BSO Summer Academy: Playing with the Pros

August 13, 2013, 6:36 PM · Full disclosure. I’m the kind of player Carl Flesch had in mind when he warned in the 1920’s against ever, under any circumstances, allowing an amateur to kid himself that he could play like a pro. When in doubt, do him a favor, Flesch advised: tell him no.

A few years ago, I put both Flesch and myself to the test over lunch with a London concertmaster, who is both a friend and an exemplary professional. Why did he regularly agree to play with the likes of me and another old friend, in our friend’s living room? Easy, he said. He enjoyed the company. He liked playing music he normally didn’t get to play. He especially liked not having to rehearse. “When I want to rehearse,” he added preemptively, “it won’t be with you.”

The opportunity to play big pieces with the Baltimore Symphony in the fourth season of its BSO Summer Academy was still too good to pass up. From there, as so often, one thing led to another till there I was on the stage of the orchestra’s Meyerhoff Hall, surrounded by major league pros, and shoulder-deep in the last movement of Gustav Mahler’s First Symphony.

Marin Alsop
Marin Alsop conducts the BSO, with musicians from the Summer Academy. Photo: Arthur Feller for the BSO

I was inevitably reminded of George Plimpton, whose job at Sports Illustrated half a century ago was a welcome excuse to climb in the ring with Archie Moore, the reigning light heavyweight champion, pitch to Willy Mays, face Pancho Gonzalez in men’s singles, and hit the links with Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer. For a few memorable minutes, he even played back-up quarterback to the Detroit Lions’ back-up quarterback.

Plimpton’s logic was my logic. If you want to understand what pros do, try doing it yourself. Like any fan, I’d heard the Mahler countless times in multiple performances. But doing it was different. I was certain that the downbeat clash of cymbals only footsteps from where I sat could be heard as far as Washington. Nanoseconds later, a sonic boom of brass and percussion led to 22 of the more challenging measures I’d ever encountered, at blast-off tempo.

“Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Five shots ripped into my groin and I was off on the biggest adventure of my life!” Decades had passed since I last thought of the opening line of Max Shulman’s Sleep Till Noon, an antic little novel that was a favorite of my college days. No one would confuse it with Moby Dick. But on a Pequod whose recreation program combined elements of fantasy baseball camp and a bungee jump off the Golden Gate bridge, it seemed appropriate in ways that “Call me Ishmael” wasn’t. Even the pros around me looked stressed.

When in doubt, watch other people’s bows, the violist Peter Minkler suggested. I was, and I did. Qing Li, the principal second violinist, was hard at work just in front of me. I was dimly aware of the back of her head. I was almost tearfully grateful for Ivan Stefanovic, the assistant principal, on my right. Front, center, and slightly above them in my conflicted field of vision was Marin Alsop, the conductor, who clearly meant business. 

Between us, we’d probably played most of the notes, Ivan noted cheerily when we finally reached the end. But there was no question which of us had played more of them.   

“No perfume on stage,” Jane Marvine, a veteran oboist and the orchestra’s player representative, cautioned as we assembled to go on. But deodorants were recommended, she continued – well, drily. I’d thought she was speaking metaphorically. Tiny, cheerful and unflappable, Wonju Kim, my other stand partner, made sure I did no damage to Respighi’s Roman fountains. My autonomic nervous system told me that what I was doing was as thrilling as anything I’d done in a lifetime of amateur fiddling. I was still scared out of my socks.

A union of contingency and ingenuity, the BSO Academy first surfaced in 2009 when the orchestra’s management realized it had players to pay, and nothing immediate on the calendar to keep them busy. There was talk of a summer camp for conservatory students or disadvantaged kids from the orchestra’s Orchkids program. But as everyone quickly realized, the musical woods are full of outreach programs and summer camps for pre-professionals.  

Ironically, the solution, the aging amateur, was just waiting at the other end of the demographic curve. Any self-respecting city had once aspired to an orchestra as it aspired to a major league athletic franchise. En route to the baby boom, the concertgoer gene had gone missing. Yet it appeared that any number of these same boomers played, or again played, or again wanted to play, an instrument. 

In 2002, the Bournemouth Symphony, Alsop’s previous orchestra, struck on the idea of inviting self-identified Rusty Musicians for an annual concert with the local pros. The event has since become an institution.

In 2009, her Bournemouth experience became unexpectedly relevant when the Mellon Foundation, which accepts proposals by invitation only, expressed interest in Baltimore. Alsop consulted Marvine, the player representative. They then consulted their respective constituents and submitted a proposal.

Management asked only that the project not lose money. The players didn’t say no. The Mellon Foundation replied with a three-year grant, since renewed. Alsop likes connecting people and letting things happen, she told me. “I should have been a matchmaker,” she added.

