The REAL difference between amateur and professional musicians

Strictly speaking, a “professional” is someone who gets paid for their work. So if you’ve played piano for 2 weeks and I pay you a penny to perform in a recital, that makes you a professional, right?

Well, not really. We all know that a “professional” is someone who has lots of experience and displays a high level of expertise.

So what exactly distinguishes a “professional” musician from someone who is not?

I’ve heard it said that “an amateur is someone who practices until they get it right, but a professional practices until they can’t get it wrong.”

This sounds good until you’ve played professionally and heard all the mistakes that are made.

Charlie Parker made mistakes. Vladimir Horowitz made mistakes. Keith Richards makes mistakes. Every professional musician is human, and humans make mistakes. Sometimes lots of mistakes.

In fact, the legendary conductor Arturo Toscanini said, “No one ever went to jail for wrong notes.” (I know… this was before American Idol!!!)

So if it isn’t note-perfection, what is the real difference between amateur and professional?

The real difference is that a professional can recover from mistakes. She is so conversant with the language of music and with the piece at hand that she can handle wrong notes. She is so good at this that the audience usually doesn’t even know anything went amiss. That’s the difference between amateur and professional.

Amateur musicians (I actually prefer the term “avocational”) get hung up on this and it makes them nervous. Especially pianists. They tend to put far too much pressure on themselves to be “note perfect” at all costs.But nobody is always note-perfect.

So the next time you’re preparing for a concert or recital, learn the music the best you can. Yes, prepare thoroughly and aim to play the music “perfectly.” But at the same time, realize that statistically, this might not happen. Therefore, prepare for mistakes. This is where improvisation comes in. When you’re practicing, can you intentionally hit a wrong note and recover? Can you substitute another note and keep going? Can you make it sound musical while you get “back on track?”

The good news is that once you develop the skill to improvise yourself out of a jam (pun intended!), you won’t stress about your performances as much. You know that you’ll be prepared to handle anything that might happen. And this is where the real fun starts! You’ll enjoy performing more!!!

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3 thoughts on “The REAL difference between amateur and professional musicians”

  1. Devolping a skill to improvise yourself out of a jam isnt often a positive thing. Its like training yourself to always be behind. Sure, your chances of a comeback might be better than others, but where does that put you just after the start of a journey or a battle? Ladies and Gentleman, to strive for perfection, yet also knowing you can fail, is the quintessential message from article. “God grant me the serenity to accept the things i cannot change, knowledge to change the things i can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

    People who lead others: meditate on these words

    Focus on leading and everything else will fall into place because an influential leader put them into a position where they can succeed.

    I am a college dropout
    I am an atheist
    I have never played a musical instrument

    A situation, is just a situation, prepare and conquer.

    • Thanks, Ben! Yes, this is the other side of the coin. I emphasized the ability to improvise and recover because most musicians by far don’t develop this skill. But yes, we need to work hard and practice.


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