IN UNISON Scholars program helps students find their way in the world of music

by | Jun 2, 2020

David Brown and Alayna Epps were two of the students who took part in the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra program, coordinated by UMSL alumna Michelle Byrd.
IN UNISON Scholars

UMSL alumna Michelle Byrd (at left) serves as the coordinator of the IN UNISON Scholars program, a strategic initiative of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra that provides up to six scholarships for African American UMSL students studying in a music-related field. Cellist and aspiring conductor David Brown (center) and vocalist Alayna Epps, who is pursuing a career in music therapy, were among this year’s scholarship recipients. (Photo by August Jennewein)

David Brown remembers sitting in his bedroom as a high school senior, putting in his earphones and hitting the play button.

Johannes Brahms’ Symphony No. 2 filled his ears, and Brown closed his eyes and began directing the orchestra.

That was the first time the McCluer North graduate thought about becoming a conductor, though he had no idea how he might make it happen.

Last fall, thanks to the IN UNISON Scholars program, Brown, now a junior music major at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, found himself sitting across a table from someone who had all those answers: Stéphane Denève, the famed music director of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and the Brussels Philharmonic.

Brown was trying not to miss a word flowing from Denève’s mouth as they and the other IN UNISON Scholars talked over dinner at Triumph Grill in Midtown St. Louis.

“He was spouting knowledge and wisdom so fast,” Brown says. “I was too embarrassed to have a notebook, but I so badly wanted to write everything down.”

Since coming to UMSL to study the cello, he’s also had the opportunity to work with conductor and composer Darwin Aquino, the director of orchestral studies at UMSL. Brown has practiced leading the same ensemble in which he usually performs.

It’s only made him want to be in that role even more.

“It’s the closest you can get to being in music when you’re standing up there with this giant orchestra in front of you playing a piece that you love and that you feel really attached to,” he says. “You are so close to the sound, and they’re waiting for your instruction. They’re watching you. They’re responding, hopefully. It is the most fulfilling feeling.”

Being an IN UNISON Scholar has expanded the network he can tap for help pursuing that future.

The IN UNISON Chorus – created by longtime UMSL Professor Robert Ray and administered by the symphony – aims to encourage diversity in the arts. The scholarship program became an extension of it and supports young African American students pursuing undergraduate degrees in music-related fields at UMSL.

IN UNISON Coordinator Michelle Byrd works in consultation with faculty and administrators in the Department of Music as well as with high school music teachers to identify students and invite them to apply. The symphony provides renewable $1,000 annual scholarships, which UMSL matches.

“I have visited high schools to clinic choirs and met with band and orchestra directors to get a feel for their students and to see who they may have,” Byrd says. “I think one of the biggest things is to let them know that there is a school here that can not only fit what they need as music students but financially can be of assistance to them.”

Students typically remain part of the program through graduation. The scholars receive group and one-on-one mentoring from Byrd, tailored to their individual needs, and coaching sessions from professional musicians from the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. There are also performance opportunities that come with being part of the program, including the annual IN UNISON Chorus Community Concert, held each spring at one of 35 partner churches.

Byrd spent three years as a scholar in the IN UNISON program before earning her degree in music education from UMSL in 2018. She also served as a graduate fellow in the program and worked with the SLSO Holiday Festival Chorus, so she had a range of opportunities available after graduation.

“It gave me an opportunity to be in front of all of the high school choral directors,” Byrd says. “When I began to prepare for graduation, I already knew about positions that I could take on because I had already built those networking connections.”

The chance to take over as IN UNISON coordinator from another UMSL graduate, soul singer Brian Owens, was too good to pass up, and she relishes helping connect others with similar opportunities.

IN UNISON Scholars follow a variety of career paths in music. Senior Alayna Epps, a vocalist who has performed with Stevie Wonder and at Carnegie Hall, wants to go into music therapy, and IN UNISON introduced her to a network of people who could help her get accepted into a top master’s program in that specialized field.

IN UNISON also has given Epps confidence and people she can turn to for support to overcome challenges she’s had as an undergraduate. Growing up in Florissant and attending Hazelwood Central High School, Epps didn’t have as many opportunities or receive the same training as students from more affluent schools. She initially struggled with sight-reading and music theory.

Epps has seen other African American students from similar backgrounds end up changing to different majors, but she’s persisted.

“It’s provided me a foundation to pursue my career,” Epps says. “If they’re willing to pour this much into me, I know I can get through this program.”

This story was originally published in the spring 2020 issue of UMSL Magazine. If you have a story idea for UMSL Magazine, email magazine@umsl.edu.

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Steve Walentik

Steve Walentik

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