EP release, graduation up next for UMSL violinist and media studies major

Mario Miles-Turnage, UMSL media studies major and violinist

Mario Miles-Turnage’s distinctive musical style draws on years of classical training and a knack for exploring what the violin can bring to genres ranging from big band and soul to hip-hop and more. (Photos by August Jennewein)

The thought of elementary school orchestra concerts may conjure memories of less-than-melodious renditions of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” and “Hot Cross Buns.” But the first time Mario Miles-Turnage saw such an ensemble in action, about 18 years ago, the experience left him in awe.

“That’s it,” he remembers thinking as he watched and listened to his Hazelwood School District peers perform the soaring theme from “Beauty and the Beast.” From that moment on, “it” was the violin.

Miles-Turnage soon joined the group of pint-sized musicians, and their teacher quickly recognized his enthusiasm and ability. She responded to his requests to give him “the hardest thing you’ve got” by supplying solo violin assignments including Schubert’s “Ave Maria,” which he was playing by fifth grade.

“It wasn’t the best, but I knew how to play it,” Miles-Turnage says of his early mastery of the popular piece.

Now a graduating senior at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, the 26-year-old has made a name for himself in the St. Louis music community and beyond. Especially over the past year, he says, things have really begun to take off.

“Being black and being associated with the violin is not common, so I feel like I’ve accomplished something,” Miles-Turnage explains one recent afternoon following his performance at the Arts, Sciences & All That Jazz event. “I also just like playing it and sharing this gift with people. It opens up so many doors and opportunities. I love the sound of the instrument, and I really like playing slower classical pieces, where I can just wail on the vibrato.”

Rose Gomez and Mario Miles-Turnage

Though he seems to be a relaxed and familiar face around everyone on campus these days, Mario Miles-Turnage was actually pretty nervous when he first enrolled at UMSL. Now he makes a point to say hello to people. “Just asking somebody how their day’s going can change their day so much,” says the violinist, whose friend Rose Gomez (at left) momentarily joined Miles-Turnage’s campus portrait session.

That’s not to say he’s spending a lot of time poring over the works of the great composers these days. Despite many years of classical training and his obvious appreciation for it, Miles-Turnage has also long made a practice of venturing elsewhere as a violinist. Since switching his major from music education to media studies at UMSL in the spring of 2016, those musical forays have energized him more than ever.

The shift in academic disciplines wasn’t something he took lightly, and he still speaks highly of the Department of Music where he studied under the acclaimed Arianna String Quartet’s Julia Sakharova.

“She is wonderful,” Miles-Turnage says. “When I came to UMSL I kind of wanted to run my show my own way, and I needed to step back and take the advice of my professors, you know – play it like the composer wrote it. It helped me, and I was growing that whole time. But ultimately music education just wasn’t the fit for me.

“When I got into media studies, I found that I had more time and more creative energy. What I’m doing [in the program] kind of blends in with developing my brand, me as an artist. I post more on social media, and I’ve met a lot of people.”

His unique style, which the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s Kevin Johnson spotlighted in a feature published over the summer, puts the violin in conversation with some unexpected musical genres. Miles-Turnage says he has his father to thank for getting him started on that track.

“My dad’s a big music head – on car rides he could tell you every song that comes on the radio, the history of the artist, what was going on at that time,” the upperclassman explains. “He’d be like, ‘That’d sound real good on the violin.’ And being young I was like, ‘Eh, nobody wants to hear that old stuff.’ But I was a big Michael Jackson fan, so I started getting into the Jackson 5 and started learning to play Jackson 5 on the violin.

“And the thing for me was that I wanted to push the envelope in terms of violin just being associated with classical. I would think, ‘What song can I play that nobody has really heard on the violin or that’s just “oh, no, he just played that,” kind of the wow factor?’ In my free time I was always skimming through stuff, like, ‘Hey, Dad, what are some artists that you grew up listening to that I can learn?’ He would give me Temptations, Whispers, stuff like that.”

From soul to hip-hop to R&B, Miles-Turnage sees plenty of opportunity to bring the rich strains of the violin to bear in new ways. And in December, he’ll launch his first EP, titled “S.W.I.M.M.”

That stands for Sounds With Individuality Mold Minds, and the release is set to include five original tracks.

“It’s not what you would typically think of when you think of the violin,” he says. “I’m not using my instrument as a beat. I actually have somebody creating a beat, and my sound is more melodic. It’s going to be something to really listen to and dance to.”

Performance during Fall Involvement Expo

The graduating senior added his musical talents to the U radio station booth at the bustling Fall Involvement Expo on Aug. 23 in the Quad. View a short video of the performance on Instagram.

Every so often during Miles-Turnage’s interview with UMSL Daily in the Millennium Student Center, a friend or acquaintance spots the musician, expressing a flash of recognition. After one of them swings by to greet him, he smiles and notes that his experience wasn’t always like this at UMSL.

In fact, he remembers feeling nervous and isolated after transferring to the university. He wasn’t particularly excited about college and just wanted to get through it. But then he started to open up.

“I would just randomly say hi to people,” he explains. “And now friends will say, ‘Mario, you know everybody.’ I figure somebody might be having a bad day, somebody just wants to smile. Just asking somebody how their day’s going can change their day so much.”

He’s found ways to make the most of his UMSL experience, joining the fraternity Phi Mu Alpha, the Associated Black Collegians and the Student Electronic Media Professional Association, which runs the U, UMSL’s student-driven radio station.

Miles-Turnage currently serves as president of SEMPA, and his involvement with the U especially stands out to him when asked what he’s appreciated most in his time as a student.

“My first show was called ‘Swag and Sauce,’” he recalls. “We made sure everybody tuned in. Some people would say, ‘I didn’t know we had a radio station.’ And I was like, ‘OK, I’m going to let people know.’ And I started marketing it. It was just fun for me, because I was planning different segments and stuff like that. And being the creative person that I am, everything just started to come together.”

Now he spends more of his time at the U behind the scenes as a manager of DJs and maker of PSAs, for which he’s developed a surprisingly infectious passion. And when he’s not in the booth or in class wrapping up his bachelor’s degree, Miles-Turnage is most likely working his part-time job at Best Buy or playing a wedding or show of some kind. At least through this semester, that is.

As he looks toward crossing the stage at commencement and releasing his first EP later this fall, he’s full of hope and gratitude – and some solid advice for other Tritons.

“One thing I really try to stress to incoming students is to take advantage of all the resources that UMSL has to offer,” Miles-Turnage says. “Some people I find are kind of nervous to ask questions or seek the opportunity. But a ‘no’ is just a ‘no’ – it’s not the end of the world. You’ll never know until you ask. There might be another opportunity that comes from that, or it just opens up another door. UMSL has a great student body – you just kind of have to go for it.”

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