The Perfect Life of the Amateur

by Barry Hunn
amateur (n.) - 1784, "one who has a taste for (something)," from French amateur "lover of," from Latin amatorem (nominative amator) "lover," agent noun from amatus, past participle of amare "to love" (see Amy). Meaning "dabbler" (as opposed to professional) is from 1786. As an adjective, by 1838.


In a few recent emails and phone calls, I’ve heard this statement, “I’m just an amateur.” I understand that these good folks were modestly describing their ability to me so I could assist them with their banjo technique and choosing a banjo to buy.  But the tone of their description has been bothering me in retrospect because there was a very subtle feeling of “shame” in the idea of being an “amateur.”  Perhaps shame is too strong, but there was a subtle denigrating feel to their description.

After reflecting on how wonderfully carefree the life of an “amateur” banjo player is, I could not accept that there was anything wrong with being an amateur. In reflecting further, I looked up the word “amateur” to find that the word comes from French and means “Lover of.”  The Latin word amatorem means “lover”.


As an amateur banjo player, I LOVE to play the banjo!

This means we who do not play music for a living.  It means we have the immense privilege of playing the banjo, purely, only, and realistically, because WE LOVE IT!

This also means that I can play my banjo, at any level, under any circumstances, with any style or technique based purely on what I want to  do or what I am able to do and love every melodious minute of it.

True, I would love to play like Jens Kruger, Steve Martin, Bela Fleck, John McKuen, Mark Johnson or any number of artists whom I admire. There are some amateur players whose technique rivals the technique of the great professionals whom I also admire greatly.  While I’m not one of them, I have heard some fabulous non-professional players.

However, I will NEVER play like these great artists because my picking hand has a medical affliction that prevents any coordinated attack on the strings of my banjo.  Some of my good friends work with their hands in heavy labor and it takes a while for them to “loosen up” when they start pickin’.  I have friends who are salesmen who travel a lot and can’t practice regularly.

Does this mean my friends and I should just never play the banjo because the odds are so against us ever being “great”? You might as well never swim because you’ve not won a gold medal at the Olympics and what gives you the right to jump into an Olympic pool and “look foolish”? Perhaps you should never cook another batch of scrambled eggs because after all, you are not a professional chef and you might not cook them right?

I know, when I describe it like this it does seem pretty ridiculous.  That’s because it is ridiculous to compare yourself to someone who spends hours and hours every day practicing and who possibly has been trained and  coached by other great players, etc. Being an amateur banjo player is not only honorable, but it is one of the most free and easy past times you can enjoy.

Historically, William Shakespeare and Leonardo da Vinci were considered amateur artists in their day in their fields of study.  Now, you have to admit….they were pretty good for guys who did what they did only for the love of it!

As an amateur, you play only what you want, when you want and how you want; within your technical ability.

Also, you might have other activities you like to do that take some of your time.  Fishing, bowling, stamp collecting, rock climbing, target shooting, bicycling, dancing, tennis, golf…you might want to spend some time with these activities as well….which, many professional musicians don’t (or can’t.)

But as an amateur….YOU can!  What other activity gives you this kind of freedom?

You can play gigs at local clubs with friends. You can have pickin’ parties in your living room or on the porch in good weather.  You can play an open mic and jam with other singers and players spontaneously.  You can play around the campfire for your family or friends.  You can play in Church worship groups.

The possibilities are endless…for the amateur. Everything you do, you are doing purely for the love of doing it. That has to be considered one of the greatest luxuries life has to offer….to play the banjo purely for the LOVE of playing.

Too often, we compare our ability to what we heard at a great concert or after listening to a favorite recording of one the world’s best players and then decide that we don’t have what it takes to play the banjo. There are literally hundreds of books written today that tell us to “do something for ourselves” for a more personally satisfying life.  The emphasis on “doing something that you really love to do” is recommended for personal fulfillment, improved health and broadening your social skills and emotional joy.  Health professionals encourage patients to take up playing an instrument for stress control, arthritis relief, concentration improvement and generally improved well-being.

If doing something you love isn’t a perfect life activity, then what is?  You do not have to do something perfect.  But, doing what you love is perfect.

This is why being an “amateur” banjo player is living a perfect life.   You get to enjoy playing your banjo with none of the pressures, responsibilities or demands placed on professionals.  You have the complete freedom to truly enjoy your banjo playing.

You have “the perfect life of the amateur”. The life of someone who LOVES what they do.”  How could this be anything but perfect?



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