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 began with newly minted St. Louisan Stéphane Denève, and continues with two members of the IN UNISON family, Vivian Fox ("Ms. V") and Michelle Byrd.
Story and Photos by Lindy Drew
How It Started
Michelle: “Ms. V, you wanna start and tell them how you became a part of my family?”
Ms. V: “Well, I’ve been coming to Powell Hall since I was a child. I came when it was a movie theater. I remember seeing The Sound of Music, the last movie they played here. I was also in the orchestra in high school, so we would come here because they had the annual school music festival here. I played on stage at that time, too. Then when the place became an orchestra, I became a mom and didn’t come as often as I would have liked. When I retired, I said, ‘I need to find something to do.’ I started singing with the St. Louis Symphony IN UNISON Chorus and someone told me the place also needed ushers.
I didn’t want to work every day, but I wanted to work a little bit to have an extracurricular activity. Like, Bingo. I need my Bingo money! So I applied, I was hired, and I’ve been here ever since. There was a short time I wasn’t here when I was diagnosed with cancer. During my treatment, until I had my transplant, I was really happy I worked here because it was one of the most supportive families I could have had. They came to see me all the time. They called. They even brought me prayer books, puzzle books, fruit, and popcorn.”
Ushering Us In
Ms. V: “The best part about being an usher at the SLSO is trying to make the patron happy. We want to keep everyone safe and we want them to have an enjoyable time. Each patron is different and there are challenges you run into. So you learn how to be tactful and what to say. You don’t always agree with them. But you want them to have the best experience when they come so that they say, ‘I’ll come back.’ Or even if something doesn’t go right, to say, ‘I was treated fairly and with respect and I will go back.’
I started out as an usher and now also work as a captain helping the ushers understand how to do their job. Believe it or not, for a lot of people, it’s the first time they’ve walked into Powell Hall. So just to be able to tell them about it, listen to what they say, and give them a program to let them know what shows are coming up and suggest one they might like—people appreciate that. They come back, they see you again after a while, they call you by your first name. They remember you and are glad to see you."
A Singer, A Bassist, and an IRS Worker...
Ms. V: “I’ve always wanted to perform. I think I did because I’ve been singing in the church since I was in grade school. I’m Catholic, and we sang the mass in Latin. We knew the English translation, too. When I got to high school, I sang in the choir there and played string bass in the orchestra, I used to sing with The Bach Society for about 10 years. I sing with the Legend Singers now, and I just retired from IN UNISON after 25 years of singing with them. Since I’m no longer singing as much, I don’t know what I’m going to do with Monday nights. But I’m sure I’ll find something.
I always knew I’d never be a solo performer, except for one year when I actually was. In 1966, they had the Miss Argus Exhibition for seniors in high school and it was a scholarship competition. You had to perform a solo at Kiel Auditorium, which was demolished and replaced by the Enterprise Center. I played a string bass solo from a Hungarian song and I was scared to death because all my classmates were there. I was like, ‘Oh my God, I gotta go back to school tomorrow after I did this out here?’ But I always knew I wanted to use my music—reading, singing, and playing—to share with everybody else.
I actually retired from working for the IRS. Let me tell you how I got there. When I was a teenager, my Uncle Delmar had a tax business in Webster Groves. He would have my cousin and I fill out papers for his clients, which got me interested in doing taxes. When I graduated high school, I started working for H&R Block and then Emerson Electric. But one year, I got fed up with the promotion process. It looked like they were only promoting white females. In my militant mind, I said, ‘I’m not just gonna spend my time here and not move ahead.’ So I quit.
‘What did I just do?’ I thought. ‘I have three kids in Catholic school. What am I gonna do?’ So I worked at Sears for a time and someone told me, ‘The IRS is hiring.’ I thought, ‘Who would want to work for the IRS?’ I took the test anyway and I remember telling my mom I didn’t pass: ‘I don’t know what kind of test that was. It had nothing to do with taxes.’ But then they called me to come in for an interview. And then, a second interview. I had a career there for 25 years. My coworkers would come to see me perform because they knew I was in the chorus.
Lately, everybody’s been asking me, ‘What are you gonna do now that you’re leaving IN UNISON?’ I volunteer with so many groups. It’s just part of my nature. Now I look back and wonder, ‘How did I even find time for IN UNISON?’ Because choir members still have to practice during the week. You can’t just come in and sit down on Monday thinking you’re gonna be able to perform. It doesn’t work like that. We have concerts and performances any time of the week. Sometimes you are here so much you feel like I might as well just get a cot and spend the night!’ We get study files and need to go over the music to be prepared.”
