One of the first phrases to spring from Laura George’s mouth when asked about her time as a University of Missouri–St. Louis student is “raw materials.” And she’s not referring to her younger self.
George remembers UMSL as a much smaller, fledgling institution – including the Department of Music where she spent so many memorable days in the late 1960s.
Facilities like the stunning Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center wouldn’t make their debut on campus until long after George matriculated and moved away to New York City. And the rehearsal spaces where she and fellow student musicians faithfully honed their talents were sometimes interesting, she recalls.
But “wonderful” is one of the other words that quickly comes to her mind.
“I’m just grateful to the wonderful UMSL professors who were so encouraging to me,” says George, who has made her living primarily as a flutist ever since. “They were wonderful teachers, and you got a lot of personal attention.”
Raised in Kirksville, Missouri, among a family of musicians, George became one of UMSL’s first transfer students when she moved to St. Louis as a young woman. She also has the distinction of being the first UMSL student in the history of the music department to give a senior recital.
A few months after graduating magna cum laude in 1969 and beginning to pursue graduate school on a full academic fellowship, George entered the St. Louis Symphony’s young artists competition on a whim – and she won. UMSL celebrated her success, and she still considers the experience a turning point. Performing as a guest soloist with the symphony furthered her confidence as a player as well as a teacher.
“It was after that competition that one of my professors told me to go to New York,” George recalls.
Several decades later, the lifelong musician still finds herself on the East Coast – and she’s still making music. Cobbling together a sustainable living through performance and teaching is fiscally challenging, but George makes it work and says she wouldn’t trade it.
“I tried doing other things at times,” she says, “and I was pretty good in two or three areas, but I wasn’t happy.
“What I tell my students is that you don’t choose music – music chooses you. Have ways to pay bills. But music chooses you. And when it does, you have to find a way to make it important in your life.”
Since that pivotal appearance in 1970 with the St. Louis Symphony, George has performed at venues ranging from Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall to Radio City Music Hall and Broadway. She appears regularly with the New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players, the New Jersey Oratorio Society and a variety of other ensembles – and also plays frequent gigs as one half of a flute-harp duo and as a member of the woodwind quintet that she founded.
She says that most of her enjoyment and successes have come through work with small ensembles and chamber orchestras. And somewhere in there she continues to squeeze in a lot of teaching.
“I’ve worked really hard to maintain a balance that’s enjoyable, and I’m grateful to be able to keep doing what I love, surrounded by supportive friends and colleagues,” George says. “I feel so fortunate that my life has been filled with beautiful music.”
That’s been a constant of her life since before she can remember. She was playing piano by the time she was a toddler, and when it was time to join the grade school band, she quickly fell in love with the flute.
Her dad, a woodwinds and music theory professor, first suggested the idea and had her try out the instrument in a store.
“He put it up to my lips, and right away I got a beautiful, clear sound – the first time I tried,” George says. “When that happened my dad said, ‘OK, we’ll take the flute.’
“I kept playing the piano, but my heart was immediately with the flute. I’ve always loved the sound of it. It’s just the purest essence of tone.”