Muni-muni: Amateurs and professionals

Graduate students are often busy deconstructing binaries: local/global, body/mind, self/other, East/West, male/female, and so forth. One binary that doesn’t get a lot of attention, in spite (or because) of its operationalization in daily life, is that of amateurs and professionals. To do a PhD is of course to embark on a long path of academic professionalization. Someone once told (warned?) me, ‘once you finish your PhD, you are officially done with being a student’—a remark that filled me with unexpected dread. (I’m not ready! I don’t know if I ever will be!)

There is another sense of the amateur/professional distinction that I’ve been thinking about a lot—the musical one. There are many, many questions to be drawn from this. One such issue I’m dealing with now relates to appropriate methodology for musical research. In a 2001 essay, John Baily, an ethnomusicologist who has studied Afghan music since the 1970s, underlines the need for researchers of music to learn the music that they are studying. Interestingly, he stresses that it’s better NOT to study with acknowledged masters or virtuosos of the genre. Instead, fieldwork researchers should learn from ordinary musicians and even make as many mistakes as possible, so as to naturally draw out the conventions, rules, and logics of that particular social and aesthetic world.

There are obvious pragmatic reasons for researchers to strive for amateur rather than virtuoso experiences of performative research: time constraints, limited proficiency, and the general difficulty of learning a new musical paradigm as an adult learner. But what interests me here is the epistemological advantage of ‘amateurhood’ that rarely gets acknowledged. Is there a way of practicing, doing, and knowing as an ordinary (dare I say, mediocre) student that is just as distinct and valuable as that of professionalism and virtuosity?

A second question: how does this binary produce (contested) claims of authority, legitimacy, and authenticity? There’s a correlated binary, that of theory and practice. Walking the walk instead of just talking it, putting one’s money where one’s mouth is, etc. I was struck by a tweet I read a few months ago by a well-known, very prolific Filipino rock musician. I can’t remember his exact words now, but the gist of it was that he was complaining about rock critics making judgments about music, purporting to know everything about it, when they weren’t themselves musicians.

I don’t know that I agree entirely with that statement, though I can very well understand the sentiment of frustration. One of the important notions I am learning from reading academic and theoretical analyses of popular music is that musical participation isn’t a monolithic activity. Performer and audience (another binary) may occupy different positions and perform different actions within the space of a musical event, but can we really say that one’s experience is more “valid” or “real” than the other?

Gill Valentine makes a great point about this in her 1995 essay on kd lang and her lesbian audiences. She notes that kd lang deliberately refrains from overtly expressing her homosexuality in her song lyrics. The love-meanings in her songs aren’t supposed to refer to any specific gender. But her audiences read it all over the place—in fact, the evident presencing of that queer emotional landscape is what makes lang’s oeuvre so powerful and meaningful for her listeners.

So who’s right: kd lang or her fans and critics? Obviously I’m asking the wrong question. The ultimate futility of authorial intention is precisely what makes listening to music an activity that’s intensely engaging, unifying (or divisive), creative, and fun (the point of it all!). Listening to music can be a practice, rather than an instance of passive consumption. Forming subjective judgments about and living intensely personal experiences of music are powerful everyday acts that actively shape identities. Our embodied, symbolic senses of self are tied to the kinds of music that move us to joy, to excitement, to abandon, to fierce devotion.

And let’s not forget. Musicians are themselves listeners. Yes, yes, their status as literate practitioners opens up other registers of information (sonic, acousmatic, technical, etc.) that may not be available for non-musicians. And I’m not saying that mastery is irrelevant, either in theory or in practice. Indeed, there’s a lot of fascinating research at the nexus of psychology, neuroscience, and musicology that looks into how musicians have, in plain words, slightly different brains than the rest of us non-professional folk. They simply hear things differently, and they do different things with the information they receive (e.g. they make their own music in response to it). Art does seem to be distinctly inegalitarian. But—

(But what?) I’m not sure what concluding remark I want to make at this point. Heh. It’s still something I’m working out not only in my research but in my daily life as an avid listener and sometime-music practitioner.

I’ve studied voice on and off for nearly twenty years. I’ve sung and toured with a choir, and done small solo performances, for about fifteen years. This bank of embodied knowledge, built up over hours of directed practice and loose play, directs every “now” of my music-making: the way I stand, breathe, inhale and exhale, project my voice, modulate my bowels vowels, increase or decrease the volume of my voice, screen out certain sounds and pay close attention to others in the moment of singing—even the way I marshal specific thoughts and emotions to the surface of consciousness to deepen my experience of the song, to make myself ‘internalize’ it.

I don’t consider myself a professional at all. (I’m terrible at reading notes. I don’t plan to make a living out of performance.) Nor do I really feel inclined to reach professional levels of proficiency, though I suspect I will always want to acquire, practice, and savor musical knowledge. By no means am I unique: I think there are many more amateur or recreational music-makers than there are pro’s. Entire musical communities are animated and sustained by amateurs who do an awful lot of difficult, tedious, unpaid cultural labour—and willingly, too. One example that springs immediately to my mind is the astounding choral culture all throughout the Philippines.

Here’s the question: how do we understand this experience? The amateur/professional binary as conventionally understood doesn’t really provide the vocabulary or conceptual horizon with which to reflect on this. As with all binaries, we push against conceptual and empirical limitations that stay stubbornly there, and will probably go on being there because the mind seems to keep constantly falling back into logocentrism even as the world constantly slips away from it.

In any case, there are real uses to the distinction. Perhaps amateur and professional are two extremes delineating the ends of a spectrum of in-between designations and practices. Another way of thinking under and beyond this binary is to return to the roots of concepts—a reflective gesture I picked up from one of my favorite thinkers and teachers.

Indeed, etymology may indicate a more promising direction: the word amateur in its original French and Latin formulations (amatore) means lover. I think this particular dynamic of love/labor, along with the possibility of both belonging and individuality, is what makes music so uniquely powerful as both a form of work and a mode of recreation or leisure. (Painting and visual art seem to be more solitary pursuits; while dance can be collaborative, its intensely physical nature excludes frail/sedentary/tamad folks.) Musical activity on the other hand, gives rise to amateurs like this:



Given the endemic pressure and creative aridity of the academic environment, I wonder if amateurism (as a practice of love) might be a healthier way of practicing graduate studenthood as well.



Baily, J. (2001) Learning to perform as a research technique in ethnomusicology. British Journal of Ethnomusicology 10, 2, 85-98.

Valentine, G. (1995) Creating transgressive space: The music of kd lang. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 20, 4, 474-485


  1. Q says:

    I didnt know Valentine has a piece on creating transgressive space – I dont think she was ever cited very much for that piece – and in Transactions too!

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