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With move to Cross Keys, Baltimore School of Music looks beyond the pandemic — and toward greater access to music education

The Baltimore School of Music is moving to a new location at the Village of Cross Keys — and the pandemic had nothing to do with it, according to James Lowe, the school’s founder and CEO.

That’s refreshing news coming from a musician, after more than a year of the coronavirus pandemic dictating nearly every decision by musicians. The school’s relocation is both a sign that the pandemic’s grip on our lives is loosening — and a testament to Lowe’s vision.

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James Lowe, owner and CEO of the Baltimore School of Music, plays his guitar on Wednesday, April 21, 2021 outside of his school's new location, which is still under construction at the Village of Cross Keys.
James Lowe, owner and CEO of the Baltimore School of Music, plays his guitar on Wednesday, April 21, 2021 outside of his school's new location, which is still under construction at the Village of Cross Keys. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Sun)

Lowe started the Baltimore School of Music in 2012, when he was still a graduate student in guitar performance at the Peabody Institute of The Johns Hopkins University. What began as private guitar lessons in his apartment grew into an organization that offers private and group instruction in nearly every orchestral instrument.

Anyone who’s thought about taking up an instrument — and been confronted with the prospect of hunting down and vetting a teacher — can understand the benefit of a centralized music school open to the public.

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Lowe was only surprised such a school didn’t already exist when he moved to Baltimore. A native of Omaha, Nebraska, Lowe said he was “a bit taken aback by the lack of educational opportunities within the city for people to play music.”

“Where I’m from, it was a little bit different,” he explained. “We have quite a few … community music schools.”

There are a handful organizations in Baltimore that cater to public music instruction, such as Bmore Strings, the School of Rock and the Peabody Preparatory, and numerous individual instructors, but Lowe observed that “the kind of private-public dichotomy we have here in Baltimore is something I was not familiar with.”

For the past several years, the Baltimore School of Music has been operating out of Second Presbyterian Church in Guilford.

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The church “has been great,” Lowe said, but sharing a space “is a lot of work.” Before the pandemic, they might have needed to share space with as many as three or four other organizations on a given night.

Thus, the move to Cross Keys marks the first time the music school will have its own, dedicated space. That includes ten music lesson rooms, a group classroom and a store in front, where anyone can buy instruments or music, and receive recommendations from staff.

Currently, Lowe pointed out, there are limited one-stop options in the city for diverse musical needs; many musicians have to travel to one of the counties or order from online retailers if they need things like instrument strings, music stands or other supplies.

Despite building its space nearly from scratch, the Baltimore School of Music does not have any plans to alter its design to accommodate pandemic-related concerns.

“We’re hopeful that once we open, we’ll kind of be through the rough part [of the pandemic],” Lowe said. “We’ll have enough space that we can socially distance fairly easily if we need to.”

That’s not to say that the school hasn’t felt the impact of the pandemic. A year ago, Lowe reported it lost roughly 40 percent of its students during the first weeks of lockdown.

“We started to pick back up a little bit in the fall, and now [enrollment] is pretty much right where it was before the pandemic,” Lowe said.

That’s largely due to a pivot to virtual instruction — which won’t be going away. According to Lowe, it will continue offering virtual lessons “as long as people want them.”

Thirteen-year-old Thomas Lapp has been taking guitar lessons from the Baltimore School of Music for the past six years. He said he “wasn’t too affected” by the transition to online instruction, and for his mother Catherine Lapp, video lessons continued to provide a sense of normality: “It was a sense of, ‘Okay, there’s something I can do kind of as usual’ — it really helped during the pandemic.”

For both, BSM’s move to Cross Keys comes with one downside: It’s no longer walking distance from their home. But, “it’s a certainly a good move for them,” Lapp said. “The school’s been expanding a lot in recent years.”

The Baltimore School of Music has been planning on moving to Cross Keys since January 2020, when Caves Valley Partners, a developer based in Towson, announced it would purchase the mixed office-and-retail space from the New York-based Ashkenazy Acquisition Corp. Lowe jumped at the opportunity — it marked the third time he had tried to move the school to Cross Keys.

A little bit of “Smaltimore” connection helps: The daughter of one of Caves Valley’s partners, Arsh Mirmiran, was a student at the school. It’s precisely that kind of local connection that has many celebrating Caves Valley’s investment in Cross Keys. The space, nestled into a leafy grove between the Jones Falls Expressway and Falls Road, suffered from disrepair and high rates of tenant vacancy after Ashkenazy acquired it in 2013.

“We’re thrilled to have the Baltimore School of Music moving in,” Mirmiran said in emailed comments. “Along with Kiddie Calvert” — a daycare and education center for infants and preschoolers — “we love the synergy it starts to create for families to start to come to Cross Keys on a regular basis and make it a gathering spot. We are envisioning a vibrant and lively courtyard, just as it was back in the day.”

Cultivating community spirit is a big driver for Lowe, too.

“Since I was in high school, all I wanted to do was be an educator,” Lowe recalled. “I thought that it would be in academia, but I found out after a little while that it was not for me.”

He elaborated: “I believe that music education should be open to everybody at all skill levels.”

Conservatories, such as Peabody, are for professional-track musicians who already excel at their instrument; and while many conservatories, including Peabody, offer educational opportunities to the broader community, it can still be difficult for the average person to track down affordable instruments and instruction.

“I think an adult who wants to play piano for fun a couple times a week should have a place for music in their lives,” Lowe said.

At the same time, they also should have access to “educators who are passionate” about what they do. For students like Thomas Lapp, that’s meant broadening their musical horizons and learning about new composers. Lapp’s interest in the guitar started with a love for Johnny Cash, but has grown to include the music of Agustín Barrios, Fernando Sor, and J.S. Bach. “Now, I love Bach,” Lapp said. “I listen to him all the time.”

Students at the Baltimore School of Music already benefit from that passionate education — but when the school opens its doors at Cross Keys, they’ll finally be able to enjoy their own space.

Elizabeth Nonemaker covers classical music for The Baltimore Sun as a freelance writer. Classical music coverage at The Sun is supported in part by a grant from the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation, the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. The Sun makes all editorial decisions. Nonemaker can be reached at nonemakerwrites@gmail.com.

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