The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s Academy Week offers amateur musicians a chance to play with the pros
By Yuval Boger
The first time I missed a beat—a heartbeat, that is—was when I found myself standing in the green room at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, home to the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. I had enrolled in the BSO’s Academy Week Orchestral Track, where amateur musicians have the opportunity to rehearse, practice, and perform with the BSO players in a final concert. From the green room, I knew it was straight to the stage. It was just before the first rehearsal with the BSO musicians, and I spotted my name on the official orchestra seating chart. My stand partner was Igor Yuzefovich, former BSO assistant concertmaster and soon-to-be concertmaster of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra. “This is really happening,” I thought. “I know this stage quite well from the audience level, but I’m going to be playing on it for the first time.”
Then, Maestra Marin Alsop stepped onstage and the magic began.
My journey with the BSO Academy began in 2013. I heard the BSO was giving a free concert, the final concert of its Academy Week, and decided to attend and give it a listen. I was immediately struck by how large the orchestra was—even larger with academy-week stand partners by the BSO players’ sides—and the richness of its sound. I marked my calendar to register for the next cycle.
When registering, I chose to play with the group that would perform a movement from Mahler’s Symphony No. 6, and most of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique. The music arrived a couple of months before the Academy Week started. Based on the information about my playing level I provided on my application, I was assigned the first-violin part of the Mahler and second-violin part in the Berlioz. The music looked quite scary, and I started practicing to get into better playing shape.
It had been a while.
I met my wife when we were both playing violin in an amateur orchestra many years ago. We were rehearsing a Brahms symphony and I accidentally hit a really bad note. Heads turned, our gaze met, and she noticed me for all the wrong reasons. Talk about turning lemons into lemonade! After we got married, life happened and it was hard to find time (not to mention consent from our kids) to play. So, when it was time to learn the academy music, I felt as rusty as ever.
My biggest concern going into Academy Week was whether I would be good enough to play with the pros. Would I be “voted off the island”Survivor-style after the first two days? Would it be a struggle to keep up with everyone?
When all the academy participants gathered together with some of the BSO musicians during our first evening, I expressed my concern to the staff and they were quick to allay my fears. “Our goal is to have you enjoy and learn this week,” a BSO staff member told me. “We realize you are not a professional musician. If you need to stop playing for a few minutes, do that. If there is a passage that is too hard for you, don’t worry about it.” Despite my concerns, I hoped the experience would be as encouraging as the BSO staff.
Academy Week was structured beautifully to get everyone ready for the grand performance at the end of the week. It started with intimate, participant-only (i.e. “amateur-only”) sectionals led by a BSO musician. The following day, we moved to participant-only rehearsals. Later in the week, several rehearsals took place at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, with the BSO musicians and Maestra Alsop, followed by a dress rehearsal and the final concert.
Amazingly, it came together. With every day that passed, I felt my playing improve. Difficult passages were a bit less difficult. Playing stamina was coming back, and my musicianship was starting to develop. Every day, something new happened: First time onstage. First time playing with a BSO musician. First participant rehearsal with a BSO assistant conductor. First time I was able to hit a particularly high note. I came home every night thoroughly exhausted, but beyond happy.
Most of the credit goes to the BSO musicians who are absolutely incredible. As professional musicians, they’re all superb players, but I didn’t imagine how kind and supportive they would be as I considered attending Academy Week. If they grew tired of the amateurs missing notes or making mistakes, they did not show it.
As a violinist, I had a chance to work with concertmaster Jonathan Carney, Madeline Adkins (who graciously agreed to teach me privately after the academy), Ivan Stefanovic, Qing Li, Igor Yuzefovich, and many others. What I got from them was a never-ending stream of tips, coaching, and encouragement. “Let me show you this; let’s work on the fingering here; let me teach you this tip; try bowing this way.” I felt that I could ask anyone a question and that I would get a serious answer. It was a great combination: The professionals seemed truly interested in teaching and I, like the other amateurs, was truly interested in learning and having some of their “pixie dust” rub off on me.
Interacting with the other amateur participants was also a very nourishing experience. Everyone took a week off from their jobs, and came from all over the country to make music together. Some played better— much better—than me and some had less experience, but they all seemed to enjoy the moment and worked hard toward keeping up with the pros.
In-between the rehearsals, I experienced a bevy of other activities: a violin master class, sessions on how to prepare for a performance, classes on how to improve sight-reading. There was also plenty of time and space to practice, and I tried to take advantage of every moment in order to make the performance as successful as possible.
The final day of Academy Week came quickly. There was a dress rehearsal, a relaxed lunch with Maestra Alsop, and the final concert at night. My family, as well as those of the other participants, joined us for this celebration and we were proud to show how much better we had become after one short week. The recording we received of this final concert quickly became the most played CD in my car.
The academy reignited my passion for playing. During that year I took private lessons, join the Columbia Orchestra—a busy amateur community orchestra—and occasionally play in a quartet. Most importantly, I practiced more during that year than I had done in the prior 20 years combined.
Having had such an amazing time, I wanted to come back for another year. Armed with my newfound playing confidence, I decided to attend two more academy tracks: chamber music and chamber orchestra. The chamber-music track allowed me to play in several intimate rehearsals for a clarinet quintet, followed by a performance. The quintet was coached by violinist Ivan Stefanovic, who also played the first-violin part. Stefanovic methodically guided us through the technical and ensemble challenges of playing a relatively unknown piece by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor.
The chamber orchestra—made mostly of participants, but led by a BSO string player in each section—energetically rehearsed and performed Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8 and Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony under the baton of concertmaster Jonathan Carney. Between all these tracks and events, I was essentially playing from morning to night, and loving every minute of it. Walking onstage in Meyerhoff Symphony Hall for the second year in a row felt familiar.
It’s not surprising that many academy participants come back year after year. The first year everyone was new to me, but the second time around, there was an added layer of fun reconnecting with my academy colleagues—finding some time to share a beer or a meal together in between the hectic schedule.
What did I learn during the academy? Many things. I learned that I made the right choice in not becoming a professional musician (these days I run a company that makes virtual reality goggles). I’m getting better, but am just not good enough to be a pro.
I re-discovered how great it is to play music in a good group. I got intimately familiar with well-known and lesser-known musical pieces. I learned a little bit about what an orchestra looks like behind the scenes. And I was able to experience up-close the magic of a world-class conductor leading wonderful musicians.
I found hope again—with good coaching and plenty of practice I could play better than I ever thought I could prior to the academy. During my first year, I hid under a rock when volunteers were solicited for a master class, but during my second year, I was probably the first to jump out of my seat—violin in hand, ready to play. Now, I block out Academy Week on my calendar a year in advance.