Making it to the Stage
Michelle: “My story’s kind of similar. My first experience at Powell Hall, I was 13 years old and my middle school choir director, Patricia Spencer, who I still talk to to this day, was teaching at the Ferguson-Florissant School District at the time and brought us here. I remember eventually auditioning for a solo with Robert Ray, who used to be the Director of the IN UNISON Chorus. I was scared out of my mind. I auditioned and didn’t get it. Still, I told myself, ‘I’m gonna sing on this stage one day.’ So, I had just started my bachelor's degree in music education and I joined the IN UNISON Chorus as a student at University of Missouri-St. Louis. I remember being on stage, saying to myself, ‘I finally did it.’ One of the first things we sang was Festival Sanctus. And here’s what’s funny. The song we auditioned with in middle school was ‘He Never Failed Me Yet,’ Robert Ray’s composition. And a few years later, we performed that piece. I was on stage tearing up, like, ‘I can’t believe I’m singing this here in front of an audience for real.’ And now I manage the chorus.
I used to sing TV commercials all the time. I was the person who could mimic everyone. All of them. My favorite was the one for Ford trucks: ‘If I had money, I tell ya what I’d do…’ I loved that commercial and still remember it. Well, in elementary school music classes, I would sing everything. I probably came out of the womb singing because I’ve always done it. I used to ask myself, ‘Do I want to do this for real or is it something I want to play around with?’ I realized early on I never wanted to be famous because too many things came along with that. And as far as my personality, I’m totally a background person. It’s interesting how I had opportunities to come out of my shell, but now I find myself encouraging other people who want to perform. So part of what I do with the IN UNISON Academy Program is give students who have a desire the tools and opportunities to teach or perform.”
A Flourishing Program
Michelle: “The St. Louis Symphony IN UNISON Chorus started in 1994. The leadership at the SLSO wanted to build a relationship with the Black community, so they reached out to five pastors in five churches and did a concert at Powell Hall. The chorus became permanent and the church program grew from five to now 35 churches. The chorus was up to 130 singers, though, with the pandemic, that’s dwindled down a bit. We have 40 coordinators from the churches who serve as liaisons between their church and the organization. We take musicians to their churches during worship services and put on performances. And I conduct all the logistics.
The chorus and churches then blossomed into the IN UNISON Academy, which puts Black students from St. Louis area colleges and universities in tailored positions to prepare them to do what they want in music before they graduate. Over the years, they’ve become vocal performers, instrumentalists, music educators. This is not a cookie-cutter program. So as participants progress, we help each one figure out what fits perfectly for them. I’ve especially made sure to create a mentorship with each individual so they’re not getting random opportunities they don’t know how to then take advantage of.
One of the things that has to be understood is that some students don’t even have the tools necessary to take advantage of the opportunities we present. Most freshmen who come into the program, for example, have been woken up by their parents for school every morning. Maybe they haven’t worked a job to know how to be on time or done their own laundry. So before we even get to the point of saying, ‘Stéphane wants a soloist to sing at the next Forest Park concert,’ we need to know the students can be on time. That’s why I walk through all of these things with them.
In addition to scholars receiving a small stipend to support their academic efforts, we partner with other organizations to be able to put them into positions. And that networking component is the biggest thing because our students go on to do great things.”
We have people in the chorus who are phenomenal cooks and bakers too. On rehearsal nights, anybody could bring cakes, pies, or cupcakes baked from their own kitchen. And they cut individual slices and bag them up for each person. This is for 130 people, pre-Covid. And when we came back from rehearsal, a gentleman by the name of Edward Whittington made a caramel cake, a pound cake, and a butter cake and sliced them individually, packaged them all, and made sure everybody had a slice. This happens all the time. It’s so special. I mean, every night. Like every job, responsibilities can weigh on you. But on Monday nights, I don’t care how tired I am, by 5:30pm when they start arriving early, the first face gives me that boost of energy to make it ’til 10:00pm.”
Ms. V: “IN UNISON was supposed to be a one-time thing. The chorus was only supposed to perform that one concert and that was going to be the end of it. But it was performed so well and accepted so well, and Robert Ray saw it through so well that it blossomed into a full choir.”
