In the 2022/2023 season, the SLSO is collaborating with the storytelling nonprofit Humans of St. Louis to share stories about musicians and friends of the orchestra. The series so far has included newly minted St. Louisan Stéphane Denève and IN UNISON Chorus members Michelle Byrd and Vivian Fox. It continues with violinists Angie Smart and Celia Alexander, members of the SLSO and Youth Orchestra, respectively.
Story and Photos by Lindy Drew
Angie: I’ve been with the SLSO for almost 25 years. I grew up in England in a huge family. I’m one of eight children. Violin was not a foreign thing in my family. My eldest sister played. My dad was a trained chorister when he was in school. So there was music everywhere. We grew up listening to music and playing music, and at one point we all played an instrument, which I’m sure was cacophonous. When I was young, I didn’t actually realize that not everybody could read sheet music. I thought everyone learned like they learned to read books. "What are you talking about you can’t read music? It’s so simple!" And it’s not. But music’s always been a part of my life and my parents sent me off to a music boarding school when I was 13. Then, at 18, my violin teacher came to the U.S. with a group of students and I was one of them. We all dispersed along the way after several years, but I ended up getting a job here in a slightly odd way.
Winning the Job
Angie: I was just about to graduate when my boyfriend at the time, and who I later married, was the best man at his best friend’s wedding in St. Louis. We were living together in Houston, so we came up for the wedding and made a whole week-long vacation of it. Well, there happened to be auditions the day after the wedding. So I thought, "I’m here anyway. I’ll just audition as practice." Don’t get me wrong, I had been practicing. Teachers would tell me, "You’ll have to do 40 auditions before you get a job, so start practicing." I remember thinking, "The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra is way too good for me! Way too good. I’ll never get a job there." So I went to the wedding, and what do you do when you’re over the age of 21 at a wedding? The next morning was not my finest moment. But I did drive to the audition and then got through to the finals the next day. I was laughing like, "Look at that. That’s all I had to do to be completely chilled out."
"We'll go with it"
Celia: I’m the only musician in my family. I don’t know where it came from. It’s kind of an enigma. My family was like, "She likes music. She can read sheet music? We don’t know why. It’s kind of weird, but we’ll go with it." My parents didn’t know where to start so they took me to a music store figuring there would probably be music teachers there. Obviously, there were, so I started taking lessons. And as I got better, I got to meet more musicians and peers and got a glimpse into their lives. I started to figure out where I should be too. I got another teacher and started getting lessons from the Community Music School. From there, I expressed interest in doing some sort of music when I’d go off to college. Well, my teacher at the time was like, "Oh, I didn’t know that. Maybe it’s time to start studying with another teacher." A high school friend of mine was studying with Angie and always talked about her. When I expressed an interest she encouraged me to study with her too: "You would love her. Here’s her phone number. She’d probably love to have you."
Celia: When I was in 4th grade I came to the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra for my first concert and was talking to my parents like, "Look at all those cool instruments up on stage playing together. How cool is it to be in the front, being the leader and playing the violin?" After that, I kept begging my parents, "Please, can I play the violin? I really want to play!" I did have a track record of not following things through because I was a ballet dancer and quit after two months. So my parents kept asking me, "Do you really want to play?" and I’d say, "Yes!" So for my 9th birthday they said, "We’ll get you a violin, but we’re trusting you’re old enough to follow things through." So I got a violin and started lessons with Music Folk in Webster Groves. The first time I picked up the bow to play I thought, "This is gonna sound great!" And there was hardly any sound. It definitely wasn’t the sound I thought I was going to be making. But I didn’t give up, so my parents thought, "Well, we’re going in the right direction." I joined the school orchestra in 7th grade, that kickstarted my violin life, and it grew from there. My whole world of being in other orchestras opened up too. As a young person, I didn’t know about the St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra or that you could have the opportunity to play at Powell Hall. But when I found out, it was a big goal of mine. This is my second season and everything’s come full circle.
Teacher & Student
Angie: Usually, I get pretty serious students. I don’t know what it is. Reputation maybe. It’s partly what I ask of them, too. I enjoy working with students who want to take studying the violin seriously. So Celia comes marching in and I noticed that she was just uber-talented. And how could I tell? By how quickly somebody can change everything on a dime. It was like she already knew how to do something when she played, she just needed permission to do it. It was unbelievable how quick she was. So then I had this barrage of questions for her like, "Okay, what music school do you want to go to?" And she was like, "Who said I’m going to music school?" As time went by, she made it clear she actually didn’t want to go. And then I don’t know how many times I hassled her, asking, "Can you explain to me again why you don’t want to go to music school?" until she got really fed up. She’s determined she’s not going to do music in college. I mean, other than recreationally.
Celia: I always have time for violin, but, yep!
Music or the Sciences?
Celia: I’d love to pursue an engineering degree. There’s something about math and science. I’m a little bit of a nerd when it comes to science. That’s something I’ve always wanted to do even when I was little and music started to become a bigger part of my life. It wasn’t until I had to decide, "What are you going to do, Celia? Are you going to be a music major or something else?" that I was like, "I love music, but I think I have to go with the sciences." I can still keep music in my life. It will morph along the way because playing the violin is not something I’m going to give up. No matter what I major in, I’ll still find a way to play. I love music and performing. I’ll have to wait and see what happens.
