Amateurs learn from the pros in BSO Academy

"I'm so happy my husband doesn't know who I am," Carolyn Williams said.

No, she's not a misbehaving housewife on some tacky TV show. Williams was attributing her fresh rush of cheer to her participation in the inaugural BSO Academy, which will wrap up an intensive week of activities for adult amateur musicians with a "donor appreciation concert" and party on Saturday at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.

Nearly 50 people from around the region paid up to $1,650 for this new community outreach venture by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, a camp for grownups who wanted to take their musical interests to a different level.

Most camp days at the Meyerhoff lasted 11 or 12 hours. Participants spent a lot of time in sectional rehearsals — groups of strings, woodwinds, brass and percussion working in separate spots. Afternoons were filled with seminars that focused on such topics as breathing techniques for wind players and preventing injuries common to musicians. BSO concertmaster Jonathan Carney gave a master class; associate concertmaster Madeline Adkins offered a session on baroque string instruments and technique.

The main attraction for the campers was the opportunity to be integrated into the ranks of the BSO for a week of rehearsals led by music director Marin Alsop.

"It's an absolute blast playing in Meyerhoff, having Marin conduct, and having these amazing people beside you," said Williams, a flutist in her early 50s, during a lunch break in the concert hall lobby. "It's just like a baseball fantasy camp."

Although she earned a music education degree from the Peabody Institute, Williams "knew after Peabody that I probably wasn't going to do this, even with as much passion as I had. I ended up in computers. But through all of that I played music as much as I could," she said. "I'm still a member of the musicians' union."

Williams, who lives in Towson and works for an educational project of the Abell Foundation, had her work cut out for her from the first day of the BSO Academy, given that Alsop chose two big, colorful and demanding works for the campers and BSO players to work on during the academy: Rachmaninoff's "Symphonic Dances" and Respighi's "The Pines of Rome."

"This music is really hard for flute players," Williams said. "I can barely keep up with it. And yet it's thrilling. It's just like a baseball fantasy camp. So many of us would love to play in this environment, and we're learning what it takes to play at [major orchestra] level. Everyone has been so welcoming. They understand where we're coming from."

Tim Byrnes, a Pennsylvania native in his 60s, didn't take horn lessons after eighth grade, but kept up the instrument over the years and now plays in the Susquehanna Symphony Orchestra. This Edgewood resident, who studied math in college, works as an IT specialist with the Army Test and Evaluation Command at the Aberdeen Proving Ground.

"I jumped at the chance to do this," Byrnes says of the BSO Academy. "It's a chance to sit in with a really good professional orchestra, to learn what their routine is. It offers a glimpse of what it might have been like if I had switched my major in college."

During one orchestral rehearsal early in the week, Alsop patiently worked on details of articulation and coordination. After a ragged entrance from some of the woodwinds in a movement of the "Symphonic Dances," she said, "I know you're busy, but if you look up, I'll give [the cue] to you." The next time, all went smoothly. "Very good, everybody," Alsop said.

What's second-nature for professional musicians can be new for others.

Theresa Cook, who plays in a community orchestra in Immaculata, Pa., noted that she had been in the habit of following the principal cellist in that ensemble.

Rehearsing in the BSO Academy "forces me to learn some things I had never paid attention to," Cook said. "I was just worried about getting the notes out before. This week has made me realize that I had forgotten this is a job for the pros. They start exactly on time and finish exactly on time. Rehearsals are so well-organized. At the community orchestra, everyone sort of rolls in."

One of the academy sessions was led by a behavioral optometrist who worked with the participants on improving skills needed to see a conductor out of peripheral vision, or look up from a music stand to see a conductor and return to the page without losing their place. "The vision class helped me realize that I have a habit of skipping past key signatures and rests," said Baltimorean David Silberberg, an oboist and English horn player.

The amateurs share an avocation that typically goes back to their early years. Cook, 34, played piano "a little" when she was a child and briefly tried the violin in third grade. But she didn't pick up a cello until she was 22, a late age to start any instrument.

"I was a runner and I had a knee problem that kept me from running," she said. "I was so depressed. I decided I've got to use this time to do something I always wanted to do. I saw an ad for a cello teacher on a supermarket bulletin board. I rented a cello and started lessons with that teacher and then another teacher for 10 years. I still take lessons."

In between two part-time jobs, one of them as a dietary aid at a nursing home, the cellist took a few extra lessons to prepare for the BSO event.

"At the first look at the music, I was cringing," Cook said. "For cellos in the Respighi work, there's a lot of really high playing, which I'm not used to."

After one of the orchestral rehearsals, while many of their colleagues headed off to lunch, Cook stayed behind onstage to go over some of the music with the BSO's associate principal cellist Chang Woo Lee. A few feet away, Williams was taking pointers from BSO principal flutist Emily Skala, who would demonstrate a tricky passage and then play it with Williams several times.

From such one-on-one moments to full ensemble work, the campers had an opportunity to get what they came for — valuable experience with the pros.

"As a player and conductor, this helps me realize that they have the same issues every musician has — intonation, ensemble, dynamics, just getting out the notes," said Silberberg, 62, who has a music education degree from George Washington University.

Drafted during the Vietnam era, he ended up in the Army Entertainment program and, eventually, in computers. He's now a senior network engineer at the Social Security Administration, where he conducts a concert band of fellow SSA employees. He also performs in the Greenspring Valley Orchestra at Stevenson University.

"I was playing next to Jane [Marvine, the BSO's English horn player] in a rehearsal," Silberberg said, "and we both missed an entrance. It was nice to know that doesn't just happen to klutzes like me."

Marvine, who isn't known for missing a note in concert, is credited with the original idea that led to the BSO Academy. That was in 2003, when the orchestra was looking into projects for the time between the regular concert season and the short summer season.

"I suggested that we use the orchestra as an educational resource," Marvine said. "At the time, I was thinking of mentoring pre-professionals. Marin is the one who had the vision of utilizing the concept for adult amateurs. "My personal hope is that we'll do the same thing next year with pre-professionals."

Alsop is open to the idea. "I could see doing two different sessions," the conductor said. "Pre-professionals and adult amateurs have different needs."

Last February, a kind of warm-up for the Academy was tried out, a couple of "rusty musician" concerts that invited amateurs of any level to play alongside BSO members with Alsop conducting at the Music Center at Strathmore. More than 600 people signed up. (A similar program is being planned at the Meyerhoff this fall.)

The success of the "rusty musicians" event encouraged the orchestra to pursue a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which provided leadership funding for the BSO Academy for the next few years.

"This is probably the ultimate way of breaking the wall, inviting the community at large to join the orchestra," Marvine said. "Amateurs can get the thrill of playing in an environment where nobody will embarrass them. It's a safe place where they can excel and enjoy themselves." (There were no auditions for this year's Academy. That may change in the future to allow for more evenly matched participants.)

Marvine does not see the music camp as a one-way deal for the adult amateurs alone.

"Watching them improve, hearing an enormous improvement from the first day, that in itself is rewarding," she said. "But I was sitting here after the rehearsal thinking this has made me a better player. It makes me focus on what I'm doing and how to communicate that to someone else. We will be a better orchestra as a result of this experience, as opposed to doing the same, same, same. And [the amateurs] will appreciate the BSO in a way they haven't before."

For her part, Alsop sounded just as upbeat.

"It has been great from the get-go," she said. "I really feel that everybody's jumped in with both feet. The BSO players have been so encouraging, and [the amateurs] are really into it. I'm eager to get some debriefing comments from everybody and then determine how to grow it for the future."

tim.smith@baltsun.com

Twitter.com/clefnotes

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