Band Camp for Grown-Ups
TCHAIKOVSKY’S “Capriccio Italian” surged faster and faster as I sat on the stage of Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall amid the ranks of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Marin Alsop, the music director, was giving no quarter. The notes were rushing past, more quickly than my fingers could move. The train was leaving, and I wasn’t on it.
Fortunately I was not alone at that first rehearsal. A clarinetist, I was one of 104 amateur musicians who had signed up for the Baltimore Symphony’s BSO Academy, a unique weeklong program to give amateurs an education in orchestral life. It was also a good way for the orchestra, at a minimum of $1,750 a head, to bring in desperately needed revenue and bond with the public.
The week, late last month, included lectures on musicianship, the science of hearing, practice methods, how to blend and performance anxiety. But mostly we played: in chamber music rehearsals, private lessons, group classes, coaching sessions and run-throughs with Ms. Alsop on the bright Meyerhoff stage.
We sat next to the Baltimore players, drank beer with them and sipped from their decades of musical wisdom. We experienced the obsessive nature of orchestra musicians and felt their physical pain, self-doubt and, once in a while, supreme confidence.
The academy was a kind of fantasy camp, better known to rock and baseball fans. But unlike air-guitarists or flabby softball players, we faced a high level of intensity from the start. The music was difficult, even for the pros many of us hoped to keep up with. Virtually all of us were there to improve our technique and musicality, not merely soak up star power.
For their part the players in the orchestra, who are living through a demoralizing period of pay cuts, defections, unfilled positions and a feeling they are unappreciated, had complicated reactions. The experience brought a whiff of resignation from professionals who had devoted their lives to working toward artistic excellence yet had to compromise their game, all the while smiling at high-paying guests.
“It’s not about perfection,” Ms. Alsop said in an interview, repeating her message to the musicians. “It’s very hard for professional musicians to let that go. Me too. This is about being in the moment.”
Yet many players also felt satisfaction in teaching dedicated music lovers and elation at the awe in which many held them. It was a reminder of why they play. Somebody cares. They matter.
“You bring us an incredible joy and enthusiasm and excitement,” Laurie Sokoloff, the orchestra’s piccolo player and a 43-year veteran, told a group of participants. “I just can’t tell you how contagious that is.”
As a reasonably experienced clarinetist who studied seriously in younger days, I had done something similar before, playing part of a concert with the New York Philharmonic some years ago and writing about it. This was different.
“Dad, you’re at band camp,” one of my sons said with a little too much glee. At least he didn’t see me wandering around with a name badge along with my fellow campers.
We were divided into Orchestra 1 and Orchestra 2, about 50 in each, embedded with the Baltimore players. I was in Orchestra 1. The program was “Capriccio Italian” by Tchaikovsky, an at times corny showpiece; selections from “The Three-Cornered Hat” by Falla, a flavorful and rhythmically tricky set of dance pieces; and the majestic, character-filled “Enigma” Variations by Elgar. Those works and the Orchestra 2 program were chosen by symphony members, with an eye to making sure everybody had something juicy to play.
The parts were among the toughest I had seen in years of playing with various community orchestras. Even some Baltimore players were daunted. One symphony violinist called the programs “a recipe for tendinitis.” There was enough sawing to deforest Siberia.
The adult pro-am idea for orchestras is not new but is gaining ground. The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra has been doing it for a decade, and the Minnesota Orchestra, the Richmond Symphony in Virginia and the Utah Symphony are among others that have dabbled. But such “side-by-sides” usually last an evening or a few days. Nothing approaches the scope of the Baltimore academy, which is in its third year and has grown rapidly, from 46 students to 103.
The academy hopes to expand, but its continuation depends on whether the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which provided a $900,000 grant expiring this year, agrees to further financing, orchestra officials said.
My first learning experience came on Sunday, a master class with Steven Barta, the orchestra’s principal clarinetist. A compact, bearded man with a serious manner punctuated by a staccato chuckle, he shows a single-minded devotion to his craft. Mr. Barta makes his own reeds, a relatively rare practice among clarinetists (although normal for our double-reed brethren on oboe and bassoon). He has an encyclopedic knowledge of mouthpieces.
Mr. Barta surveyed the basics, outlining the physical juggling act of playing an instrument. Fingers, tongue, mouth formation and breath all have to do the right thing at the right time. He used the first of many analogies I was to hear through the week: Fingers should be positioned as if they were holding a tennis ball, to remain close to the keys and agile. “When you play, feel the music in your fingertips.”
At another master class Edward Palanker, the bass clarinetist, imparted a lifetime of distilled wisdom on practicing and his repertory of fingerings for the highest notes on the instrument. It was a squawkfest.
To get us in shape for Ms. Alsop we followed group lessons with instrument sectional rehearsals (in our case just clarinets) and then rehearsals by instrument family: woodwinds, brasses and strings.
In between, at the lectures, we learned many useful tips: Practice for 20 minutes, rest for 10; sit with hips and shoulders square to minimize body strain; tune according to your place in the chord; draw on personal experience to give a melody expression; embrace your performance anxiety; get three notes perfect in a difficult passage, then slowly add to them.
