A majority of the population disapproves of the rise of incivility in America. In this toxic environment, the BSO Academy participants represent the very best in us.

"Music has become my life; it gives me peace and solace," admits Joanne Flax, 67, an amateur flutist from Long Island, who recently participated in the BSO Academy here in Baltimore.

The academy, a week-long intensive program unique to the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, was started in 2010 by Conductor Marin Alsop and Jane Marvine, who plays the English horn in the BSO.

Baltimore Symphony to offer second BSO Academy in June; free registration before Dec. 15

As recent polls indicate, a majority of the population disapproves of the rise of incivility in America. In this toxic environment, the academy and the BSO musicians stand out. They represent the very best in us. This summer there were 82 participants, representing 21 states and Canada. The majority have returned every year.

"After I listen to NPR News," continues Ms. Flax, "I just want to play my flute. It calms me down; it's like my yoga." The only downside, she said with a smile, is that her Goldendoodle "doesn't like high notes."

The academy participants are paired with a BSO veteran and can chose to play in chamber groups, in a full orchestra, or in both. "It's a year's worth of learning in a week," says Kate Newmyer, 45, an oboist from Texas, who comes with her dad, a retired rare book curator from Bethlehem, Pa., who is a percussionist. Both father and daughter give music lessons during the year.

OrchKids lifts children up musically and academically

The sound of 150 children playing instruments — the violin, the trumpet, the oboe, the harp — spills out of every classroom, filling the air and remarkably transforming this elementary school in a raggedy neighborhood of West Baltimore into a music conservatory.

The academy musicians come from all walks of life. For example, Norma Kerlin, from Greenwich, Conn., who plays contra bassoon, recently retired from her position as a litigator specializing in civil rights. She is a guest player in several local orchestras.

Another retired lawyer, Elliott Topper, 79, from New Jersey, used to play the trumpet professionally when he was "young — 16 to 36," he says. But, he explains, he couldn't "look for [music] gigs and build his law practice at the same time." Thus, he chose the law in order to support his family. Now that he is retired, he plays with several community bands.

This is Mr. Topper's seventh year with the BSO Academy. "I love playing beautiful music with beautiful people," he asserts.

Karlotta Davis, 62, a retired ob/gyn from Colorado who plays flute and piccolo, says the academy is "the best week of the whole year to us. The BSO musicians are our rock stars; they respect us the way we respect them."

Nearly all the academy musicians find the week — spent playing music, listening to lectures, sharing experiences with other musicians — a total reprieve from the everyday.

"After a difficult day traveling around the country for the Social Security Administration, trying to solve often unsolvable problems," says Keyone Swain, 36, a trombonist, born and raised in Baltimore, "I come home and play my music; it relaxes me." Mr. Swain also plays in a community orchestra, the Baltimore Philharmonic in Towson. (They play at Loch Raven High School.)

Marin Alsop renews Baltimore Symphony contract through 2021

Baltimore Symphony Orchestra music director Marin Alsop, who started her tenure in 2007, has signed a new contract that will take her through 2021.

Another Baltimorean, clarinetist Sumayyah Bilal, 27, is the band director of a middle school in Columbia. Amusingly, she first heard of the BSO Academy when she went to New York, to Carnegie Hall, for a workshop given by BSO Conductor Marin Alsop. "Music defines me," says Ms. Bilal, "it is my life's purpose: performing music for others and teaching music to others."

Although their professions are diverse, there is a commonality among academy participants. Many of them have dedicated themselves to helping others. For example, Bill Gross, 70, A French horn player from Dallas, Texas, is an entrepreneur. He currently is involved in a start-up, raising money to build water treatment plants in under-developed countries.

Jeff Alfriend, 59, the farthest away participant — he lives in Kula, Hawaii — is a retired veterinarian. This is his third year with the BSO Academy; he "loves learning from professionals" and claims that his collie/golden mix dog also "loves music."

"Our two dachshunds start singing, that is, howling, when my husband and I play our trombones," laughs Birgit Kovacs, 50, originally from Germany, but who has lived in Danbury, Conn., for 24 years. Dr. Kovacs, a rheumatologist, has attended the BSO Academy for six years and says music is her "therapy." She is also is a member of the World Doctors Orchestra, an organization that meets three times a year in multiple countries to bring music into hospitals and charitable organizations to help with patient care.

"If music be the food of love, play on," William Shakespeare wrote in "Twelfth Night." And he had it almost right. For the academy participants, music is truly the food of life.


Lynne Agress, who teaches in the Odyssey Program of Johns Hopkins, is president of BWB-Business Writing At Its Best Inc. and author of "The Feminine Irony" and "Working With Words in Business and Legal Writing." Her email is lynneagress@aol.com.