Barely a half-year later, the BSO Academy opened with a class of 47. At first glance, the numbers were a disappointment. But it was soon clear that less was more, allowing the orchestra to accommodate the walk-ons without growing to hypertrophic size, and to seat them with regulars, where they were unlikely to panic, enter three measures early, or crash in between chords or during a fermata. 

First Violinist Ken Goldstein and Mariana Aguilera
First Violinist Ken Goldstein and Mariana Aguilera. Photo: Arthur Feller for the BSO

Since then, the original enrollment has more than doubled, with a hard core of recidivists, a few going back to the first season. Yet even doubled, the small-group virtues remain intact over 12 hours of sectional and full orchestra rehearsals, with chamber music, a chamber orchestra and even private lessons ad lib. Platooned like a football team, half the group plays half the program while their peers listen with interest in Rows P, Q and R. After intermission, the second group replaces the first one.  

For the first time, this year’s mix of 110 included a gang of four administrators from other orchestras who came to consider Baltimore as a role model. With only name, address, emergency contacts, instrument, previous experience and a short statement of expectation to go by, a collective profile of the remaining 106 is necessarily an educated sketch. But no fact sheet was needed to recognize a tilt toward law, medicine, engineering and IT, and to see that "young" meant under 50.

Yet even among the Usual Suspects, there was variety enough to capture the imagination. An opening day show of hands produced players from the West Coast, Alaska, Hawaii, Canada and Paris, as well as immigrants from Germany, Jamaica and Venezuela.

Participant Moyna Daley
Academy participant Moyna Daley. Photo: Arthur Feller for the BSO

The occupational roster extended from a retired transplant surgeon to an assistant federal prosecutor. A sixth-grade science teacher with a black belt in tae kwon do had taken up the violin as a grown-up because her missionary parents wouldn’t let her play as a child. A fourth-year med student with a Ph.D. in molecular biology sold her blood until her father advanced the rest of the tuition fee. When not teaching school, a tuba player from Gary, Indiana, moonlights in a polka band. After missing the cut as a flutist, a biologist from the Maryland Water Management Administration settled for the violin he’d taken up only a few years earlier after inheriting it from his mother. Undeterred by an 11-year break from the violin and two kids in college, an aeronautical engineer from Los Angeles recycled frequent flier miles to get herself to Baltimore. Of at least three accountants, one was a 29-year-old clarinetist from Trinidad, another a 29-year-old Japanese-African-American violinist from Seattle.

Lovingly assembled by Carol Bogash, the orchestra’s VP for Education and Community Engagement, a supplementary buffet of lectures and workshops on themes as different as curiosity, creativity, pain, stress, fear and string manufacture was there for the taking. A roomful of aspiring performers listened with interest as Charles Limb, a Johns Hopkins neurophysiologist with an adjunct appointment at the Peabody Conservatory, explained that the intensity of performing music matches the intensity of performing surgery. Mario Livio, a Hopkins astrophysicist with a passion for the arts, devised his own instrumentation to show how unanswered questions register in the hunger area of the brain, answered questions in the pleasure area. Who knew?

With injuries to the neck, shoulders, elbows, hands, hearing, not to mention psyche reported by as many as three quarters of all working musicians, therapy strategies, surprise, surprise, were among the most popular items on the menu. Each featured a different recipe that could presumably be mixed and matched with the others.

David Shulman, a physical therapist and onetime jazz clarinetist, recommended aerobic exercise, weight-lifting, Swedish massage, and five minutes rest for every 20 minutes of practice. Music may not be a contact sport in the usual sense, Shulman reminded his listeners. But that doesn’t mean that musicians aren’t athletes, exposed since their student years to a slippery slope from fatigue to pain to outright disability as a consequence of repetitive motion, too little rest and bad posture.  The difference is the support system. The Washington Nationals’ Bryce Harper, the youngest All-Star ever at 19, enjoys a five-star locker room and a squad of ace trainers as part of his job.  When hurt, he can expect state of the art medical attention.  Fit or in pain, Baltimore orchestra players get a locker room as bleak as any janitor’s, and a full-size portrait photo of Mahler.

David Shulman
David Shulman. Photo: Arthur Feller for the BSO

Aliza Stewart, a Feldenkrais practitioner who was once a performing pianist, urged her audience to concentrate on their spinal axis in a position that seemed to combine yoga with Pavlova’s Dying Swan. Phil Munds, the orchestra’s principal horn, recommended Tim Gallwey’s classic Inner Game of Tennis, and attention to other people’s performance before taking on a new piece s-l-o-w-l-y. There was no shortage of interested volunteers for the therapeutic show and tell that was part of each session.?

