Amateur Musicians Go Pro With The Baltimore Symphony : Deceptive Cadence During the orchestra's Academy Week, amateur musicians get to rehearse and perform next to professionals.
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Amateur Musicians Go Pro With The Baltimore Symphony

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Amateur Musicians Go Pro With The Baltimore Symphony

Amateur Musicians Go Pro With The Baltimore Symphony

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This is what it sounds like when you put a bunch of amateur musicians on stage with a world-class orchestra and say, play.


SIMON: That sound comes from a rehearsal at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in Baltimore last month. It was part of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's Academy Week, which is designed to immerse passionate but not professional musicians in the life of a symphony orchestra for a week. NPR's Ravenna Koenig followed one academy participant.


RAVENNA KOENIG, BYLINE: It's day five of BSO Academy week, and Tanesha Mitchell sits in the violin section of a rehearsal room at the Meyerhoff warming up.

TANESHA MITCHELL: I've always loved the BSO since I was a little girl. So when I heard that they were starting to do this, the first couple of years I didn't think I could. And then I realized they had scholarships available, things like that. And I jumped at the opportunity.

KOENIG: Tanesha Mitchell is one of 80 nonprofessional musicians who are participating in the Academy Week's orchestral track. They rehearse with the full BSO orchestra, conducted by Marin Alsop, and attend workshops and private lessons taught by BSO faculty. Technically, everyone in this room is an amateur - though amateur is a loose term.


KOENIG: No matter how good you are though, making the decision to play side-by-side with your musical heroes takes a lot of guts.

SUSAN CLAYTON: The first year that I came, I was a nervous wreck. And Marin Alsop came right up to me, and she said just watch me, I promise. I will pull you in, cut you off; I will help you. And six years later, she's the same way.

KOENIG: That's Susan Clayton, a friend of Tanesha Mitchell's. Part of what has made this experience so special to Mitchell is the sense of belonging she gets from spending time with people who are as excited about classical music as she is. But she also likes hearing about the lives people lead outside of music.

DEBORAH EDGE: I'm Deborah Edge, and I'm a physician.

ROBERT BEVERLY: I'm Robert Beverly, and I'm a physicist.

GERRY HALL: I'm Gerry Hall. I used to be a railroad safety, and now I'm a professional gardener.

KOENIG: Most of them are Academy Week veterans back for the fifth or sixth time. Their first year, they were most worried about messing up in front of everyone. But by now they know that it won't be the end of the world if they do.

JONATHAN CARNEY: Mistakes are common. Mistakes are forgiven. Mistakes are needed in order to move to the next level, so we never even recognize mistakes - let alone point them out.

KOENIG: That's Jonathan Carney, violinist and concert master of the BSO. He says that during rehearsals, he's happy to guide the amateurs through the more treacherous passages. So are his colleagues, like principal second violin Ching Li. At a rehearsal, Tanesha Mitchell was sitting next to Li when conductor Marin Alsop gave a bowing direction that was different from the one she'd practiced. It took her by surprise.

MARIN ALSOP: But try all downs. It's more fun. All downs - you have more time than you think. That's what they all say. Here we go. Letter C and one...

MITCHELL: So then, oh my goodness. My brain went crazy and I'm like, OK. I can't get that really well. And Ching goes - she whispered to me, just get to your frog the very, very bottom part of your bow, and you get more bite down there. I did it at my frog, and boom, boom, boom - I did it. It was fine.


KOENIG: Tanesha Mitchell says that playing with the orchestra, even for just that single week a year, has been life-changing. She grew up in a family that loved and valued music but didn't have the resources for private lessons. At one point, Mitchell almost had to quit violin because she couldn't afford an instrument. She was only able to keep playing because her music teacher loaned her a violin.

MITCHELL: When you have a teacher like that, that's able to do whatever they can to keep this student moving forward, that in itself is - that kept me going. And I've been playing ever since.

KOENIG: But Mitchell doesn't just play. She's become a music teacher herself. She lives in West Baltimore and gives lessons to local kids out of her home.

MITCHELL: TeeTee, how you been my girl?

KOENIG: Taniyah Winston is one of Mitchell's 12 students. She's 8 years old, and her grandmother, Gwen Winston, who lives a few doors down, brought her over to play some guitar.

MITCHELL: Is that TeeTee, Windu?

KOENIG: And maybe also visit Mitchell's dog, a terrier named after the Jedi knight, Mace Windu.


MITCHELL: Oh, let's get that nice and clear. Press. Boom. OK, so why wasn't it clear before? What did I have to move your finger away from?

KOENIG: Taniyah has already found the thing she loves most about music.

TANIYAH WINSTON: When you play it, so you learn it and then a few weeks later then you'll have it. And then, you'll be able to play it in front of your family. And then you'll feel proud for yourself - like you want to have your own private dance party for yourself.

I can't promise you that I'll practice, but I'll try.

MITCHELL: Dude, you better practice.

TANIYAH: I'll try to!

KOENIG: As she stands on her front porch waving goodbye to Gwen and Taniyah Winston, Tanesha Mitchell says she wishes more kids in the neighborhood took lessons. She has an open door policy and encourages kids to come bang on the drums, mess around on the guitar - no matter their financial situation.

MITCHELL: I'll keep my windows open on purpose, when I'm playing piano which I like to do or when my kids are having their lessons - just so they can hear and know that there's music happening in this house at least.


KOENIG: Every year Academy Week ends the same way, with a big performance at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.


KOENIG: But Academy week lasts longer than just a week. Tanesha Mitchell stays in touch with her friends from the program year-round. And last year, she connected with one of the violinists in the orchestra. They've been doing private lessons ever since. Mitchell has many goals for the future. She wants to find more ways to connect with her neighborhood musically. And she wants to be brave enough to play a solo concert, even if it's just for friends and family. But she knows that even if those things don't happen, she won't be any less a musician.

MITCHELL: It becomes part of you, who you are. Even if you're not a professional, you're not performing, when you have a musical mind and a musical heart - when it goes away without you wanting it to - just, things happen. There's times that just, my violin stayed in its case for a year, but then that means you open it back up and new things begin.

KOENIG: Ravenna Koenig, NPR News.

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