Live Music Exchange Blog

The Pleasures of Amateur Music-Making – Catherine Tackley


This week’s guest blog post is by Catherine Tackley, Senior Lecturer in Music at the Open University.  In it, she touches on the social benefits of musical interaction, the changing relationship between audiences and performers, and the value of amateur music-making to the music economy. Today’s blog post provides a personal account of the joys of amateur music-making and forms part of a series of Live Music Exchange blog posts on the relationship between professionalism and amateurism within the live music ecology, following on from Simon Frith’s previous blog posts on playing for nothing and on the social value of music.

At 7:30pm on a Tuesday evening a group of people gather in a church hall. Up to this point, their days have been spent in very different ways, but every week they put their various responsibilities temporarily to one side for a couple of hours which they devote to making music together.

This is a description of a typical scenario which is re-enacted across the country week after week, year after year. It would perhaps be easy to be derogatory about the seemingly endless renditions of Handel’s Messiah which might typify the results of such endeavours, but this is the tip of the iceberg in terms of the diversity of musical activity which might be understood as ‘amateur’. Amateur music-making has long been a part of the live music culture of the UK, including as an accompaniment to work (such as sea shanties), the recreational singing of glees (unaccompanied songs) in the eighteenth century, the large choral societies and brass bands which sprung up in the industrialised North in the nineteenth century. They continue today, in the jamming of successive generations of young musicians determined to ‘make it’ in the music industry, and recently the proliferation of ukulele groups inspired by the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain and the flowering of community and workplace singing, encouraged by Gareth Malone’s TV exploits and the entrepreneurial Rock Choir franchise.

Amateur music has long been an important part of my life, beginning with my first experience of attending an orchestral concert given by the local amateur orchestra in the town hall (it was Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition). Following graduation, like many of my peers, including excellent musicians who had not studied music, I had to look for ways of replicating the rich musical life that I had enjoyed while in full-time education. Having only a relatively vague understanding of what was available outside of the structures of school, local authority and university, I was amazed to discover not only a wealth of opportunities, but also the often superlative quality of the performances and the dedication and seriousness of the ambitions of those involved. I am now privileged to be the music director of an amateur big band which continues to give me great pleasure and directly informs into my professional work as a musicologist. I represent jazz ensembles on the council of Making Music, an organisation which supports and champions amateur and voluntary music-making in the UK.

Voluntary music-making is a significant and integral element of the live music economy, fulfilling particular functions for amateur and professional musicians and also for audiences. Most obviously, amateur music often means that there is live music in a particular situation or community where otherwise there would be none. Often, especially (but not exclusively) in more remote communities, amateurs are not only active as performers and listeners, but also create and support an infrastructure for live music. In this way, networks for live music of all genres, amateur and professional, are often sustained by the goodwill of voluntary promoters. Jazz is a case in point, where Jazz Services Limited, a support organisation for the genre, provides resources for these promoters and funding for rural touring by jazz musicians. The multiple facets of amateur participation in music making are now increasingly recognised, investigated by academics, notably Stephanie Pitts in her study Valuing Musical Participation (2005), and supported by agencies such as Making Music, Local Amateur Music Network (LAMNET) and Contemporary Music for All (CoMA).

Talk to anyone involved in amateur music and stories abound of how the activity enriches lives, frequently going beyond the feeling of elation and purpose that collective artistic endeavour can evoke. Recently a professional conductor acquaintance told me about the powerful experience of an amateur choir dedicating their rehearsal to one of their number who had passed away, evidencing the strength of the relationships that are created through music-making which then helped friends to deal with their loss collectively, the emotional intensity of the situation raising their performance to a new level. In the groups with which I have been involved, members have offered emotional and practical support to one another through births, deaths, marriages, divorces, illness, redundancy and every other aspect of life. As a leader, I am acutely aware of how being a member of a group can provide some stability at times of acute crisis. As well as emotional support you will probably always find someone who can offer practical help, for example, babysit at short notice, assist with manual labour, or give informal legal or health advice; and of course, any success (musical or otherwise) will be celebrated collectively and enthusiastically at the drop of a hat.