Michelle: “The youngest performer is 21 and the oldest is 90. That’s why it’s so special. And Ms. V here is part of my family. I met her as a part of the chorus family, but she became a part of my personal family. See, I have two daughters. One is in college majoring in vocal performance and minoring in psychology at Kentucky State University. And I think it was her senior year…”
Ms. V: “...It was her senior concert and you said, Jennings Senior High School is having their final concert. Would you like to come?’ And I love supporting the youth. I think it’s so important that we give back. I didn’t graduate from college. So one of my friends, who ended up getting her master's, once told me, ‘You know, you encouraged me to go to school.’ I said, ‘I didn’t even graduate college. What do you mean?’ She said, ‘You were always reading or taking classes, always trying to improve yourself. That’s what kept me in school.’ And I thought, ‘Maybe that’s my role in life—to encourage other people.’ So when Michelle asked me to come to her daughter’s graduation, I said yes. I went to the concert too and I just clicked with her daughter. Those relationships that encourage people to do what they do best, that’s what I’m here to do.”
Michelle: “At an IN UNISON concert, the energy is electric. There’s something about being at these concerts that’s completely different than being at any other. And I tell the choir all the time that I think it’s from the consistent love and passion they have for one another. It just emotes from the stage. So wrangling them for concerts and being on top of them and keeping them in line and things like that, for me, as a performer — this may be a little bit morbid, but — none of us know when we’re going to leave this earth. If I die, right now in this moment, what am I gonna leave behind? What are people going to remember? So I perform like it’s my last time.
My first two years in the IN UNISON chorus, the marketing material was pictures of me with my mouth open, because I literally sing like it’s my last time. Everybody would call me asking, ‘Why is only your picture in this?’ And I’d say, ‘Because I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing.’ For a long time, it was, ‘They need pictures of other people.’ Well, yeah, but other people get caught with their heads down. Who wants to see the top of their heads?’
Plus, if this is my last time, I want people to remember how they saw me. I take performing and my job seriously. All the things I love about this job live in one place. I love mentoring. Although the SLSO is not a religious institution, the foundation IN UNISON is religious because everybody is from some faith-based organization. So even when I speak to the chorus members, I speak in a way that emotes. Then when we come out to perform amongst the audience, the energy is the same. So you get the same person on stage that you get behind the scenes.”
Doing Life Together
Michelle: “The IN UNISON Chorus members do life together. They do dinner together, they celebrate birthdays, they go on trips. Anytime there’s new information about someone’s life in the group, they email me to let everyone else know. Like, ‘Hey, there’s a new grandbaby!’ We have a cheer fund in which if someone gets sick or passes away—and it doesn’t have to even be someone who’s currently active; it can be someone they all know—we have a person who sends a card on behalf of the whole chorus. So they stay connected. There are even folks who haven’t sung in the chorus for over five years who get notifications. If we know about it, we let them know we’re thinking of them.”
Ms. V: “When I had cancer, I didn’t only hear from the bereavement group, I heard from individuals. One lady made me a beautiful prayer quilt. I didn’t think we were really that close in the choir. We saw each other and we sang. But one day, she called to say, ‘Can I come by? I made something for you.’ I still have it on my bed today. A prayer quilt means that as she was making the quilt, she was praying for me. You pray for the person you’re going to give it to. And this quilt is not itty bitty. It covers a full-size bed.”
“It’s a privilege to sing on this stage because we weren’t allowed to when I first came here. When I came to see movies as a child, we weren’t even allowed to sit downstairs. We sat on the balcony. Coming from up there to now singing on stage, I don’t take that for granted. Being a person of color and realizing how far we’ve come, I always think of what my ancestors couldn’t do. We still have a long way to go, but we have to be thankful for how far we’ve come. As a child, I didn’t think about it and I don’t think I even asked why. Going upstairs when you arrived here is just where you went. That’s the way society was at that time. It wasn't until the ’60s when Martin Luther King, Jr. died that I started to realize how people questioned things around equity. Before that, I never questioned why I went upstairs. And it wasn’t just here. There were about four different theaters, including The Fabulous Fox, where it was the same. Now when you look back at history and you know, it’s a privilege and an honor to sing on this stage. And it’s not only a privilege but a right. I’m entitled to this.”
“I got frustrated sometimes with my fellow chorus members because when I sang with another ensemble, it was so regimented. We came to rehearsal, we didn’t talk, and we went home. But it wasn’t a family. Being the only person of color in that group, they accepted me, but it was never like, ‘Let’s get dinner together.’ It’s not that I didn’t feel loved. I just didn’t feel love that was genuine. The love in IN UNISON is genuine and it makes me appreciate it more. Did I like everybody? No. But I truly love everyone. You don’t like everybody in your family but there is love.. Still, you treat people with respect and dignity, just like in any job. And I always looked at singing as a job, not just as performing.
