A couple of weeks ago, I attended a third-year clarinet recital for my friend and co-worker, Aidan Saccary, at Memorial University’s Suncor Hall. Recitals are completed by each music performance major at the finish of the school year to showcase growth in their performance abilities. I was happy to attend in support of a dear friend who touts an absolutely mind-blowing level of skill for his age coupled with a beautiful blend of gracious humility and a glowing sense of pride. I was honoured to have been invited to the intimate gathering in one of MUN’s smaller in this special moment. However, as a not-quite-amateur-but-not-quite-professional musician, the event stirred up a unique jumble of emotions and anxieties for myself before, during, and after the recital.
Newfoundland’s only university draws in musicians from all across the globe with the lowest tuition of anywhere in Canada, and a decent-enough program. As it is situated in such a tiny city as St. John’s, it means that every choir, every band, every church, every bar, each and every place that music can be heard is riddled with at least a couple of music grads or hopefuls. Lots of times, you will see the same people over and over again, no matter what venue you attend. A lot of the time, they are being paid. Sometimes, they are not. You know their faces, sometimes their names, but rarely their story. They have the same vague perspective on you. This often creates a strange dichotomy between professional, polished musicians who are very obviously deserving of a job in their field and a hearty pay check, and, well, people like me; classically trained on the piano from young age, plenty of experience leading a service in a small church around the bay, a decent singer and a good improviser with a strong knowledge of music theory, but possessing no paperwork to show for any of it. No Royal Conservatory certificates——although I’ve played through all the books——and no performance degree, having pursued an education in religious studies instead——still, inspired by my years and years of working as a church musician and a deep love of ancient sacred music. Sometimes I’m paid for my music, while more times I’m expected to work for free. Most of the time, I’m feeling undeserving of any of it being surrounded by people who are far more capable.
Aidan and I have sat next to each other for two years now, both as “professional” clarinetists in the Royal Newfoundland Regiment Band, a reserve band of the Canadian Armed Forces based in St. John’s. Both of us wear the same rank, are paid the same amount, and play the same parts. Yet, Saccary boasts hours and hours of classical lessons with an esteemed clarinet professor, three quarters of a completed degree in clarinet performance, and a professional instrument, while, sitting next to him, I toot on my military-issued instrument with nothing but my high school band experience and a lot of practice and self-determination. We have both received the same amount of military training, and have attended most of it together, so we are considered by the military to be on the same level, despite Saccary’s clear advantage. I can’t help but feel guilty sometimes, for a policy I never had any control over, but the military remains supportive and encouraging of all its musicians, treating each and every one as the capable professional they are, and offering extra training wherever needed regardless of their civilian background.
This reality myself and many other talented and capable musicians exist in, the strange realm between amateur and professional, stirs up a whirlwind of anxieties when attending or participating in anything where the real professionals——the educated musicians——are present. You doubt yourself, you stress over everyone’s opinions of your abilities. You either cower in anxiety and self-doubt or you fluff yourself and put on a little too much confidence in an attempt to prove yourself. I’ve seen both personalities and I’ve been both personalities. This reality seems to exist in the opposite way in the traditional Newfoundland music scene, where most musicians you find in the late-night pubs can’t read a note of sheet music, but are still insanely skilled self-taught fiddle and accordion and bouzouki and players, and are sometimes taking home more pay than first chair in the orchestra with a pocket full of tips and a little local fame to boot.
Especially in this suffering economy, artists of all stripes need to come together in support of one another. The market is low, attention spans are short, and money is tight. Music and the arts are being cut from school curriculums everywhere. It often feels like in order to survive, we need to be competitive, and we need to fight one another in a desperate attempt to just keep on keeping on. The reality is, any art is only conducive to more art. All art is worthy of appreciation and all artists are worthy of respect. All creativity, all talent, all treasure is deserving of praise and awe as it all comes from a unique and special place of beauty. A community of artists where all are truly welcome demands care, kindness, and, like Aidan, the appropriate balance of humility and confidence to exist as the beautiful and strong entity it truly is at its core.