As Chad Pleasant talks about his love for the violin, a big grin creeps across Julia Sakharova’s face.
One of them started playing at age 6 in a Russian music school, the other in sixth-grade orchestra right here in St. Louis. Neither of them will be stopping anytime soon.
“It’s a chameleon of an instrument,” says Pleasant, a senior music major at the University of Missouri–St. Louis. “You can reach so many different areas of emotion with the violin. I really like that.”
Sakharova, an assistant professor of violin and member of UMSL’s award-winning Arianna String Quartet, could be doing all the talking if she wanted. The Missouri chapter of the American String Teachers Association did just honor her with its annual Artist Teacher Award, after all.
Instead she’s brought Pleasant along for the conversation – because it’s students like him she’s most eager to talk about.
“This event that we just had really represents the joy of sharing music with a new generation and seeing where you were when you were their age,” says Sakharova, referencing the Arianna Orchestra Festival she and Pleasant both helped put on at UMSL last month. “A lot has changed since I started, but there are some universal things that don’t change.”
Things like the fact that consistent practice is still what really makes the difference.
“There’s no shortcut,” Sakharova continues. “When you want to achieve something, whether it’s a shift that you want to make or a competition that you want to win, you still have to follow that path of self-learning on a daily basis.”
Now it’s Pleasant who is smiling and nodding in agreement as he listens to his longtime violin teacher. The opportunity to learn from Sakharova and her colleagues is what drew him to campus in the first place.
But he might not have ended up here without UMSL community outreach efforts like the one he just assisted with.
“What I needed was basically something like the festival. I needed to see it,” Pleasant recalls, looking back on his teenage years. “Everyone always told me there was something there, that I was a ‘better than average’ violinist. But I needed to go and be in the environment. And when I did get the opportunity, just like the young people here at the festival, I was like, ‘Whoa, I didn’t know this was so serious or could, like, be a thing.’”
His own pivotal experience several years ago made him more than happy to donate a day to the Jan. 10 festival, where he helped chaperone about 80 young people on campus from 8 a.m. until the end of their concert at the Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center that evening.
“I feel like I owe Julia so much, so I was glad to help,” he says. “And now that I think about it, I got paid in food.”
Hailing from Clayton, Ritenour and Ladue high schools, the participants took part in rigorous master classes and workshops with Sakharova and her fellow Arianna String Quartet members, enjoyed tours of the UMSL campus and put on quite a closing show under the guidance of faculty member and conductor Jim Richards.
“The festival was initiated back in 2014, and every year we try to bring together three different high schools from around the region,” Sakharova says. “It’s a two-way opportunity: Students come to campus and see what UMSL offers as a music program, and we get to meet those kids and interact with them and hopefully share our knowledge and experience.”
From what Pleasant says, that’s definitely the result. Such efforts can make for a very draining day for teachers and students alike, but the hard work is worth it.
That’s true regardless of which interests and career paths the teens wind up following, he adds. But for some of them, it may be the kind of turning point it was for him.
“When I got here and started to really see how Julia and John [McGrosso] look at music and how they approach it and what it means to them, I was like, ‘I want to be like them,’” Pleasant says. “I chose UMSL because the faculty is amazing. It was really that.”
“I paid him to say that,” jokes Sakharova.
Pleasant can’t say enough good things about the instruction he’s received and the opportunities that have come his way thanks to the Department of Music. And just this past weekend, he was a guest soloist with the Town and Country Symphony alongside UMSL alumnus Justin Shrum.
“You don’t get a whole lot of opportunities like that as a student,” Pleasant says, “where an orchestra is like, ‘Yeah, go ahead and stand up in front of us.’”
Meanwhile, Sakharova continues to teach and perform both near and far. The two activities really go hand in hand in her view.
“Those things are always interconnected,” she says. “When you teach, you are always trying to incorporate the things that you actually do on stage. Sometimes there are people who think, ‘Well, you’re a performer, and then there’s this other education piece.’ But they’re not separated.”
She and the rest of the quartet are just back from two weeks in Brazil, where they worked with student quartets from all across Latin America and also gave five performances. In just a few minutes, another of her weekly lessons with Pleasant will be underway.
As she talks about balancing it all, her love for UMSL – her home base – is a recurring theme.
“You take pride in where you are,” she says of her Triton spirit. “This is where you’re based, and this is where we have our concert series at the Touhill, and we have our wonderful students here. So of course we want to spread the word.”
Arianna’s next free concert at the Touhill is March 22 (full schedule here). As Sakharova describes what will be on the musical menu that night – a Brahms-focused repertoire – Pleasant shakes his head in awe over what he considers very difficult pieces to pull off.
Sakharova flashes a confident smile and turns the conversation back to sharing that love of music that began for her as a very small child.
She notes that not all UMSL students may be aware that music lessons, ensemble participation, wide-ranging classes and other opportunities through the music department are open to more than just music majors.
“Even non-major students are able to receive scholarships from the music department to take applied lessons, chamber music and orchestra,” she says. “It’s open for everybody.”