SLSO Concertmaster Gives Virtual Masterclass

This violin masterclass had been planned for months but wasn’t happening the way St. Louis Symphony Orchestra Concertmaster David Halen originally anticipated.


David carefully observed violinist Essence Williams’ performance, noting her bow position, her posture, her preparation.


But Essence wasn’t in the room. She wasn’t even in the same building.


She was miles away, and this was a Zoom meeting: the first virtual masterclasses given by an SLSO musician as part of the orchestra’s Peer to Peer program. The program pairs members of the St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra with musicians in Gateway Music Outreach, a community-based string education program primarily for students in north St. Louis City and north St. Louis County. Peer to Peer participants also receive coaching from SLSO musicians.


SLSO musicians regularly mentor younger musicians. Here, Concertmaster David Halen coaches a group of strings players at Gateway Music Outreach before the COVID-19 pandemic canceled in-person events. David is one of several musicians who have given virtual coaching to young musicians since.

In addition to her participation in Gateway Music Outreach, Essence is a violinist in the Young People’s Concert Orchestra of Webster University’s Community Music School. During the Zoom masterclass, she played “Adoration” by Felix Borowski. She impressed David with her musicality, something he encouraged her to develop even further through the use of her voice.


After her initial performance, David had all of the attendees on the Zoom call unmute themselves and sing the melody, paying careful attention to the way the voice naturally phrases the music.


“You have to be able to find a way to make what you play meaningful,” he advised Essence after the group vocalization.


Over the course of the 40-minute session, David talked about connecting with the music (he suggests looking up lyrics to a piece if they exist; if not, create your own), developing a personal interpretation of music, and coloring a performance with subtle details.

After the masterclass, the virtual floor was opened to other Gateway Music Outreach students to ask David questions about practicing, warming up, and what he listens to in his downtime.


“It means so much,” James McKay, Co-Founder and Music Director of Gateway Music Outreach, said at the conclusion. “We appreciate your talent, your heart, and your love.”


SLSO musicians regularly provide coaching and mentorship to area music students throughout the community, including in-person visits to schools, regular sectionals and an annual side-by-side rehearsal with the St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra, and tailored coaching through Peer to Peer.


Maureen Byrne, SLSO Associate Vice President of Community Partnerships, said, “When stay-at-home mandates were put into place, so much of what Peer to Peer and GMO students had been looking forward to throughout the spring disappeared overnight. Moving sessions with SLSO musicians online helped return some sense of normalcy to the students and keep them connected to their instruments and to each other.


Additional masterclasses are planned for throughout the summer.


Virtual masterclasses are one way the SLSO has maintained a connection with the community while in-person concerts and events are postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. SLSO musicians have shared performances of their favorite pieces of music from their homes through #SLSOatHome. The SLSO’s newly launched Instrument Playground Online—modeled after the popular in-person Instrument Playground held prior to SLSO Family Concerts—introduces SLSO musicians and their instruments through a series of engaging videos and downloadable activities. Additional at-home resources make learning about orchestral music fun through activities the entire family can enjoy. SLSO Stories gives behind-the-scenes looks at the SLSO and its mission to enrich lives through the power of music through articles, photos, and videos. Regular concert rebroadcasts on St. Louis Public Radio brings the entire symphonic experience right to your home.

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