“My cousin, Denise Thimes, is a famous jazz singer and when she started out, she was having a hard time getting gigs on stage here. When she sang with IN UNISON as a soloist, that was the proudest moment. I mean, my chest was full. We got the same bloodline. Well, she not only sang, she was the star that night. It made me want my mom and aunt to be here to see her. They would have never thought their children would be on stage with a whole other group of people who looked like them. And that people would be cheering and paying to see them."
One Leg at a Time
What’s something about Powell Hall you’ve come to learn about that most people don’t get to see?
Michelle: “Sometimes there’s this idea that this is just some fancy elitist place with all these chandeliers. But there are real people who make up this place. When you take the titles away, you realize every person puts their pants on one leg at a time. Their shirts go on one arm at a time. They like movies, you like movies. Simple things like that. When you strip all the things away, I bleed red like you bleed red.
"I just shared this with a new potential singer the other day who was super nervous. I said, ‘Your job is to come in and do what you’ve always done — sing your face off.’ People are like, ‘Oh, but it’s Powell Hall!’ ‘It is. And like Ms. V said, it’s a privilege and honor to sing here. But also be aware singing is something you’ve been doing for a long time. So bring that to the table. Come with your best foot forward.’
"One of the reasons I do what I do for this program and organization is because I stand on Ms. V’s shoulders. I think it’s important to carry the legacy IN UNISON started with. I don’t take for granted the blood, sweat, and tears that went into it. I carry the position I’m in delicately like my little baby. The sacrifices I make for this program the way I do are also important because now the students stand on my shoulders. This totem pole is getting higher and higher and all of that means something.”
Show Up Great
Michelle: “Another thing I appreciate about the IN UNISON chorus is that the people in it aren’t just performers. They’re teachers, doctors, lawyers, military, computer specialists. They didn’t decide they were going to be vocal performers and that’s it. They do other things, too, and they lend us their talents.”
“Exactly! You would have never known because there’s a picture in our minds of what an accountant looks like. Then you look at Ms. V and you go, ‘Really?’ ‘Yes! Absolutely.’ And that’s what makes the chorus unique because all of these people from different walks of life have learned to do life together.
I laugh because I tell people in the group, not from a place of malice or ill-intent, but I will boss them around. And I’m younger than some of them, but most can be my aunts, uncles, and grandparents, but they understand. The very first rehearsal, this is what I say because I’m an educator: ‘Your job is to pull greatness out of me because I’m going to pull greatness out of you. So anything I ask of you is because I’m gonna give you what I’m asking for, too. So show up great because I’m gonna show up great.’”
Take it Seriously
Ms. V: “The IN UNISON chorus members need to re-audition every three or four years and you’d be surprised how nervous everyone is. It’s almost like, ‘Oh, they gonna put me out. I’m not gonna make it.’ They take it so seriously, that’s how much you want to be in it. And to think, this is a volunteer job. So after you work at your regular job all day, you give every Monday from 7:00pm to 10:00pm for rehearsal.”
Michelle: “That’s why I give our younger members such a hard time. I look at it this way. They are so far removed from all the stories we’re telling about how Ms. V’s generation had to sit upstairs because they didn’t have the option of being on stage. I’m 39 this year, so I have some sense of it from hearing about it. But think about those born in the ’90s who don’t know. So when they come late to rehearsal for whatever reason, they don’t necessarily understand her background or why it’s a privilege to be on this stage. That opportunity didn’t exist back in the day. So I make sure to reiterate it to them. That mama spirit is always on me because I want them to understand, ‘You cannot take this opportunity for granted.’”
Appreciating Each Other
Ms. V: "Not everybody in the choir knows how to read music. Well, with IN UNISON, if you can’t read, they’ll help you to learn. During summers, we’ll have someone give classes to strengthen that skill. So we go beyond Mondays from 7:00pm to 10:00pm. For many Blacks in the past, they learned to sing from rote memorization. So looking at sheet music is totally different. With the orchestra, you build a relationship with them. Especially with the people who sit in the front row. They appreciate us and you can see it in their faces and in how they respond. And we appreciate them. Because it’s one thing to hear a piece played on the piano during rehearsals. Then the entire orchestra plays and it’s like, ‘Oh my God!’ It blows your mind because there are all these sounds and effects.
