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Deceptive Cadence

Amateur Musicians Go Pro With The Baltimore Symphony


Tanesha Mitchell instructs her guitar student, 8-year-old Taniyah Winston, at her home in West Baltimore.
Ravenna Koenig, NPR
Tanesha Mitchell instructs her guitar student, 8-year-old Taniyah Winston, at her home in West Baltimore.

What would it sound like if you put a bunch of amateur musicians onstage with a professional orchestra and told them to play? Probably a bit like a rehearsal at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in Baltimore last month.

Onstage, members of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (BSO) mixed with non-professional musicians, all with different levels of experience. It was part of a program called Academy Week that the orchestra has put on for the past six years, and it's designed to immerse passionate musicians in the life of a symphony orchestra for a week.

On Day Five of BSO Academy Week, Tanesha Mitchell sat in the first violin section of a rehearsal room at the Meyerhoff, warming up.

"I've always loved the BSO since I was a little girl," Mitchell says. "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, and I jumped at the opportunity."

Mitchell is one of 80 musicians who participated 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.

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Technically everyone in the room is an amateur, though "amateur" is a loose term. But no matter how good you are, making the decision to play side-by-side with your musical heroes takes a lot of guts. Susan Clayton, a friend of Mitchell's and a fellow Academy participant, knows this firsthand.

"The first year I came, I was a nervous wreck," Clayton says. "Marin Alsop came right up to me. 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."

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 passionate about classical music. But she also likes hearing about the lives people lead outside of music. Her fellow amateur musicians span all professions: There's a physician, a physicist, a gardener.

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.

"Mistakes are common, mistakes are forgiven, mistakes are needed in order to move to the next level," says Jonathan Carney, a violinist and the concertmaster of the BSO. He says that during rehearsals, he's happy to guide the amateurs through the more treacherous passages.

Mitchell sat next to Principal Second Violin Qing Li during a rehearsal with the full orchestra. Alsop gave a bowing direction that was different than the one she'd practiced, and took her by surprise.

"Whoa, my goodness, my brain went crazy," Mitchell remembers. "I'm like, OK — I can't get that really well. Qing just whispered to me, 'Just get to your frog,' the very, very bottom part of your bow. You get more bite down there. I did it at my frog, and boom, boom, boom, I did it. It was fine."

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 because she couldn't afford an instrument. She was only able to keep playing because her music teacher loaned her a violin.

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

But Mitchell doesn't just play: She's become a music teacher herself, giving lessons to local kids out of her home in West Baltimore. Eight-year-old Taniyah Winston is one of Mitchell's 12 students, and the girl says she's already found the thing she likes most about music.

"You play it so you learn it, and then a few weeks later then you'll have it," Taniyah says. "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."

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 or mess around on the guitar, no matter their financial situation.

"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 music is happening in this house at least," Mitchell says.

Back at the Academy, the week always ends with a big performance at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. But the experience lasts longer than just a week: Mitchell stays in touch with her friends from the program year-round. 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.

"It becomes part of you, who you are," Mitchell says. Even as an amateur, something musical inside her always stays alive. "There were times when that violin stayed in the case for a year. But then that means you open it back up, and new things begin."

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