange that you infer that I was talking about graduate “students” .
    I was talking about K-12 as I believed you were. Anyway, a top Elementary choir or band rocks! I would be hard put to say they are amateurs just because they happen to be beginners . These students are serious about their music as any professional.

    Reply
  3. philmusic

    Ah, nameless me. Anyway, us licensed k-12 music teachers don’t get mentioned much. The reason why I gave you that comment personally and not in this blog, was to share some of my understanding of teaching children. Its strange then that you infer that I was talking about graduate “students.”

    I was talking about K-12 students as I believed you were.  Anyway, a top Elementary choir or band rocks! I would be hard put to say they are amateurs just because they happen to be beginners. These students are as serious about their music as any professional.

    One of these days I will get the grammer right the first time

    Reply
  4. philmusic

    Dear Belinda:

    You have many fine ideas here but I must disagree with this comment.

    “Thus, I invite you to explore this largely untapped arena for composers—writing for amateurs. ”

    Students are not amateurs– they are beginners.

    Philip Fried
    Licensed music specialist, currently instrumental
    Saint Paul Public Schools

    Does this sound “ugly?”

    Reply

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