By Tim Munro
The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra provides scholarships for African American undergraduates who are studying in a music-related field in greater St. Louis as part of the IN UNISON Academy, the educational support arm of the orchestra’s IN UNISON program. These IN UNISON Scholars receive mentoring from SLSO staff and musicians, and have the opportunity to participate in other events and partnerships.
Alayna Epps is in her second year as an IN UNISON Scholar. In May, she graduated from University of Missouri-St. Louis, with a Bachelor of Arts in Music, with a Degree of Distinction in Creativity in the Arts. In the Fall, she will begin the Master of Music Therapy program at Maryville University.
This interview with Alayna was condensed and edited for clarity, and questions were removed.
My grandmother would sing a song to all of her grandchildren as she was putting us sleep. Apparently, I started cooing the song back to her. I still know the song—it’s called “Walk in the Light.” Growing up I learned that my name means “light,” and that song has come to mean so much to me.
My dad's a pastor, so we’ve always been involved in the choir at church. All of my immediate family can carry a tune, even though they may not sign up for solos or anything. I’ve always admired my older cousin, who has toured the world playing Sammy Davis Jr. in a Rat Pack revue.
I always loved performing. I started dance lessons at three, then joined a choir at eight or nine. Once I started singing in the glee club at my elementary school, I was like, “Yes, whatever we’re doing, yes please!”
Music is this tangible experience that any person in this world can have. There is no language barrier—or any type of barrier. Even those in the deaf community can even feel music through their body. Music is a great unifier.
As a high school student, I visited a bunch of university music programs. During interviews they asked me music theory questions, and I didn’t know the answers. That experience shut down music as a college major for a long time—I was afraid that I did not have the proper foundation to be a musician.
So, I started college as a business major at UMSL, but never understood the why behind my business studies. I was like, “Yes I’ll have money,” but I had no real passion for it, no real connection to that world.
Observing me on my journey was [Director of the IN UNISON Scholars program] Michelle Byrd. She watched me become president of the Gospel Choir as a sophomore, then later join University Singers. She watched as I finally became a music major!
She saw my tenacity and encouraged me to join the IN UNISON Scholars program. After I joined the program, I have seen so many things bloom for me. I am now proud musician, with a vision for her community. I don't think I would have made it this far without their help.
When I was a student at UMSL, I saw a video of a music therapy session with a patient with Alzheimer’s. The video showed the patient as non-responsive, non-interactive. After a music therapy session, they became fully present. I was like, “This is what I want to do.”
For two years I was an intern with the Creative Music Making Program, in partnership with Maryville University. I was able to be in the room when St. Louis Symphony Orchestra musicians played and interacted with individuals with intellectual disabilities. It made me so joyful to see these people communicate and have fun and express themselves.
When I became an IN UNISON Scholar, I met with Maureen Byrne and Michelle Byrd. I told them about my idea to create a facility called the Arts Gym. At the Arts Gym, a patient would work out their problems through play therapy, art therapy, dance therapy, or music therapy.
I thought the idea was far-fetched. But Maureen and Michelle connected me with Dr. Laura Beers, director of music therapy at Maryville University. Now, I’ve been accepted into the music therapy Master's program at Maryville! I start that program in the Fall.
I’ve been able to connect with [SLSO Music Director] Stéphane [Denève]. We have had some great conversations—he encouraged me to go after what I want, and to value my singing voice.
The IN UNISON Chorus is such an uplifting, encouraging community. They’re like family—like aunts and uncles, supporting everything I do. They see me for who I am, and I know they have my best interests at heart.
I’m a St. Louis native, so I understand the racial issues in this city. I believe that the first creation of music brought people together. We can’t listen on our own—music-making was a community experience for the first humans, a way to be together.
And I want to heal my city with music.
Tim Munro is the SLSO’s Creative Partner.