Reading cues

I recently heard a radio interview with a professional poker player who made the interesting observation that it’s more difficult for him to play with amateur players than with other professionals, because the amateurs made less predictable moves. I barely know the rules of poker, since my Calvinist/Women’s Temperance Union genes have endowed me with a lifelong distrust of gambling, but I was sufficiently intrigued to Google the differences between typical professional and amateur poker moves. I couldn’t really understand the intricacies of the jargon, but as far as I could tell, most agreed that the main difference was knowing when to fold. The player in the interview complained that he often lost to amateur players because he couldn’t predict what they were trying to do. They were, he explained, more reckless than professional players, probably because the stakes were lower.

I assume that he meant that it matters greatly to a professional whether he or she wins the tournament, because the money is his or her livelihood. Blowing $2,000 or so presumably means less to the amateur, who gets a paycheque from somewhere else.

It struck me that there must be many similarities between professional poker and professional music. Like most  professional musicians who play orchestral instruments, I do my share of ring-in gigs with semi-professional orchestras, where I’m called upon to lead a section of good amateurs. I’ve often felt, sheepishly, that I sometimes don’t play as well in these gigs as I know I can. This isn’t, I hasten to add, because I’m not prepared, or not trying. But I notice that I occasionally make mistakes that I normally never would, such as coming in slightly earlier or slightly later than the others, and even–to my mortification–playing out of tune. The interview with the poker player made me wonder whether this happened because I couldn’t predict how amateur players would cue me, how they’d respond to my cues, and how our sounds would blend. Nor could I predict how sharp the ensemble would go throughout the performance, or whether the other players would fight the rising of the pitch the way professional groups might.

In my observation, the top difference between professional and amateur orchestral musicians, besides the obvious fact that professionals rely on gig money to pay the rent and amateurs don’t, is their response to cues. Conductors of amateur ensembles know that the players’ response to their beat will be slower than that of professionals, because less experienced players want to “test” the note before committing to it for fear it’ll be an incorrect entry or out of tune. Professionals are expected to be more on the front side of the beat: “loud and proud, strong and wrong,” as the saying goes. (Not too wrong, one hopes.) They’re expected to give and respond to cues quickly, sensitively, and accurately. It’s a learned skill, acquired–like all musical skills–by many, many repetitions.

An analogy with sport might be the notion of keeping one’s eye on the ball. Every primary school PE teacher shouts this over and over, and yet, how many players actually do it? More specifically, how many of them think they’re doing it, but aren’t? Could this, too, be one of the top differences between professionals and amateurs?

This works both ways, of course. Amateur players often remark how energizing it is to have a professional ring-in, who usually plays with a bigger sound and a more “forward” concept of leading than they’re used to. It’s not only a professional vs. amateur thing, either. I’ve had the good fortune to play with some amazing musicians whose presence in the ensemble was like a shot of adrenaline to the chest. I’ll always treasure the memory of Christmas Day, 2007, when Geri Walther, violist of the Takacs Quartet, asked my quartet to read through some Mozart string quintets with her at my landlady’s party. What was most striking about the experience was how easy it was to play in tune and together. It was as if she infected us all with her unbelievably beautiful sound and phrasing and drew us out of ourselves into something greater than the sum of our parts.

Maybe there are analogous differences between professionals and amateurs in any art, sport, or game. As long as something looks like fun, there will be a lot of people who want to do it; their motivations will differ just as much as their moves.

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