Reflections: Post- Baltimore

The New York Times is out this weekend with a story about this year’s edition of Baltimore Symphony Academy, which I attended at the end of June. This story is from the perspective of Daniel Wakin, who played clarinet in Group 1 (I was in Group 2).

Here’s the link: Band Camp for Grown-Ups.

It’s an interesting story, which really does a nice job of pointing out the differences between amateur and professional orchestra musicians. One of my friends has described that difference eloquently in an e-mail to me:

I really like the use of the term “melody expression” to denote one of
the techniques available to turn notes into music. I’ll try to remember
that the next time I want to elaborate on the subject.

I also enjoyed the use of the expression “Let’s get inside the sound”
Marin Alsop used in directing the strings to work on some rough spots.

The article also spoke of a few of the many technical subtleties that
need to be developed in order to play well. I learned quite a bit just
reading the article. For one, I never thought about the need to consider
room acoustics when deciding when precisely to make an entrance. That’s
something that a non-professional musician would never consider.

“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.”

That’s not something the average concert-goer would ever be aware of
either unless they were also professional musicians. The more I learn
about what it takes to be a professional musician, the more I grow in
awe of them!

I agree with Lee. I don’t think the average concert-goer — or even your average amateur — realizes how subtle, driven, and perfection-seeking the life of a professional orchestra player is. That was driven home to me, when — during a lunch — someone asked the BSO’s new principal bassoonist what it took to win his position.

After a moment, Fei Xie responded, “You have to be willing to throw a big part of your life away.” He went on to say that he spent his life either practicing, playing, or making reeds – consciously giving up what other people perceive as “a normal life.”

What he said struck a special chord with me. I don’t have any regrets about what my life has included, and I can’t imagine what I would have given up to dedicate my life full-time to a music career. It brought me a kind of peace about the choices I’ve made and helps explain why I’m a “midlife musician” — not a professional one.


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BSO Academy, Round Two

20120624-220700.jpgWe’re off and running on another BSO Academy. There are more than 100 musicians here this year to play side-by-side with members of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and under the baton of Marin Alsop.

So far, the week is off to grand start. A big difference this year is a partnership between the BSO and the Baltimore School of the Arts. Our first sessions are taking place in rooms that were purpose-created for teaching music, meaning there are lots of music stands and pianos everywhere to support playing. There are dozens of rooms for practicing and private lessons in the middle of Baltimore’s Mt. Vernon neighborhood.

There have been some lovely events to help us get acquainted with other musicians here. Among attendees I’ve met so far are a retired violinist from the Kansas City symphony who is now playing the harp and another violinist who works on environmental issues in Maryland but also plays the flute and saxophone. This year’s roster includes a significant number of teachers — finally able to attend because this year’s Academy is a little later — after school has let out for the year.

Today, we eased into playing with a fun session of string orchestra and a helpful master class — both led by BSO ConcertMaster Jonathan Carney. In the evening, chamber rehearsals began, and I worked on Mozart with the delightful Ivan Stefanovic of the BSO.

Sectionals take place tomorrow as we begin work in earnest on the Orchestra repertoire, with our first rehearsal in Meyerhoff Hall scheduled for Tuesday. We’re aiming for a great concert on Saturday evening, June 30th.

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Music and the Grand Hotel

Starting this Memorial Day, I'm at the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island for a week of work. Once again Detroit Public Television is broadcasting the Detroit Regional Chamber's Mackinac Policy conference - basically from gavel to gavel. (Watch it on

Since we've done this before, the crew has things well in hand and thing are going swimmingly well, so I haven't needed to be as much of a hands-on supervisor as I have in the past.

Which leaves me a little time to wander through the hotel and watch people. One of the things that has struck me as I wander through the hotel is its rich history of music. Whether at dinner, during tea in the parlor, or throughout the evening, live music is being performed throughout the hotel. It's a much a part of the ambiance of this place as the geraniums on the porch and the clip-clop of horse carriages outside.

In the documentary film that loops on one of the hotel's TV channels, there's a shot of a string group playing at the end of the porch -- a spot that is easily identified even now on the hotel -- and proof that music has been part of the hotel ever since it opened 125 years ago.

There are little gems everywhere: an autographed poster of Pete Fountain and his clarinet, a fading photograph of Lionel Hampton and Bob Snyder, shots of Rosemary Clooney, Dave Brubeck and Joe Williams. And then, there's the men's apparel store called Cagney's -- a tribute to that ultimate singer, dancer, and film star, James Cagney.

Modern life has made many of us oblivious to music as ambiance. The assumption by most, I'm sure, is that there's some recording playing in the background -- nameless, faceless performers preserved digitally for all time.

But if you pause -- and if nothing else, the Grand Hotel and Mackinac Island encourage you to pause -- you realize there's something special about this music. It's live and is in keeping with the shifting moments of the day. Only living, breathing musicians can do that.