There is, quite rightly, an emphasis on participation within amateur music, exemplified by groups that meet only to rehearse rather than aiming to give public performances. This type of activity is undoubtedly very important in making music accessible to a broad range of people for whom the idea of performing in public is frankly terrifying. However, performance is so inherent to the idea of communicative music-making that not to be offered the chance to experience this particular adrenaline rush would seem to be an opportunity missed. My view on this was formed unequivocally through teaching both young people and adults, where the chance to perform to an audience, even as part of a large group, gives even the least technically proficient students an insight into something of what it is to be a musician, and consequently a new focus for their experience as listeners.

At the other end of the scale, amateur music making at the highest level can exemplify standards of musicianship akin to professional colleagues. Aside from implications of quality, categorising groups and performances as ‘professional’ or ‘amateur’ is often to draw an artificial distinction which in practice is frequently blurred, and disguises some of the specific contributions of amateur music-making to the wider live music economy. Many participants in ‘amateur’ music might more accurately be termed ‘semi-pros’ – perhaps earning part of a living from musical performance alongside an unrelated occupation, or often, active professionally in a closely related field such as arts management or music teaching and sustaining their own musical performance on an unpaid basis alongside this. In this way, amateur music-making allows music professionals to carry on being musicians, and should be favourably regarded and supported as a vital aspect of professional development. In the case of professional or emerging professional musicians, amateur ensembles can provide the opportunity to perform as a soloist, or conduct a symphony, or lead a section, or compose a new work and hear it performed – extending the necessarily limited experiences available in the country’s conservatoires or university music departments. For gifted young musicians of school age, playing with local amateur groups can supplement the musical activities available through educational institutions, and importantly provides access role models who are not professional musicians but continue to challenge themselves to attain ever higher standards of musicianship alongside other responsibilities at work or home. There is an opportunity for more joined up thinking between education establishments and local amateur organisations which could provide valuable experience for students with the potential of enriching and enhancing the local live music scenes in a way which might ensure their longevity. This is not just directed those institutions which specialise in music. The vocational relevance of amateur music-making extends beyond musical experiences, as it also enables the development of more generic skills which might be difficult to obtain in the workplace and access ‘real life’ practical scenarios which are difficult to replicate in school or college – from designing a logo and a group’s branding, maintaining a website, writing funding applications, marketing, financial management, team working and leadership. Members of amateur groups often cite experience gained through their music-making in university and job applications and interviews.

The distinction between ‘professional’ and ‘amateur’ is also blurred with respect to audience members, who are becoming increasingly savvy in the judgements that they make about musical performances. We are all being encouraged and enabled (especially in terms of acquisition of technical language) to become music critics – most obviously, music reality TV contests give us an insight into the way professional musicians are judged by their peers in genres ranging from ‘pop’ to opera. In an amateur performance, it is entirely possible that listeners might often be more expert in their branch of ‘musicking’ than performers (to borrow a term from Christopher Small’s text of the same name, where he writes: ‘To music is to take part, in any capacity, in a musical performance, whether by performing, by listening, by rehearsing or practicing, by providing material for performance (what is called composing), or by dancing.’). Nevertheless, even when the professional alternatives are relatively easily accessible, audiences are still attracted to attend amateur performances (although not without a lot of hard work and effort in marketing and publicity). It is a mistake to simply view even the steady stream of amateur orchestra and choir concerts of standard repertoire as a cut-price and substandard counterpart to the mainstream professional live music scene. Crucially, this is because whatever the flaws or strengths of a performance, the experience of attending an amateur event foregrounds the intensity of human relationships. Indeed, it is the human connection not only between members of an ensemble but between performers and audience (typically composed of friends and family) which can often make amateur performances stand out from the more consistently proficient renditions provided by professionals. For me, one of the great pleasures of amateur music-making is to see musical performances being celebrated as and for life events.


Pitts, S. (2005), Valuing Musical Participation, Aldershot: Ashgate

Small, C. (1998), Musicking: The Meanings of Performing and Listening, Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press

Please note that this is a forum for discussion, dialogue, and debate, and posts and comments on this blog represent only the author, not Live Music Exchange as a whole, or any other hosting or associated institutions.


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