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.
Shayla Pedersen-Guy is a brand new IN UNISON Scholar. She is a junior at Webster University, majoring in voice.
This interview with Shayla was condensed and edited for clarity, and questions were removed.
My first musical experience is one of my favorite moments of my entire life.
I was eight years old, walking through a mall with my family. In the mall was a piano store. I heard it before I saw it—this piano that appeared to be playing by itself. I let go of my father's arm and just made my way over to see how this thing was playing on its own.
I sat down at the piano, and I remember my little legs not able to reach the pedals. I kept trying to anticipate the note before it played on its own. Before I knew it, I realized that I'd received what Oprah calls one of those “aha” moments of—oh, this is my purpose. This is what I am here for.
In elementary school, chorus was my favorite class. I found it was so much easier to communicate with the other students—to not have to introduce myself with words but to stand there, put something out there, and the right people will receive it. Music was this wonderful language that we could all understand.
I found it this wonderful almost therapeutic outlet as well. As a person of color, going to a lot of schools that were predominantly white, it was a special way for me to feel like myself but have a connection.
My mother is from the Virgin Islands. My father is from Mississippi. They got married and didn't know where to live, so they found themselves in Florida. I grew up in a small town called Port Orange, which is really, really tiny predominantly white area.
It was a great upbringing. But I was the raisin in a bowl of oatmeal—I was always one of maybe two African American students in my classes.
I started my music collegiate matriculation at Oakwood University in Huntsville, Alabama—an HBCU (Historically Black College and University). There was a major shift when I transferred from a predominantly black music school to Webster University.
I was looking for outlets here in St. Louis—I knew there were other classical instrumentalists and vocalists of color somewhere out there, but I had to find them. I saw a pamphlet about an IN UNISON Chorus Black History Month concert (the IN UNISON Chorus is a resident SLSO chorus that specializes in the performance and preservation of music of African and African American cultures). And I said, “OK, here they are.”
Serendipitously, I got an email from my vocal instructor at Webster University, saying, “Hey, there's a scholarship program going on”—referring to the IN UNISON Scholars program.
I'm most interested in the opportunity to receive mentorship through the Scholar program. Whether we like it or not, networking is important—a group of individuals that will take you to places that you don't even know you need to be yet.
And the sense of community is important. The camaraderie of being with individuals that are like myself, because representation is very important for any individual’s sense of self and self-worth. Often we don't know that something is possible until we see someone else do it.
I am hoping and manifesting to be in a musical career. No matter what form it is—be it teaching, performing, or music therapy—the important thing is that I am in service, that I leave people better than when they came, feeling seen, heard, and understood, with music being the vehicle. Then I'm good to go.
Michelle Byrd, IN UNISON Program coordinator, champions us. It seems to be her main goal, her drive. She takes the time to make sure we're okay, to make sure we're comfortable, so we can get as much as possible out of it. She’s fantastic and she's needed.
I just can't wait to pay it forward.
Tim Munro is the SLSO’s Creative Partner.