One writer I really admire is a guy named James Clear. He's the source of the read 20/pages a day system that I mentioned in an earlier post. He writes extensively on habit formation and strategies to formulate creative excellence.
I happened upon a podcast interview with him where he expounded on a lot of ideas in this article: The Difference between Professionals and Amateurs. In short, the difference that he discovered is simply a willingness to commit to regularly engaging in one's chosen work:
Being a pro is about having the discipline to commit to what is important to you instead of merely saying something is important to you. It's about starting when you feel like stopping, not because you want to work more, but because your goal is important enough to you that you don't simply work on it when it's convenient. Becoming a pro is about making your priorities a reality.
I know that I myself have always had trouble committing to seeing repertoire or a recital program through to complete, professional-level mastery. When I was getting tired of practicing the same pieces, my undergraduate teacher would extol the virtues of theater actors: "They have to perform the same play with the same lines and the same actions day after day. They can't afford to get tired of it, and neither can you."
It's true, the point is well taken. These professional artists had to commit to the artistic merits of their production. They had to invest their own talent to bringing a play or a musical to life day in and day out.
I had the opportunity to ask a singer on tour with a Broadway musical how they achieved this professionalism. He said that in such a large ensemble, everyone's individual approach in a given night allowed for subtle variety which could only be noticed by the actors. A scene where the cast casually socializes, free of choreography, would allow for different interactions every single time. The actors could test each other's commitment to character by pushing different boundaries in an attempt to make others laugh. Even the most systematic and planned blocking allowed for variations night in and night out.
I really took this insight to heart. It is the sign of a true professional to withstand seeming monotony and find artistic variations within the repetitive routine.
Pianistically, we have set choreography of notes, rhythms, articulations and dynamics. We even have more subtle elements imposed upon us by performance practice, and the expectations of our teachers or colleagues.
But beyond this there is still a wide margin for variation. The balance between our hands can shift between phrases to show different nuances of a story. Rubato can ramp or ease up to highlight dramatics arcs. We can explore the extremes of individual articulations; staccato does not just mean detached.
A professional pianist shows up with regularity to explore these variations while the amateur pianist explores a piece only when, and until their inspiration lets up. Even the pianist who moves on to pursue something else, even if practicing consistently, but not consistently pushing one's understanding of certain repertoire, will never reach the same kind of professional artistry that others who show up and dig deeper will.
"Modern performers seem to regard their performances as texts rather than acts, and to prepare for them with the same goal as present-day textual editors: to clear away accretions. Not that this is not a laudable and necessary step; but what is an ultimate step for an editor should be only a first step for a performer, as the very temporal relationship between the functions of editing and performing already suggests." -Richard Taruskin, Text and Act