Giving amateurs a chance to grow

Soprano Barbara Bonney and other pros tutor singers who simply love the joy of performing.

Star American soprano Barbara Bonney is a prestigious interpreter of classical song, oratorio, and opera, with dozens of much-praised recordings on Decca. She'll soon be sharing her expertise with amateur performers who have far less experience, but who are enthusiastic about learning to sing in their communities and homes.

"Helping amateurs is a joy. They sing because they love music, not because they want to make it their profession," says Ms. Bonney. She will teach master classes for amateur singers at the Herbst Theatre in San Francisco Feb. 17, followed by a class at Weill Hall in New York Feb. 21. "There is an innocence and simplicity in [an amateur's] approach to music that I find refreshing and inspiring," she says.

Bonney also sees amateur musicmaking as filling a need for more classical music in society.

"Amateur singing is of vital importance, because making music in the home offers an alternative for children to the incessant bombardment of pop culture," the New Jersey native explains. "If they are not offered classical music as an option, [and this is not happening in most schools], then this genre will certainly die out."

Classes for nonprofessional singers also provide an emotional and creative outlet for music lovers, allowing them to participate rather than just be "passively entertained," says Edgar Rust, who edits "Music for the Love of It," a magazine aimed at amateurs.

Music provides "a collaborative art form that serves as a model for positive human relationships and learning experiences," he adds.

In some ways, Mr. Rust notes, amateurs have an edge over those who earn a living making music. "Amateurs are free to follow their own desires, professionals are not," he says.

Master classes can be an ideal venue for amateurs, he adds. As one of several traditional teaching formats, they expose students to other musical points of view and tend to stress individual achievement.

"Good music needs good teaching," Rust says, "most importantly, a long-term relationship with a private teacher."

Bonney stresses the learning process is a two-way street between student and teacher.

"It is well-known that students make the best teachers; in order to pass on information, one has to think through one's own philosophy and approach to technique," she says.

William Lavonis, a noted tenor and vocal teacher at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, finds he almost always learns from his students, "whether it be vocal technique or the rendering of text, music, or drama...."

Professor Lavonis, who has worked with amateurs for 11 years at the Berkshire Choral Festival in Sheffield, Mass., is often inspired by his students because of their sheer love of singing.

"Amateurs seem more willing to accept information because they have no real agenda - like making this or that audition - and very few egos," he says. "They cling on to every word you say and put it into practice."

He says that some of his students are gifted enough to "easily tackle solo roles in, say, the Verdi Requiem." But, he adds "other life choices turned them down a different road and prevented them from pursuing full-time careers."

Low-key friendliness and flexibility are keys to Bonney's approach. The San Francisco program, for example, will focus on German Lieder (art songs), but amateurs who prefer to sing in English will be allowed to do so.

Those who want to perform will sit in a special section of the concert hall, and their ticket stubs will be drawn at random by Bonney, imitating the hit-or-miss randomness of some professional careers.

Bonney, unlike the agents and managers of the dollars-and-cents world, says she's "happy to give guidance, expertise, and encouragement to singers on any level."

Her only requirement? "Those who intend to pursue a professional career in singing need not apply. Please give the amateur a chance!" she declares.

The friendly, casual environment at concert events typically provides a nurturing experience for the students.

Professionals may sound better, but that isn't the point, Rust says. He says he would tell any critical listener who prefers professional performers over amateurs: "Who wouldn't? But if the amateurs are my friends, I want to hear them, too."

What Bonney is doing for non-professional voices, other domains of music have already developed successfully. The New York-based organization Amateur Chamber Music Players states that its mission is to facilitate "informal playing and singing by people of all ages and nationalities, from beginners to professionals."

The group's 4,200 members, from 57 countries, meet regularly with professional music coaches who improve their "rehearsal techniques and thereby derive more satisfaction from playing."

Satisfaction, learning - and not one of them ever goes on strike!

• For more information about Master Classes at San Francisco's Herbst Theatre, go to www.perform ances.org.

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