Just as valuable was the impromptu contact with the players.
Before my chamber music performance I was practicing a tricky passage in Beethoven’s Septet with Harry Kaplan, a bassoonist and internist from Towson, Md. The principal trumpeter, Andrew Balio, came over to say hello. I asked him how he would phrase the passage. He gave his interpretation, and as a result we played it so much better. It was like Mariano Rivera showing you where to put your fingers for the cutter.
At night players would mingle with participants at the hotel bar. One evening Mr. Palanker, who has the air of a New York City police captain from the Bronx, regaled us with anecdotes of Baltimore conductors past. They included the maestro whose left, cuing hand moved involuntarily. He was so terrible that the players learned never to watch him. “No one noticed when he fell off the stage,” Mr. Palanker said.
The campers form the sweet spot of the symphony audience. A survey of Baltimore Symphony subscribers and single ticket buyers five years ago found that 70 percent played or had studied an instrument, which is typical elsewhere as well.
They are part of an immense amateur world of dedicated players who take part in chamber music courses and numerous community orchestras and bands. Classical music amateurs — like the doctors, researchers and professors at the academy — tend to have money to spend on such camps. With add-ons for chamber music coaching, lessons and lodging, BSO Academy costs can reach $3,000.
“Orchestras have been trying to figure out how to connect with people who have an innate passion for music but who set that aside for a career,” said Paul Meecham, the orchestra’s president and chief executive. “We’re riding that wave, of people’s need for a different kind of participation rather than just sitting in an audience.”
The payoffs have been evident if modest. Some 20 campers in the first two years became new donors, 9 became subscribers, and 13 bought individual tickets for the first time. Less tangibly, several academy students are now taking lessons with Baltimore musicians. Some have formed Facebook friendships, stayed in touch by e-mail or gone backstage after concerts to greet their symphony friends.
“You feel attached to it, like you have ownership,” said Mary Padilla of Woodbridge, Va., a software engineer and oboist who has donated $750 since her first academy three years ago.
The academy serves another purpose: putting the orchestra players’ time, for which they are paid in any case, to good use. As it is, their salaries have dropped to a minimum base pay of $65,000 from $78,000 (although most earn more). The orchestra scrambles to find enough work for its members, who are paid 52 weeks a year but perform 30 weeks of subscription concerts and receive nine weeks of vacation. Management tries to occupy the rest of the weeks with educational, summer and holiday concerts, and special events. “It’s a more creative and broader definition of what a workweek looks like,” Mr. Meecham said. “Isn’t necessity the mother of invention?”
Teaching and coaching, which brought the players extra money, was optional. More than half the players took part in the extra activities. Revenues from the academy this year amounted to about $195,000, not far from a week’s ticket revenue.
Monday morning started with the clarinet sectional led by the gregarious Christopher Wolfe, whose next season will be his 50th with the orchestra. He efficiently zeroed in on the difficult and exposed passages. I realized I was not even close to playing this music with confidence.
Katherine Needleman, the principal oboist and a small, intense woman, led the wind sectional on Tuesday morning. We gathered in the salon of a former town house that is now part of the Baltimore School for the Arts, our headquarters along with Meyerhoff. It was at times a cacophonous affair, leading Ms. Needleman to clutch the sides of her head. But she dispensed much practical advice, adding other musical lines with a lovely singing voice.
At the opening rehearsal at the Meyerhoff on Tuesday I played my first notes on the packed stage. It was incredible how vivid they sounded. Jane Marvine, Baltimore’s English horn player and a driving force behind the academy, made some announcements and warned everyone to take a seat on time. “We don’t wait,” she said. She also asked people to avoid wearing perfume out of consideration for others.
A matter-of-fact Ms. Alsop took the podium in black pants and a white blouse worn loosely over a black top. The trumpets played the opening fanfare in the “Capriccio Italian.”
Off we went. Mr. Wolfe told me just to follow him. Boy, I was glad he was there. “Softly,” he whispered before one entrance. “Six,” he said, as I silently counted the measures of a rest. Ms. Alsop plowed through and then went back, touching on especially rough spots. “Let’s get inside the sound,” she told the strings.
Immediately the differences between the pros and the amateurs became clear. The pros’ entrances were absolutely rock solid. Rhythms were precise, like steel armatures. The notes of solos were perfectly placed. I seemed to enter consistently late. Members later told me that along with incompetence, this was probably a result of the acoustics of the hall, which require some anticipation from players sitting toward the back of the stage.
The community-orchestra veterans also had a taste of what it was like to play in front of a conductor of international stature, whose every movement came from a clear sense of purpose and deep authority.
Later, in a dressing room at the Meyerhoff musical hive, Mr. Wolfe talked about the skills needed to be a successful orchestra musician. Knowing the notes is a given. You have to play perfectly together with your fellow instrumentalists, then with the section, then with the other sections, even if they contain colleagues you have been feuding with for years.
You have to know the intonation tendencies of other instruments. You have to be expert at different musical styles. You have to know what’s coming measures away. There is no room for error.
“The pressure and stress is unreal,” he said. “The public has no idea. You cannot make a mistake.”