For the first time, this year’s program included a chamber orchestra as well as an evening of short solos by volunteer instrumentalists supported by Mary Woehr, an orchestra violist doing double duty on the piano. Positively intrepid, the chamber orchestra took on a challenging program on three rehearsals with Jonathan Carney, the orchestra’s concertmaster, as its conductor, and a bare handful of colleagues as back-up. Supportive as high school classmates, the solo audience cheered their peers, who performed on every stringed instrument in the orchestra, most woodwinds, brass and a xylophone.

But the heart of the Academy program remained the performance of challenging orchestra repertoire, “party pieces” as Marvine called them, with lots of percussion and full employment for masses of players. Academy repertory was not easy and never had been, she emphasized. The visitors had a long way to go in a week. But they also expect plenty of help from stand partners who understood what was indicated – “and if not, tell me,” she added to another round of mirth. All options were open, including “Sit quietly and listen.”

Is the Academy a money-maker? Answers were carefully hedged. Though there is a bit of scholarship help, tuition is not cheap, and even the sale of T-shirts and tote bags allows for inferences. Players have to be paid. Faculty have to be paid extra. The Mellon money evidently matters. 

Does it cultivate friends for the symphony? The answer to this was easier: yes, both in the lower case sense of friends who might bring their friends to concerts, and the upper case sense of Friends who might write checks. 

Does it enhance player and listener skills? No question on that one. Nor on humility. It was hard to imagine anyone going home without an enhanced regard for what Flesch wrote nearly a century ago about the difference in kind, not degree, between amateurs and pros.

What hadn’t occurred to me, remarkably, was the Academy’s impact on the orchestra. When Alsop talks about the Academy, it’s clear that its morale-booster value precedes even money. Her players are highly skilled professionals, she notes. They’ve spent decades learning their trade. They won their jobs against 35 to 50 competitors. They now find themselves sheep in a very large herd. They need and deserve to be noticed and admired.

In the restrictive, hierarchical world of the American orchestra, she’d in fact like to do more for them, and more with the Academy, too. Her current thoughts run to a BSO Academy Alumni Association, with instrument clinics, rehearsal access and chamber concerts in return for a yearly fee. She’d like to connect retired players with the Orchkids program as well.

Orchestra morale came up again the next day in a conversation with Dariusz Skoraczewski, a 13-year veteran of the BSO, and for the past two years its principal cellist. “Is this a happy orchestra?” I asked. “There are no happy orchestras,” he replied soberly.

It's true that Baltimore has so far avoided the kind of train wreck that has devastated Detroit, cost San Francisco an East Coast tour and deprived Minnesota of a season. But as Alsop points out, the city is short of industry and without a Fortune 500 corporation. Even before 2008, its salary scale trailed peer ensembles in Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and St. Louis. Since then, as players unfailingly reminded me, the orchestra has lost good players, and both salaries and health benefits have taken substantial hits. The new season is to open with Scheherazade and the 1812 Overture.  “Happy Days Are Here Again” is unlikely to be on the program.  

Skoraczewski was not entirely happy with the brave new world of outreach either. He acknowledged that Alsop’s projects fill seats. But all things being equal, he would still rather play Mahler than movie music. This was where the Academy came in. For at least a week each year, he and his colleagues now got to interact with interesting and interested people, who understood and appreciated them. It was wonderful. He was glad we came.  

Without a mandate to speak ex-officio, I could only reply for myself. But I doubt that my fellow travelers would put up an argument. The feeling was mutual, I told him. He and his colleagues were not only role model professionals. They shared their professionalism with unfailing generosity, graciousness and patience. It had been a special week for me, too. I was glad I’d come.

* * *

David Schoenbaum is author of The Violin: A Social History of the World’s Most Versatile Instrument, New York, W.W. Norton, 2013


August 14, 2013 at 09:43 AM · Great blog! The BSO Academy is an enormously more fulfilling approach to outreach than simply seating members of the audience inside the orchestra--although that has its place, too.

Thank you for sharing your experience.

August 14, 2013 at 12:22 PM · Great, many thanks for sharing, will get your book!

August 14, 2013 at 12:46 PM · I also think this is a great way of doing outreach, along with things like side-by-side concerts with aspiring musicians. I imagine that the bonds created during a week of BSO Summer Academy are very strong and meaningful, on both sides.

August 14, 2013 at 03:37 PM · I'm a long-time Baltimore resident and was an Academy member in 2012. We have always been very fortunate to have the BSO in our city. In addition to being a fantastic orchestra, the musicians make many contributions in all sorts of ways to our community, musically as well as in other endeavors. (Just read some of the biographies on the BSO website and I think you'll see what I mean.) Besides the obvious thrill of being onstage, surrounded by the glorious music, I think what was most exciting for me was working toward a common goal with everyone else, regardless of proficiency or experience level, with all of us joining a legacy of musicians over generations in the quest to bring the music to life.

Thanks for an article that captures the spirit of the Academy so well.

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