The homeless who line up for meals from the Our Daily Bread service center in the shadow of the Jones Falls Expressway might receive something in addition to the physical nourishment one Sunday in May. If current plans pan out, they'll hear classical music performed live underneath the overpass by the Be Orchestra, a volunteer group of Peabody Conservatory students.
This new ensemble - the title comes from its declared mission to "be involved, be a part" - is the latest manifestation of an activist spirit that seems to have taken deep hold at the school during the past six years or so. Among recent student-initiated projects launched are Creative Access Music Outreach, which takes volunteer musicians into the community; and Junior Bach, with Peabody composition majors helping middle-school boys write music.
"A lot of this activity is coming up from the grass roots," says Peabody director Jeffrey Sharkey. "It's not necessarily being imposed on students. And I think it is a big trend, globally. More musicians than ever before are realizing that it's not just about who can get into an orchestra. It's about doing more than just playing an instrument."
A new elective course at Peabody focuses on nurturing a socially conscious outlook. The class, Community Engagement and Creativity: 21st Century Skills for Professional Musicians, was created by alumnus Dan Trahey, who also coordinates the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's pioneer music education OrchKids program in an inner-city school; and Jill Collier, who arrived in Baltimore after finishing her graduate work in London and works with OrchKids and the Baltimore School for the Arts.
"We want musicians to be a more pertinent part of the community," Trahey says. "Kids who come to Peabody have to be great performers, no doubt about that, but you can get bogged down in practice rooms."
Peabody alumnus Matt Carvin, a classical guitarist who founded Creative Access in 2004, knows that well.
"I was spending six to eight hours a day in a practice room when I was a student," he says. "That has a unique effect on your social behavior - not talking to people, being in a little room with white walls."
Carvin, who remains director of the program, decided to break free of that practice regimen and start making music for others.
"At the time, there was no avenue for me to play out in the community," the guitarist says. "I started Creative Access for students to have an easy channel to perform for people who don't have access to what we do here. Our budget the first year was $200, and that was mostly for pizza."
The first Creative Access program was performed by three instrumentalists and a singer at My Sister's Place, a center for homeless women and children. Today, the project has a $20,000 budget and 16 venues are served each month, including a hospice, cancer and psychiatric wards of hospitals, senior housing facilities and the Maryland School for the Blind.
"About 200 students are involved now, about a quarter of the student body," Carvin says. "We have a lot less students saying, 'I don't do that for free.' There are needs out there. It's a very special thing to go to a hospice and play in the halls; it may be the last time someone hears music. Students do that once, and they're hooked."
Carvin drew some inspiration for where to offer the outreach activities from Peabody's parent, the Johns Hopkins University. "Peabody has all this music biz going on, and Hopkins has all this hospital biz going on," he says, "so that seemed a natural."
Among the locations is Hopkins' Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center.
"It's been great," says Marian Richardson, nurse manager of the Department of Radiation Oncology. "They play classical music for patients waiting to receive radiation treatment and in a room where their family members wait. It calms the patients. The staff can take a deep breath and relax when we hear the music. It has a mesmerizing effect on everybody."
Carvin will add a new location next month, a heroin-recovery center in West Baltimore. "Inside, you can get treatment, but on the corners of the building you can buy heroin," he says. "It will be interesting to see Peabody students with their instruments walking past that."
The organizers of the Be Orchestra first set their sights on Baltimore City Correctional Center, but a planned concert has been postponed twice by the institution. The ensemble made its debut two weeks ago with a free concert near Peabody, and plans are in the works for a performance at an area hospital in the near future.
"I wanted to give music to the community and to give opportunities for musicians, composers and conductors," says the Mexico-born Osvaldo Mendoza, a graduate student in composition at Peabody who is the ensemble's founding artistic director. "I felt there was a need in the city. We want to go to places where it is almost impossible to hear this kind of music. We want to show that we are normal, regular people, and we want to share our passion for music with them."
More than 40 students have volunteered to play in the Be Orchestra.
"It is a miracle of generosity," says Italian conductor Simeone Tartaglione, who earned a performance diploma from Peabody and serves as music director of the group. "I think Be Orchestra could be a very big success. There could be a network of Be Orchestras in different cities."
Mendoza and Tartaglione welcome any kind of contribution from students.
"The idea is that everybody should give something," Mendoza says. "The musicians give their time and talent. But if you can drive a bus to help us get to a concert, or if you're a cook, you can still do something to help. That's why we say: Be Orchestra, be involved."
Jill Collier, the co-teacher of the Community Engagement class at Peabody, sees the Be Orchestra, an idea that sprang from the course, as a natural development.
"Why is it that musicians are so eager to do this? People are questioning the role of musicians in society, and musicians are wondering what kind of future they'll have," Collier says. "People around the corner don't always know what Peabody is. That's why making connections with your community is so important."
Projects such as Creative Access encourage "outside-the-box behavior," Carvin says. "All musicians need to take on a bigger role in the advocacy for classical music."
There is a practical value to all the volunteering - the students get to hone their craft and gain experience talking to audiences about music. There may be the occasional pay, from donations or grants, but no one expects that.
Says Collier: "The students are at the point where they are getting so much back from this already."