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felicia foland

St. Louis Symphony Bassoonist Felicia Foland: Music – and the Labor Movement – Are Both About Cooperation

By Megan Romer, Contributing Writer

Felicia Foland was just 16 when she became a member of Local 2-197 (St. Louis, MO). An alumna of public school music programs and the then-nascent St. Louis Youth Symphony Orchestra, the teenaged Foland was encouraged by her teacher to learn the ropes of auditioning by doing as many auditions as possible. Because young artists were only admitted to the union following an audition, it was a rare opportunity for her to gain audition experience. “I had to go play for the president of the union, but it doubled as a practice audition,” explains Foland, who has now played bassoon in the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra for nearly 30 years.

Foland did not grow up in a specifically musical family, but she recalls with a laugh that her parents were adamant that all of their children “learn to read music and learn to swim.” After a few false starts throughout the woodwinds, Foland settled on the bassoon, went on to graduate from Eastman School of Music and Northwestern University, then found her way back to St. Louis. In addition to occupying the second bassoon chair in the orchestra, she is an enthusiastic instructor in the orchestra’s youth program—which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year—teaching both group classes and working one-to-one as a mentor for young bassoonists and woodwind players.

Offering both somewhere to land and somewhere to spring from, the youth orchestra experience is crucial to the classical music landscape, says Foland. “Having a classical music destination for young people is just super-important,” she emphasizes. And it’s this belief that leads her not only to work as an instructor, but also to volunteer as a fundraiser and community advocate. “I’m not at all shy about fundraising,” she says. “I totally believe in well-funded arts programs, and that belief makes it much easier to ask.”

felicia foland

In addition to advocating for the SLYSO, Foland is a tireless and outspoken advocate for public school music education. “Left to the school district without arts advocacy, music programs just get slashed and burned,” she says. “You see it over and over again. And I, like most of us in my field, am really concerned about that and will fight it every chance I get.”

The academic benefits of a good music education program are well-documented—music education increases test scores across subjects with notable increases in spatial-temporal reasoning—and few would argue against the aesthetic and cultural benefits of studying the arts. Foland, however, reminds us that teaching children to play music gives them an additional crucial skill, perhaps more important now than ever: cooperation.

“Of course, our field can be competitive, but at its heart music is about cooperation,” she says. “Making music is about coming together, about working together to create something greater.”

Foland saw the real-world need for cooperation first-hand in 2018, when Missouri lawmakers floated a right-to-work law in the state. Prop A, put forth as a ballot measure for direct voting by the people of Missouri, would have banned compulsory union fees, thus largely kneecapping the labor movement in the state. “The unions, especially the AFL-CIO and the IBEW Local 1 [the first electrical union in the United States] really hit the road: They held sessions around the state to teach people how to communicate as union members, how to fight for our right to organize, and to explain the need for fees and how to fight for our right to keep them,” she says. “I studied at a couple of sessions and then hit the road with them.”

With everyone from building tradespeople to public school employees to symphonic musicians working side-by-side, labor’s victory was overwhelming. “Sixty-seven percent of people in rural areas and 90% in urban areas [voted no],” says Foland, with obvious pride. “What I learned in those sessions and in doing that work is the power of partnering with other unions and organizations. And most people get it. You knock on someone’s door or they stop when you’re petitioning, they understand it: right-to-work means a race to the bottom.”

Foland is an unabashed advocate not just for labor movements in general, but for her specific union. The stability that union membership offers gives her the ability to engage in philanthropic work and other artistic explorations that may not pay the bills. “I think people don’t always realize what a gift the security of union jobs can be,” she says. “But I also don’t think there’s enough education about what unions actually do, especially for people who work in industries that are typically not unionized.”

Negative feelings about unions, Foland finds, often come from misinformation about how unions are structured and even what their purpose is. “What I learned over the years is that unions are not just one thing, and people have this idea that if you join a union it’s like every other union. It’s not. It’s a collective, and the collective agrees about how the collective is governed. It’s one of the joys of self-governance, the ability to choose and pick!”