By midweek I was waking up in the middle of the night fretting about handling the parts. The melodies from the program were swirling around my head. I was feeling pain in my hands from all the practicing. (More than a third of the orchestra’s players undergo regular physical therapy.) I had to remind myself that my career did not depend on the performance.
While Ms. Alsop made no concessions on tempos in rehearsals, she stopped and started more than she would have with the professional orchestra but also played longer stretches, to help us understand the flow. She moved efficiently from spot to spot, slowing down what some members said was a tendency to restart before they had their instruments in place. “Most important to me is imparting the musical essence, whether character or atmosphere, so there is a real sense of narrative,” Ms. Alsop said in an interview. “I just want everybody to feel a flow, and a connection to the composer.”
But, maestra, a little mercy in the tempos?
“The conductor’s role is to get the best out of everybody, no matter what level,” she said. “My expectations are high, but so is my compassion.”
At Thursday’s rehearsal I flubbed an entrance in some runs flung upward with the bassoons. She asked the clarinets and bassoons to play it alone. “The only important thing for me is that you start on time,” she told us. We got it right. “Perfect,” Mr. Wolfe said under his breath.
After the rehearsal he said: “Now you can give up your day job. I was just kidding. Don’t give up your day job.”
By Friday’s rehearsal I was growing more confident. Ms. Alsop ran straight through the “Enigma” Variations, which paint portraits of a group of Elgar’s friends. “ Make the opening suspenseful,” she said. “We’ve got to get this enigma idea.” On the morning of Saturday, the day of the concert, I woke up and prepared for battle. I greased my corks, organized my music and selected some prime reeds.
At the dress rehearsal Mr. Barta measured my mouthpiece and declared its dimensions all wrong. I put the thought out of my mind. The Tchaikovsky went the best yet. “Tonight if anything happens, it’s my fault,” Ms. Alsop said. “Unless you’re not looking at me. Then it’s your fault. Have fun.”
One of the attractions of the academy is that no sweat-inducing auditions are required to get in, and few people were rejected. Pre-professional music students are banned. The organizers strive to keep the whole experience uncompetitive.
So who were these classical music zealots spending a week in 100-degree Baltimore? About half were from the area, the rest from around the country. Most were in their 50s and 60s. A few were music teachers. There were systems analysts, retirees, government workers, researchers and a bevy of doctors, who were all abuzz on June 28, the day of the Supreme Court’s ruling on health care.
Many had played seriously in their youth then gave up the instrument for a while and came back to it later in life. Some had professional training and were there to show their stuff among the Baltimore musicians. Others really could not keep up or play in tune. The academy had a tricky balancing act: keeping the better players satisfied and the lesser ones feeling involved and not intimidated.
“It’s inspiring to try to play up” to the level of the professionals, said Kristine Strecker, an accomplished horn player and laid-off corporate tax executive from Downingtown, Pa. “Some people in other sections get annoyed with beginners.”
Mostly the beginner winds and brasses played the nonprincipal parts or learned to drop out. Less experienced string players had professional stand partners to hide behind if necessary.
Inevitably the quality of the orchestra was lowered by the compromise. It’s a problem the organizers acknowledge needs to be addressed.
At concert time I came out onstage about 20 minutes early and organized my equipment. I looked up. There was a microphone hanging almost directly above my head, like an ominous crow. Mr. Palanker, wearing a clarinet-patterned tie, came out for a moment to tell us to have a good time.
We noodled. About 10 minutes before curtain time Sheila Meyers, an 81-year-old clarinetist from Baltimore for whom the word feisty was invented, came rushing onstage. Traffic had backed up.
Ms. Needleman gave the A, and we tuned. I looked out at the audience of 1,850, which included specially invited orchestra donors and families of the campers. Ms. Alsop came onstage and introduced us, asking the academy participants to stand up.
Then, faster than I was expecting, she dropped the Tchaikovsky downbeat. The trumpets played their fanfare nicely in tune. All my body cells went on electric alert, and I was concentrating as I rarely have before. Our first wind chord sounded in round clarion form.
My difficult entrances loomed like a series of mountain peaks to scale. I managed to handle them all, except for one that was on the fuzzy side. I wanted to blend, not screw up, play musically and, above all, not disappoint Mr. Wolfe.
At moments I felt locked in with everyone else, an exhilarating feeling, as if I were part of one big instrument. It helped that Ms. Alsop took slightly slower tempos. Maybe by pushing us in rehearsal she had given us breathing room in the concert, like a hitter swings a weighted bat before stepping up to the plate. In the Falla — the piece I had practiced the least — I felt my concentration fading. I began making flubs. The train started speeding ahead of me. I made a vow to keep up on the last frenzied page. Well, at least I hit the final chord with everyone else. You can check it out on the recording.
Now, back home, I hope to absorb all the excellent advice on technique and put some of that orchestral experience to use for a coming Beethoven Fifth in Brooklyn with a community orchestra. I also plan to find a better mouthpiece (thank you, Mr. Barta) and practice Mr. Palanker’s high-note fingerings.
Apologies to anyone within earshot.