The Best Assistant
Angie: Fast forward a bit. I have a lot of students and our schedule changes weekly at the SLSO, which makes it hard to have lessons that stay exactly the same week to week. Mine were just moving all the time and it was hours and hours of rescheduling that just took over my life. So one day, Celia comes in and says to me, "You know, it just came to the point where I wait until the day of to find out if I have a lesson or I don’t." And I said, "Something needs to change." Not long after, I asked if she could be my assistant. And I hired her. Now she does my entire schedule. She contacts all the parents and students to tell them when everyone’s lessons are going to change. She tells them way more time in advance than I did. She set up my Google calendar. She looks over my calendar for work and practice and chamber music and figures out all of the possible conflicts. I mean, How old are you actually?
Angie: Seventeen! I should be embarrassed.
Celia: You’re working a full-time job and teaching 22 students. When you gave me the list, I told my parents, "I knew she taught a lot of kids, but not this many." Immediately, all the parents would write me saying when their kids were available and I was like, "Angie’s only available for like four hours during the day."
Angie: She does an amazing job just shuffling everything around. I can’t even believe what a difference it has made in my life.
Celia: The St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra (YO) rehearses once a week on Saturdays for three hours. We have three concerts a year. Then in the spring, we have auditions for the next round. If you make it past prelims, you go to the final round which is at Powell Hall and you get to play on stage behind the curtain. And if you make the final cut, you start playing in the fall.
Angie: She makes it sound super easy and it’s so hard. If you ask any orchestra teachers who teach YO kids, that planning goes back years. You have to get them to the right level to even be able to participate in the audition. It takes a huge effort on their part to follow a regiment of training and they usually start with some of the younger orchestras, like at the Young People’s Symphonic Orchestra, and lots of them wouldn’t even be able to transition to YO because it’s incredibly competitive. There are 36 spots for violin, and I have 22 students alone.
Celia: Yeah, I auditioned twice to get in. The first time, I didn’t even make it past the first round. The second time, I made it past the first round but not to the final round. And then, third time’s a charm. I made it in.
Angie: No, the third time isn’t a charm. That’s when you became my student!
Celia: You are the magic!
Angie: That’s why people come to my studio. Just joking! Third time was the charm.
All in the Technique
Celia: Having a mentor, someone who guides you along the way, is really important. I like having my lesson with Angie because it’s a learning experience for both of us. At this point in my music life, I feel like it’s more collaborative working on pieces and she helps me with my technique which I need still. We work on intonation. She helps me get the notes in tune with each other. Each piece has its own technical challenges. There are different kinds of bowings. There’s just a lot—double stops, different chords, natural versus artificial harmonics.
Angie: There’s the technique of physically being able to play the instrument. Some people have serious physical things that don’t line up to playing the instrument well, like when their bow arm might need to be fixed to play properly and make all kinds of different good sounds. Then, once they’re all set up, there are different styles of playing. So there are fast passages, vibrato, all kinds of double stops and effects. A violinist builds up this vocabulary and knowledge about the instrument and what it can actually do. And you find this in all the repertoire that we go through.
Angie: I’m so interested in how you view collaboration because you’re talking about learning a musical piece together. I know all the pieces we’ve practiced, but every student approaches it or plays it in a different way because it’s all personality-driven. So when we collaborate, it starts as a fuzzy picture, but then her personality comes through. That’s another exciting thing about teaching.
Celia: Yeah, I remember one of our lessons with Bach, you were sitting with your eyes closed, but we were working on doing different phrasings and changing bowings. That was fun because I got to say what I thought the phrase should sound like and we met in the middle for some decisions. I like being able to do that because I feel like I get to have some creative say in what the piece is going to sound like.
Angie: And that’s important to let somebody feel like they’re steering it as well. All I’m doing is helping you realize your picture. And if there are any glaring musical discrepancies, I can step in. Your personality is going to come out no matter what. I could try and try to squash it, but it wouldn’t happen.
It Was Always Violin
Angie: I don’t remember a time when I didn’t want to do violin. I mean, at all. I don’t know why I love it so much, but I do. I love orchestral playing, but it’s the violin I absolutely adore. Being from a family of eight kids, you want a little attention. We didn’t have a car or a telephone or any money growing up. But I’d see one of my sisters with her violin case and off she would go on Saturday mornings and it looked like she’d have so much fun. She’d come back and tell me about her violin lesson and at four years old I’d say to myself, "I’m gonna do that too. I’m gonna have a violin case and I’m gonna walk out that door on a Saturday."
What does it feel like when you play the violin?
Angie: It feels like an appendage. I mean, it’s up on my shoulder all day long. Physically, it feels comfortable. And so does drawing the sound out. I have an incredible violin, too. I’m lucky, but I also spent 20 years with a mortgage on my violin. In the end, I’ve got this gorgeous instrument. It sounds so beautiful and I feel very connected to it. It’s my second child, basically. And sometimes it takes priority over Theo, my son. He knows it. He’s a violinist, too. We just wanted him to do an activity, and in the end he wanted to play. We thought, "Well, we have a violin…" And he never gave it up.
Celia: My favorite part of playing the violin is playing in the orchestra. When we played the end of Jean Sibelius’ Second Symphony, it was the coolest moment. There was this huge wall of sound and everyone around was engaged with music. The horns and all the cool stuff the winds and brass do and then there’s the percussion… I just love the finale of a good symphony. You want it to last forever. You’ve played so much and you’re so tired, but it sounds amazing. You get to the end and you never forget when you play the end of a great symphony. It always pays off.
Angie: In rehearsals, we save some energy because you can’t sustain 100% all the time, emotionally or physically. The audience is also such a huge part of performances because they help feed into the energy. So if I’m seeing a colleague of mine more engaged in a concert, that makes me more physically and emotionally engaged. The sense of energy you experience in a concert that you may not even experience in a rehearsal is unbelievable.