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The St. Louis String Collective Wants You to Rethink Classical Instruments 

click to enlarge The local group blurs the lines between the different uses of stringed instruments.

NANCY LYNN

The local group blurs the lines between the different uses of stringed instruments.

Alyssa Avery's musical education didn't necessarily follow a traditional path. As a fourth grader in the Lindbergh school district in south St. Louis county, Avery picked up the violin and began her tutelage. But while she became versed in classical and orchestral music, the lessons she got were much less stratified than many young string players receive.

"Some of the teachers were exposing us at a young age to a lot more than classical music," she recalls. "My teacher would have an after school fiddling club and would travel to world music conferences."

Such exposure to non-classical forms made Avery comfortable with a wide range of styles. It also made her something of an outlier among other young violinists, who were expertly trained to read and interpret written scores but less able to, in a word, jam.

"When someone asked me to improvise for the first time, I didn't know that that was something that a lot of violinists didn't do," Avery says.

She decided to study jazz performance at Webster University, and while jazz violin is something of an outlier (aside from famous names like Regina Carter and Stephane Grappelli), Avery used her time in college to internalize the elements of improvisation and creation.

"Instead of trying to emulate jazz violinists, I was just trying to play jazz with a violin," she says. "What I like more than jazz is improvising."

Avery's path toward professional musicianship didn't lead her through a conservatory or onto a recital hall's stage. Now, she and two partners are trying to light a path for other string players to explore a wide range of music outside of the classical realm. The St. Louis String Collective is having its formal debut this Saturday with an open-house style fundraiser and performance at the appropriately named Soulard bar Four Strings, all in the service of helping string players see outside the strictures of genre.

Avery, who plays in the folk-leaning trio Mt. Thelonious, is joined by fellow violinist Sarah Vie (the Leonas, 18andCounting) and Ranya Iqbal, who has played alongside Acoustik Element, Autumn's Child and more. Taken together, the three musicians have played nearly every identifiable style of music in countless venues across town. Their work with the collective aims to make that leap easier for other players, who may not see how to apply their training in unfamiliar settings.

"We were slightly frustrated in seeing that there was a lot of interest from different string players in exploring different kinds of music," Avery said. "It started with us wanting to start a camp, which we will this summer. But we formed this non-profit to help run the camp but also do other things as well. We want to be able to foster that exploration."

That summer camp will launch in late July at Saint Louis University. Avery says that the founders have taken their inspiration from "fiddle camps around the country, where there will be klezmer and Celtic and jazz players." And while these camps are traditionally aimed at teenage and college-aged musicians, she hopes that more experienced string players will find ways to expand their music as well.

"This could be a place for a high schooler to try different stuff, or if you're a symphony player who wants to learn how to use electronic music or be part of a band setting," she says.

Part of what makes St. Louis such a fertile community for the Collective, Avery says, is its strong infrastructure for both classical and non-classical players. The goal is simply to help connect the dots that already exist.

"Due to the Symphony and how many strong orchestras we have in the high schools, we have a great fiddle community; there are a lot of string players that are doing great stuff," she says. "This is a way for us to connect and to throw workshops."

Avery, Vie and Iqbal hope to start fostering those connections at this Saturday's fundraiser at Four Strings. Naturally, music will be part of the draw: Avery's trio Mt. Thelonious will perform, along with the Leonas, fiddler and folk music savant Colin Blair, and a duo comprising Iqbal's cello and Sandy Weltman's harmonica and ukulele.

Avery hopes that the wide range of music at the fundraiser will help visitors see past the rigidity of little musical boxes.

"There's a side of classical music that can be regimented, and I think in string instrument playing, you either play Bach or you're a fiddle player, and there's nothing in between," she says. "The idea of a very strict genre is not as important as it used to be."

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