Norman Johnson: “Amatuers forget, professionals . . .”

Norman Johnson

Norman Johnson

During my last two years of high school and my first year of college, I was privileged to attend what was then known as the North Carolina School of the Arts (now it’s the University of North Carolina School of the Arts). Conducting the annual ballet (I think) and opera (for sure) performances was the late Norman Johnson, the founding Artistic Director of the Piedmont Opera, and, I just learned by reading the short bio on the Piedmont About Us page (scroll down), the Director of Opera at NCSA (so no wonder he conducted the operas!) from 1968 to 1996.

He was kind, perhaps a little too kind for someone working with a student orchestra;  so many of us looked at playing an opera as a pain in the ass.  Norman was great at conducting an opera;  the type of teaching notes that one has to do from time to time with any student orchestra wasn’t something he was, well, into.  At times, I thought even then, a Toscanini-like temper tantrum might have had a good effect on us, but Norman was to kind a soul for that.

He did get exasperated.  In so many operas, there are ritards and accelerandos and unwritten fermatas and pauses and what not.  He would patiently teach them to us, and we would not always remember them.  I remember feeling put upon and resentful, in a myopically teenaged way;  instrumentalists are so trained to do what’s in the score that it seemed an outrage(!) that we had to do so much that wasn’t in the parts!  Someone, at least in the rehearsal process, was always forgetting a fermata or playing in newly inserted silence.  And so my irritation was with myself, and my fellow students, as well, with the whole damned situation and it was fueled in part by defensiveness.

In one of these rehearsals, when yet another one of us had quite audibly forgotten to do or to refrain from doing something or other (sins of commission, sins of omission), Norman stopped us, sighed and after a glare asked us,

“Do you know what the difference is between an amateur and a professional? An amateur forgets.  A professional . . .”

Dramatic pause.  I was sure he would say, “remembers.”

” . . . writes it down!”

That really hit the adolescent me.  Human beings, amateur or professional, forget.  The problem wasn’t that we’d forget, the problem was that we were trying to remember things and were too lazy to write them in.  It was a relief and a revelation all at once.  It was so typical of Norman’s kindness.  No shaming, but a genuine lesson.And he was so right!

I’ve used that line on students countless times ove the 30+ years since I heard it from Norman.

I was reminded of this earlier today.  My colleagues in the DePauw Chamber players and I performed for the Warren Central High School orchestra in Indianapolis.  We were approaching the last page of the Chausson piano trio, and in my music, a couple of likes before the last page, were penciled the words, “turn here!”   So I turned.


I had written those words in when I was using a photocopy of the penultimate page next to the last page. I’d turn that next-to-last page, then look at the photocopy of it, which would be to the right of the last page, then go back  . . . it was as complicated as it seems.  Then I realized that all I needed to do was photocopy the last page.  But that page had come untaped, so I had it next to the music (which is somewhat narrow) on the stand.

In the heat of the moment, I turned.  But then I was missing the last two lines.  I realized my mistake, turned back, and then was lost for a while.  Eventually I caught on and joined back in. It was a mess;  how many of the kids know what was going on I don’t know, but I was momentarily panicked.  All’s well that ends well, and as it happened we ended just as the bell rang to end the period.

Norman came immediately to mind, of course.  A permutation of his adage has now entered my vocabulary:  “Amateurs forget, but professionals . . . ”

“. . . erase.”


Filed under 14683790, amatuer vs. professional, embarassing moments, Norman Johnson, North Carolina School of the Arts, North Carolina School of the Ats

7 responses to “Norman Johnson: “Amatuers forget, professionals . . .”

  1. Emily

    I will certainly poach those words of wisdom! Happy Holidays to you, Eric!

  2. You know–I don’t seem to recall you ever telling us (or rather, me) that story.

  3. Ah–you probably didn’t write it down and forgot. 🙂 (Or I wasn’t talking about it so much back then!)

  4. Haha! Actually, on second thought, I do recall you mentioning that story. I can’t think of any particular instance, but it just sounded so familiar reading it–but since I couldn’t pinpoint an actual memory about it I just assumed it didn’t happen.

    Then again I recall having forgotten my music on a couple of occasions so writing it down would have been moot! 😛

  5. Kevin

    Oh man, I’ve wanted a succinct and memorable line to throw out when one of my quartet colleagues forgets to do something we’ve agreed upon because he figured he would just remember it. I hope I can resist the urge to deliver it with a generous dose of venom, because that wouldn’t be nice.

    Great blog by the way! I should be sleeping but there are a few more posts I’m compelled to read!

    • Hey, Kevin–glad you found the blog and like it. And what’s the fun of a quartet if you can’t express yourself once in a while? In all seriousness, what happens in quartets, so many of which implode, is that tensions and resentments build, frustrations go uncommunicated, and then finally there’s a big explosion. (Or is it implosion?) To avoid saying something without venom, we avoid saying it.

  6. Chris Walsh

    Just discovered this blog today while researching Luis and Clark cellos.

    This story reminded me of a radio interview I recently heard with the improvising pianist Keith Tippett. A few years ago Tippett wrote a piano quintet, and he was talking about working with a string quartet. The interviewer asked him if he noticed any difference about working with classical players and jazz players. “Yes,” he replied, “the classical guys turn up on time, and they bring pencils.”

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