Person of the Week

LaVara Frye

Symphony Cellist and Teacher

I never let anything stop me – even if I didn’t make an audition because women weren’t accepted in orchestras.  If I had quit, I never would have been able to be a cellist.

1.  What led you to the mission of being a symphony cellist and teacher?

When I was only five years old, my father knew he was going to die soon, so he left money to buy a piano for me.  After his death, mother bought me a piano — immediately.  That was a time when the banks closed, but they didn’t take the piano back.    Even though the banks were closed, we still made the payments.  My mother was a teacher and we were poor.  Eventually we paid for the piano.

Then I played violin.  Then I discovered the cello.  I just liked the whole sound of what it was and what I could do on the cello.

I didn’t actually play the cello until I was in seventh grade.  They needed cello players!  I loved it!  It was everything I thought it was going to be.  I was playing in the senior orchestra by the end of seventh grade.  I played a school instrument.  I just zoomed right through all music classes when I got the cello.

Then I won some competitions in high school.  I studied with two symphony teachers.  One was Max Steindel.  He was the principal cellist at the time.  The other was Carl Steppie – although he was mad when I left him and went to Max Steindel for lessons!  He used to give me the longest lessons.  I always had all this stuff prepared, so I had a lot of long lessons.  I played in every orchestra they had in St. Louis – like the Women’s Symphony, the Philharmonic, the WPA Orchestra.  St. Louis had a lot of orchestras.  They needed cello players, so I was playing in all of those.  I also studied at the St. Louis Institute and Washington University in St. Louis.

I kept going to school, but at that time, I didn’t finish and get a degree.  I was playing professionally and was hired for the Muni Orchestra in St. Louis.  I tried to get in the St. Louis Symphony.  Vladimir Golschmann was the director but he didn’t want any of them “vemans”.  He didn’t want “vemans” (women) in the symphony.  So, I had to fight that battle.  Except for the harpist, I was the only woman in the Muni Opera in the 1940’s.  I was also hired for the Houston Symphony.

I went down there and played.  This was my first professional job.  Then I finally got into the St. Louis Symphony.  I toured and then went to Springfield to play in their orchestra.  After that I went to Memphis, Tennessee.  I did eventually get a Bachelor’s Degree and Master’s Degree in Music from Southern Illinois University.

2.  What does this mission mean to you?

Playing the cello is all I wanted to do.  From the time I was seven, I wanted to play that instrument.  I just worked hours and hours on it and got a job before I even got a degree.  My husband died, three years after we built our house.  The symphony didn’t have a pension at that time, so I had to work to save for a pension.

I had to quit performing professionally.  Here’s what happened.  One night after my husband died, I was playing at the Muni Opera.  My husband always took care of the kids when I was on tour.  The kids were about eleven, fourteen, and seventeen.   This one night after I had gotten home, there was no supervision and I found out that my kids’ friends had come into the house and my oldest daughter couldn’t get them out.  I don’t think I was meant to go that way, so I ended my Muni Opera career the next night.  I said, “They come first.”  I said, “So, I guess I’ll teach.”  This was so I could be home and take care of my children.

Everybody in my family had been teachers, so I just didn’t want to do that.  But, then I discovered I did like teaching.  I liked the enthusiasm of the children.

3.  What was your best day as a symphony cellist and teacher?

I won the young artists contest.  They had a recital for the winners.  I thought that was great!  I played a Bach unaccompanied cello piece.  My sister was also a good musician.  She accompanied me on one piece.  I liked Bach and the unaccompanied suites. What made it my best day was — preforming.

Another time I was playing for the Muni Opera.  Danny Kaye was preforming and for fun he came down and conducted the orchestra.  He didn’t know “nothing” about conducting!  Then he came off the stand, came down and kissed me.  Then he went back up on stage and came back down and kissed me again!  Then we had intermission!  My husband was in the audience.  He yelled, “I think he is kissing my wife!”

4.  What was your worst day as a symphony cellist and teacher?

My worst day was an audition.  I was trying to get into Curtis Institute.  I didn’t make it.  I was really young when I tried out.  That was the worst!  I had three of the greatest musicians listening to me.  They were well known.  Just the thought of that shook me.  My knees shook and my hands shook.  I thought how I had gotten all ready to do this, but my nerves got to me.

Curtis Institute was in Philadelphia.  A lot of the great musicians were there.  Some of them were Gregor Piatigorsky and Efrem Zimbalist.  Here they were sitting all around me and I was shaking.  I really looked forward to doing the audition.  Even though I didn’t make it, I got in the symphony the next year.

5.  How did you survive your worst day?

Even though I didn’t get in, I still wanted to play as much as before.  I was disappointed. I don’t know, but sometimes I would get nervous.  It seems like some of those kids had more guts than I did.  I just had to keep going.

I never let anything stop me – even if I didn’t make an audition because women weren’t accepted in orchestras – except for the harpist.  If I had quit, I never would have been able to be a cellist.  I was fighting being accepted as a woman cellist.  What Golschmann said to me is what happened – no women wanted.  But in about ten years, they started hiring women.

I didn’t get discouraged.  I still wanted to play – forever.  I was disappointed of course, but it made me want to try harder.  Other than the symphony that didn’t have women, I was playing in the Muni and just about everywhere else in the city.  I was playing Bach concerts, musicals in the 40’s.  Some of them were four weeks long and they would come into town.  Then I played in an ancient instrument group.  I played the viola da gamba.  We did concerts for Washington University.  Leigh Gerdine was involved.  Gerry Rosen had the ancient instrument group.  His daughter played.  She played the viola d’amore.  We were the only two women in the group.  Leigh Gerdine was there.  Howard Kelsey was also involved.  He was one of the great organists in St. Louis at the time.

After I stopped performing, I figured out what I should do.  I got a scholarship at Southern Illinois University.  The school gave me a lot of credit. I got a job and taught in the city of St. Charles for twenty years.  I liked it.  The enthusiasm of the kids – I really liked.  My mother and father taught.  My sisters and brothers taught.  I wanted to break that cycle!  But I found out I liked teaching.  I was also an organist and choir director for twenty years.

I think I had a good role model – my mother.  My father died when I was young.  My mother was mad at him for dying, but she never went on welfare.  She went on by herself and worked until she was seventy years old – teaching.  It also helped that my father saw something in me when I was only five.  He left me the money to buy the piano.  I was too independent.  I didn’t give up.