"A lot of people in the orchestra also haven’t played much Black music or gospel music. And it’s not just playing it. You have to be able to interpret it. It may be the same note, but that doesn’t mean anything unless you can put it into context. That’s where they’re learning from us. And we’re learning from them because a lot of us have never sung classical music. For example, I sing tenor. So I can listen to the cellos and tell, ‘Ooh, I wasn’t on pitch there. That’s what the note should be.’
"As someone brought up in a white Catholic church, when I first started singing gospel, people told me, ‘Girl, you don’t know how to sing this music.’ I thought I was singing what everyone else was, but it wasn’t the right sound or inflection. As a person of color, I had to learn how to sing person of color music.
"So we both have an appreciation for each other. It’s never, ‘Aww, we gotta play for them again.’ No, we look forward to them coming and they look forward to us coming.”
Sharing a Piece of Ourselves
Michelle: “There was a musician who came from a church background who could sit down at the piano, and, as we say, he could whip the keys. He played very well. But he could not read. Another young man you could put a piece of piano music in front of and he could whip the keys. Two different skill sets. The young man who couldn’t read music could hear someone singing and immediately start playing. The kid who could read couldn’t play at all. Both were phenomenal. Well, the one who could read was bashing the other. So I told him, ‘Wait a minute. He has a skill you don’t have and vice versa. Instead of talking about him, why don’t you help him and he can help you?’
"One of the things about being on stage with the musicians, which is really cool, is that most of them learned technical, very polished music. So, for example, with the emotion behind ‘He Never Failed Me Yet,’ imagine being in rehearsal and all you hear is the piano and the rhythm section in an orchestra as we’re preparing to play this on stage. Then you hear violins and cellos. And you see all these feet tapping in an Asian or a white individual. It’s like, ‘Oh, so you DO have that in your leg. We gave you a piece of us and now we have a piece of you.’
"Here’s the thing. In Black culture, we’re taught that however you feel it, that’s how you display it. So at an IN UNISON concert, when you hear the electricity, people will shout, ‘Amen! Preach!’ But if we do that at a classical concert, it is unheard of. And there should be a balance. There’s a saying that goes, ‘If you love what you hear, you oughta show some sign.’ I feel that way about everything.
"When I’m at a classical concert, I’m that person who has to refrain from saying, ‘YESSS!!’ And I know you cannot sing Robert Ray the same way you sing Mozart. Mozart is polished and put-together. But you gotta let your hair down when you sing André Thomas or Rollo Dilworth. The technique is the same, but how you deliver it is what’s different.”
Ms. V: “We’ve traveled together with IN UNISON to perform at Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, and Italy. During the summer, a lot of groups travel. Kevin McBeth, the IN UNISON Chorus Director and Music Director of Manchester United Methodist Church, opened it up to Manchester Choir, so those two families were brought together. We all traveled to Florence and Venice and Assisi, and we sang at each place. When I got sick with my diagnosis, they sent me as much stuff as IN UNISON did. My family has grown to be so expansive. People I never would have thought to have met or traveled with, and we experienced other choirs everywhere we went.”
Michelle: “Ms. V is an example for both my daughters. There was a point when I didn’t even know they were keeping in contact, but they were texting each other. She told them, ‘If you need anything let me know. I may not have it, but let me know.”
Ms. V: “And I truly mean that. Like, my grandson was one of the first IN UNISON scholars. I kept reminding him, ‘You need to give back one day because of that opportunity.’ And he did. He joined the Compton Heights Concert Band to perform with them. When somebody gives to you, you give back to somebody else. We have to keep passing that on. God gave you gifts. Whether it’s singing, playing, or just greeting people. Everybody has a gift. As long as you’re using it and sharing it, you can’t keep it in. And I want everybody to know to not hold grudges. I could hold a grudge back in ’68 when I had to go up SLSO’s separate entrance and sit upstairs. But what good is it gonna do? Those people were doing what they thought was best at that time. I don’t know what was in their mind. History needs to be shared. I just know I moved on from it and need to share my story so others can move on from it.”
What do you sing in your free time when you want to let loose and just sing for fun?
Ms. V: “Bruno Mars and Silk Sonic. 24K Magic. I saw them in Vegas and it was a great concert. I knew most of the songs, so I was up dancing. My legs hurt the next day, but…”
Michelle: “Lately, Beyoncé’s new album has me in a chokehold. That Virgo’s Groove — that’s for my birthday and I play it every day.”