St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra Celebrates 50 Years

In 2020, the St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra (SLSYO) will celebrate a half-century of educating and mentoring student musicians from the greater St. Louis area. Founded in 1970 by renowned conductor Leonard Slatkin, the SLSYO comprises just over 100 student musicians who are selected by competitive auditions before a panel of St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (SLSO) musicians.

st. louis symphony youth orchestra
SLSYO founder and conductor Leonard Slatkin teaching student musicians in the class of 1974-75.

In addition to rehearsing and performing challenging orchestral repertoire under the direction of conductor Gemma New, student musicians receive regular coaching and mentoring from the world-class musicians of the SLSO. The youth orchestra presents three concerts per season in Powell Hall.

“The experience of playing in a youth orchestra gives one such a strong skill set that they can then use in their future professions. Additional to learning an instrument and orchestral repertoire, they learn the benefits of listening, discipline, the benefits of having a long-term worth ethic, teamwork, leadership, emotions and expressing oneself, being creative, solving challenges,” says New, a member of Local 293 (Hamilton, ON). “These young musicians are deeply enthusiastic and passionate about music and attaining the highest level of skill possible on their instruments. You can feel it and see it every week in the Saturday rehearsal. It is inspiring to see their incredible progress throughout the year from that first rehearsal to the last concert.”

There are over 2,000 SLSYO alumni across the US in a wide range of professions, including six current members of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. 

Felicia Foland, second bassoonist with the SLSO, is one such alumna, as well as a coach for the current student musicians with the youth orchestra.

st. louis symphony youth orchestra
SLSO second bassoonist Felicia Foland works with a YO bassoonist at the annual side-by-side rehearsal.

“I was thrilled, as a teenager, to play in a beautiful concert hall with a great conductor, Leonard Slatkin, who founded this orchestra, when I was a member,” Foland says. “Maestro Slatkin treated the youth orchestra to a professional atmosphere with the most beloved orchestral repertoire. The level of work and the environment is ideal in preparing and presenting a peek into the professional world of orchestra music making.”

Foland says the SLSYO student musicians learn a “broad perspective” in the approach of their orchestral ensemble skills. “It is a special joy for me, at one time in the shoes of these wonderful musicians myself, to work with them, as I know exactly how they feel—a little bit nervous, a lot of excitement, and an eagerness to achieve their goals.”

Steven W. Hoover, Local 2-197 (St. Louis, MO) secretary-treasurer and a professional musician, was a member of the youth orchestra trombone section from 1975 through 1978. “It was my first real opportunity to play in a great sounding ensemble, performing great music, in an awesome venue,” he says. “It gives young musicians the chance play at a higher level than they might otherwise get to, and to meet other like-minded players.”

Siblings Joyce and Scott Hammann both played in the SLSYO in the 70s, Joyce on violin and Scott on French horn. Joyce went on to become a world-renowned professional violinist, and Scott took the path of a freelance musician while also working as an engineer. “The SLSYO is truly exceptional and I often look back and think how fortunate I was to be part of something excellent in my life,” says Scott, a Local 2-197 member.

St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra
The 2019-20 St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra

“Hard to believe 50 years has passed since my first year of Youth Orchestra,” says Joyce, a member of Local 802 (New York City) who was accepted into the youth orchestra at age 11 and became co-concertmaster at age 12. She is currently the concertmaster for Phantom of the Opera on Broadway.

“The way the orchestra was set up was very similar to the professional orchestras I have performed with. It felt like family,” she says. “Gerhardt Zimmermann was our esteemed conductor at that time, and I was lucky enough to be able to perform Stravinsky’s ‘A Soldiers’ Tale’ with him conducting on this tour. We had fun rehearsals with him in the basement of my house, exciting musical times I will never forget as he breathed life and inspiration into this music. I will be forever grateful to SLSYO for creating many musical opportunities for me, preparing me for leading sections, teaching me how to be a good colleague, and most importantly, for all the marvelous fun we had playing great music.”

In January, the SLSYO is hosting a reunion concert for all former members to play with the orchestra one more time. The orchestra currently is trying to contact as many of the 2,000 alumni as possible. Any former members of the St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra who would like to join in the reunion concert or get more information can email yo50@slso.org or visit the website at www.slso.org/en/edu/youth-orchestra.