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Making Mozart

Viola Judy and I have received our chamber music assignment for BSO Academy:  Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.   We’ll be playing with Ivan Stefanovic, the Assistant Principal Second Violin with the Orchestra.  Joining us will be our friend Deborah on bass (she played in our quintet last year) and a new cellist we have yet to meet. Ivan will be playing the First Violin part with us.

The good news is that the Mozart piece is delightfully familiar (a sample below), and is really not all that difficult to learn.   Playing it well, on the other hand, is another issue!  Considering Ivan typically plays Second Violin parts — the part I’ve drawn — I better get this one nailed!

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by | May 12, 2012 · 8:51 pm

A Reality of Midlife Music: Life Happens!

So here it is, eight months later, and nothing has been happening on the blog.  That’s because a lot has been happening in other parts of my life!

Baby Liam

Number One Excuse:  The arrival of my new grandson!   Liam made his appearance in February, and he’s the pride and joy of his parents and four happy grandparents.   So, Chuck and I have spent a lot of time collecting airline miles in service of the newest member of the family.

A few musical highlights:

  • Chuck has a concert on Sunday, May 5th at the Evola store in Canton at 2:00 p.m.  His New Horizons group has suffered some personnel changes and is looking for players.
  • I survived the Dvorak Symphony #8 under the direction of Nan Washburn with the OLPS Symphony in April.   I missed a lot of rehearsals because of Mr. Liam — but did my best.   We’re now in rehearsals for a pops concert.  (June 10th, 3:00 p.m. at the Berman.  Tickets are on sale now!)
  • Viola Judy and I are heading back to Baltimore in June for another “go” at BSO Academy.   At least two other musicians from Michigan will be joining us this year.
  • Had a chance to see Barry Douglas playing with the BSO in the fall, under the direction of Vasily Petrenko – the hottest young conductor in Europe.   Magnifico!

In all — apologies for being away so long.   More insights coming soon.

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Music and the 9/11 Anniversary

It is, as we used to say in the newsroom, a “significant” anniversary.   It ends with a zero.

The tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks has brought out all kinds of somber reflections on the day, remembrances of lives lost, and a lot of huffing and puffing about how “safe” America is these days.

While there’s been some of that on NPR, there’s also been some thought given to artistic expressions around the events of that September day, and their website is exploring 9/11 in the context of a lot of musical genres.  Under the classical tab, they’ve been interviewing composers who have written music in tribute to 9/11, including such notables as John Corigliano and Ned Rorem.

I don’t know if Krzysztof Penderecki’s extremely moving Piano Concerto “Resurrection” will make the NPR list.  Penderecki had been commissioned to write his first piano concerto for Carnegie Hall, and was working on it when the towers came down.  It became a sound poem of the day, with echos of the fire truck sirens and the horror, captured in music.

Last year, Chuck and I heard the Nashville Symphony Orchestra perform the work with Penderecki himself holding the baton and  Barry Douglas at the keyboard.  Penderecki and Douglas have been working collaboratively to perfect the work, which is now in its third and final form.   They recorded the work with the Polish Symphony Orchestra over the winter.   The recording is supposed to be available on Naxos, but I have not been able to locate it.   But Chuck did find this on YouTube.   The quality is good — and it’s worth plugging headphones into your computer to get the full effect.

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Studies: Music Improves Your (Aging) Life

Members of the Orchard Lake Philharmonic Society gathered for a picnic yesterday with new conductor Nan Washburn and members of the Michigan Philharmonic.

And, it’s thanks to Nan that I can share two recent studies that reinforce the feeling many of us have that playing music — especially in groups — improves our lives as we get a little creaky in the joints.

The first study, published in the April 2011 journal Neuropsychology and reported in the Huffington Post, comes from researchers at the University of Kansas, who examined the mental abilities of people between the ages of 60 and 83 who play music.  They found that people who had begun studying music early in life and had played for more than 10 years performed significantly better on both visual and verbal tests.   While the authors conclude more study needs to be done, they theorize that learning to play music reorganizes pathways in the brain in ways that help ward off the effects of Alzheimer’s or other dementia.   The finding would seem to be in keeping with the studies that have been done on children who study music, which have found an significant larger number of connections between the left and right hemispheres of the brain.  Or, as the Huffington Post headline declares, “Musicians Are Probably Smarter Than the Rest of Us.”

Even more surprising to me was a study reported on NPR this month, coming out of Northwestern University.  In the report on NPR, the researcher reported that musicians may have an edge warding off hearing loss.   Because of their training, musicians were 40% more likely to discriminate words from background noise than non-musicians.   As someone who has spent most of her career in environments with lots of potentially damaging background noise (one audiologist physically blanched when she saw my workspace next to those old 1960’s vintage AP teletype machines!), that study gives me great hope!



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