While incompetence is a common condition of amateurism, it is not a requirement of it. Plenty of non-professionals in all of the arts are well-skilled, in many cases expertly trained and perhaps even seasoned in their disciplines. The only absolute prerequisite for amateur status is passion. You have to want very badly to sing or play the piano or draw or tap-dance, if you'll do it with no prospect of recognition or compensation. And if very badly is also the way you do the thing, your passion has to run deep. That depth of feeling has drawn me many times to amateur music-making, and I've been reveling in it this week, since a new public-art initiative called "Play Me, I'm Yours" has put 60 pianos in outdoor spaces all around the five boroughs of New York.
It's a cornball idea, not much more than a publicity gimmick. Still, there's something about it that's moving to see. I've now stopped by three of the spots where pianos have been left for passersby to play—the park at St. John the Divine (a few blocks from my apartment), Tompkins Square Park, and Battery Park—and I've yet to hear much good music. I saw a little boy no older than three bang merciless on the keyboard, and I watched his mother try to remember how to play the opening riff of Carole King's "It's Too Late." She gave up after a minute, in frustration, but got a round of applause from a dozen or so onlookers, and she blushed and started to laugh. She looked absolutely exultant. I sat down myself at the park at St. John the Divine and noodled around in the key of D-flat, which is easy on the ears and easier still on the fingers, and I had more fun playing than I've had for some time at the Steinway in my living room.
Why? Maybe because I got a little applause, too. My wife and son, being superior musicians, don't clap for me. They have too much good judgment, and one of the rare pleasures of "Play Me, I'm Yours" is that it facilitates the temporary suspension of good taste.