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.
Nadia Maddex is a new IN UNISON Scholar. But, according to UNISON Scholars program director Michelle Byrd, she is “an IN UNISON baby. She grew up through our programs.” Nadia is a junior at Lindenwood University majoring in music education and minoring in musical theatre.
This interview with Nadia was condensed and edited for clarity, and questions were removed.
I could sing “Don't Know Why” by Norah Jones before I could say my ABCs. I grew up in a musical household. My mom sang professionally, and my grandma always supported the arts; she was a poet.
My first talent show was in the third grade—I sang a Cheetah Girls song. That's when I was like, “Oh, I love to do this.” I performed all through middle school. I did all the Black History shows.
I started singing classical music in seventh grade and started performing in musical theatre shows during high school. A lot of different genres and a lot of different styles. And I've always had an outgoing personality. Because of my personality, I always thought I was going to perform.
Some people judge you for what you sing. As an African American woman, you tell people you sing and they respond, “Oh, she does R&B. She sings jazz.” I tell them I sing opera as well and they're like, “[GASP.] You sing what?” Most people don't think of an African American woman singing opera.
I sing a lot of genres. That's what I love about choirs. In one concert, you hear seven different styles of choral singing. And you learn so much! You might sing a pop piece and then a jazz piece and you'll sing one in a different language and you'll sing a traditional choral piece or folk song.
I always knew that I would study something music-related at college. In high school I decided that it would be teaching. I've had people who have guided me, who have made me who I am. I think that it's only right that I pay that forward.
There was one teacher in particular that made me want to teach. I walked into Mr. Striebel's classroom the first day. He was playing guitar, and said, “Are you guys gonna like sing along with me?” Me being the not-shy me, I started singing. He turns looks at me and said, “I didn't expect you to sing…but please keep going!”
A few months later was parent teacher conferences. All my teachers had bad things to say about my grades—it was devastating. And Mr. Striebel pulled me aside and told me, “I'll make a deal with you. If you get your grades up, you can perform at the first assembly of the year.”
I kept my word, and he kept his. From then on, I performed at every single school assembly.
I started with the SLSO when I was a sophomore in high school, singing in the Holiday Festival Chorus (a chorus of high school students that performed with the SLSO during holiday concerts). Later, as a college freshman, I was at my first educators conference. I talked to Michelle Byrd, IN UNISON Scholars program coordinator, there. She told me about the program.
Before I joined the IN UNISON Chorus (a resident SLSO chorus that specializes in the performance and preservation of music of African and African American cultures), I had never seen so many African American people in one room. I was so happy to be in a space where I was not only exposed to so many people, but people who loved music. It was powerful to walk into a room and see so many people that relate to me, doing the same thing I do. I look forward to rehearsal every single Monday night because I'm like, “Oh, my people!”
IN UNISON is such a big family. One week I missed rehearsal, and the people in the choir noticed my seat was empty. I was getting messages from people through Facebook, asking, “Are you okay?” It is great to know that you have a second family that's just checking on you, that cares about you.
Singing is most important to all of us, but when we get the opportunity, the community and family is a close second. We all take every opportunity we can to check in on one another and I think that’s what makes this chorus so special.
IN UNISON members do many things—doctors, lawyers, teachers—and are from different age groups. I’m the baby of the group—I started at 19—and it always amazes me that there’s somebody who's 91 years old in the same room. I feel like that just speaks volumes to the dedication of people of all age groups to the mission of IN UNISON.
The IN UNISON Scholars program provides me with support and connections—connecting me with people who are doing the same thing that I am, so that I'm more than likely to thrive when I get out of college.
I love Michelle (Byrd). She has been a mentor for four years now, and she's a queen. She helps me find resources for teaching and always makes sure I stay on track! It is also amazing to sit in the rehearsals and watch what Kevin (McBeth, IN UNISON Chorus Director) does, how he leads the choir and how he leads the rehearsal. He has such a gift when it comes to working with large groups, both instrumental and vocal.
They both inspire me to be a better educator in different ways and for that I am so grateful.
Tim Munro is the SLSO’s Creative Partner.