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.
Michelle Byrd is the IN UNISON Programs Coordinator and Chorus Manager, and—according to one of the SLSO Scholars—“a queen.” In fact, every young person I spoke to about Michelle (or “Miss Michelle” as several called her) spoke of her deep commitment to the Scholars program, of her deep commitment to them as individuals.
This interview with Michelle was condensed and edited for clarity, and questions were removed.
The IN UNISON Chorus (a resident SLSO chorus that specializes in the performance and preservation of music of African and African American cultures) is a family. It’s a bunch of aunts and uncles and grandparents. The experiences they bring, the wisdom they have—it’s amazing. I take the legacy of the chorus very seriously, and I always try to make requests that are beneficial for the group. But sometimes managing them does feels like a child telling their parents what to do!
I have a degree in Music Education. I’ve known that I wanted to be a choir teacher since I was 13 years old. I received my certification from the University of Missouri St. Louis in music education, with an emphasis in choral conducting.
As a student, I became an IN UNISON Scholar, and started singing with the IN UNISON Chorus. At the time, I had a one-track mind: I will be a teacher. But the IN UNISON Scholars program opened my eyes to new possibilities.
I’m not just a musician—I can do many things. And all those things can come together and make magic.
I started volunteering with the Holiday Festival Chorus (a chorus of high school students that performed with the SLSO during holiday concerts), and that blossomed into being able to work with many groups of people. Being part of the SLSO’s Community and Education Team, I get the chance to work with little people, I get the chance to work with older people. It’s all of the things that I love in one place.
I love working with the IN UNISON Scholars. It’s one of the best things about my job. To mentor, to encourage. To say, “It’s OK, you made a mistake. It happens. Let me show you some other tools to assist you.”
We do music at the SLSO. But for me, there are some things you have to do before you get to the music.
IN UNISON Scholars begin as high school seniors. The program creates opportunities for each Scholar tailored to what they want to do in music. We sit down with them and get an idea of what they want to do.
We connect them with any opportunities we have at Powell Hall—or with the partners we have—that fits what they want to do. There are monthly group meetings, as well as individual meetings every two weeks.
The Scholars are required to volunteer for certain opportunities, and are required to audition for one of the SLSO ensembles (the St. Louis Symphony Chorus, the IN UNISON Chorus, the St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra). They can go through their four years of university with us.
The program helps these young people to build connections. Not everyone has the opportunity to be connected—particularly Black students. We come alongside them and say, “Here’s what you can really do.” We want them to learn how to not limit themselves—in the chorus, there are doctors and lawyers and teachers.
You become an IN UNISON scholar, and—based on your abilities and your growth through the program—you could become a Fellow. A fellowship position is where you work for us. Especially in areas of administration. Even teachers need to know how to balance a budget, answer emails.
Tim Munro is the SLSO’s Creative Partner.