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  • Writer's pictureIlan Morgenstern, Bass Trombone

In defense of quitting and amateurism

Updated: Dec 13, 2020

There so much to say about this: The anti-intellectualism, the gross old-boy chauvinistic "kiddo" in referring to an education professional, and the childish inability to appreciate what this writer didn't bother trying to learn or understand. Our field has no shortage of pretend experts of our own, and after four years of deadly political amateurism, and economic policies that might never help the individuals or the collective, I very much miss trusting actual experienced professionals to practice what they learned in return for fair compensation.

Instead of a tirade of all those things, here's a beautiful post from my friend Greg McMahon, a promising and fine flute player, about the beauty he found in being a parent, spouse, and amateur musician.

In defense of quitting and amateurism

I was in the middle of a performance of Brahms’ 4th Symphony when the tingling started. It was a sensation that was unfamiliar, but I couldn’t waste too much time thinking about it because Brahms always has tricks and traps waiting. So, I pushed on, finished the concert successfully, shook hands with my colleagues, and drove home. “That was weird...” was about all the thought I gave it in that moment. What I didn’t realize then was that was the beginning of the end of my career as a flutist.

I began playing at age 10 and from the moment I picked up the flute, I was hooked. I started practicing three hours a day the summer after 5th grade. By the time I had reached high school, that number had blossomed to closer to eight hours. I was on the standard path of youth orchestras, competitions, and recitals to prepare for conservatory. At Oberlin, I used to dodge security guards to get extra time in the practice room. When I got to Michigan for grad school, insomnia had me sleeping four hours a night and I was bribing janitors to let me in the building before it was open so I could get a jumpstart on my daily practice. I was an expert at The Grind, and it was a point of pride for me. I can truly say that I didn’t understand what it was costing me.

By the time I reached Michigan, I knew full well what my strengths and weaknesses were as a player. I had a distinctive sound and was musically interesting, but I knew that I didn’t have the same fast-twitch fingers as some of my colleagues. To compensate, I played every technical exercise that I could find to try to make my technique as bulletproof as I could. Technique is the name of the game in flute playing. And, in my case, those minute deficiencies were starting to add up. That’s when the tingling came into my life. At first, it was minor and like any deficiency, I attacked it.

But my problem was overuse, and the only tool I ever really had to confront my flute-related problems was The Grind, which was no use here. For the first time in my musical career, I was adrift and I didn’t handle it very well. Practice was the source of my confidence. Without the confidence of knowing what was going to happen when I put the flute together, I became unreliable. I knew full well that an unreliable flutist is an unemployable flutist. I was at a crossroads.

At this moment when everything was going wrong in my professional life, my personal life had taken an unexpected upturn. I had met a wonderful girl and had serious intentions, but she lived in Portland Oregon and I was a Midwest boy through and through. As I was limping to the finish of my time in Michigan, I was giving considerable thought to the next steps in my life. I was 26 and having a professional crisis. I was paralyzed as to what to do with my flute playing, as every instinct I had seemed to be conspiring against me. So, I decided to take a break. I moved to Portland in 2007. I figured I could take a little time and give myself some rest.

At first, I thought I’d take a month. But, after one month, the flute didn’t call. So, I figured maybe after 3 months I’d want to grab the flute. But, the case stayed closed and 3 months became a permanent vacation. Oh sure, I HAVE played a little here and there over the years, but nothing to really write home about and the old aches and pains aren’t quite as charming as they seemed once upon a time... I found that my flute playing life had stifled so many other parts of my personality. I got married to my amazing wife and started a family. I started a real estate business, worked in fundraising for a large Portland nonprofit, and found a new musical outlet as a singer. I traveled the world and saw more than just a series of concert halls. And along the way, I learned some things about life outside of a practice room. I learned that the level of competition in classical music is insane and not for everyone, and that’s okay. I’ve never felt anywhere near the same amount of pressure in an interview as I did in auditions. I found that, while everyone wants you to try to do your best, people outside of music rarely expect perfection.

I also learned that a lot of my music skills transferred well to the private sector. After preparing for solo recitals, concertos, and juries, a hiring panel isn’t all that intimidating. When someone asks how well I handle pressure, I politely chuckle and explain that, if I had gotten 98% of the notes right in a concert I’d most likely be fired. When someone asks me if I’m flexible, I explain how a conductor can tell you to completely change everything that you’ve prepared and you have to make the fix immediately. Even the worst bosses I’ve had have been fairly tame compared to the worst conductors I’ve encountered. Finally, the first orchestra gig I ever had paid $5,000/season with no benefits. The first job I had in the private sector paid $35,000/year with fully paid health insurance and a 6% match on the retirement plan.

I now consider myself an amateur musician. I sing (sometimes well) because I love to sing in a way that I don’t think I ever really loved playing the flute. I used to look down on amateurs as sort of less-than. But, the true meaning of amateurism is doing something because you love it. At the end, with all the difficulties that faced me in my path forward as a flutist, I don’t know for sure if they would have been surmountable. But, without that essential ingredient of love, there really was no path forward for me. No matter how great your other sources of motivation are, you cannot do the work you need to do without a love of doing it. And, just like in life, it’s okay to fall out of love with something. In fact, the sooner you recognize it, the better it’ll be for everyone. I’m constantly consoled by the fact that I’m not taking a spot away from someone who really wants to be a flutist because they love it more than anything else.

In the end, no one can take away my accomplishments as a flutist. Now I can truly say that they don’t define me either. Perhaps unrelatedly, I haven’t had any insomnia since 2007.


This post wouldn't be complete without you checking out Greg in action here:

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Dec 13, 2020

Hi Ilan,

It is sad when someone aspiring to a profession in music isn't able to achieve that. But being able to find joy in music as an amateur is a gift to be treasured. Those of us who were wisely counselled in our youth to pursue a career other than music were spared the frustration and disappointment faced by those whose hope and efforts are so deeply invested in making it. It's good to know that things have worked out well in the end for Greg, as they have for me and so many others who have found music to be a source of pleasure if not income.

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