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COVID Brings SLSO Violist to Normandy for High School Orchestra Students

WELLSTON, MO -- When one of Normandy’s long-time orchestra teachers left the district last spring, it left a huge void.

     “I interviewed a few candidates for the opening, but because the students had been exposed to a certain level of expertise, I knew I had to get the right person,” said Duane Foster, Normandy Fine Arts Coordinator. 

     Bernard Long Jr., the former Normandy High School band director, had met Michael Casimir by way of his work with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. Long reached out to Casimir, a violist with SLSO, to see if he would be interested in the opening with Normandy.

      “Yes, please, put my name in the hat,” Casimir recalled. “[Long] put me in touch with Duane and the rest is history.”

      Casimir, who has been a member of the award-winning St. Louis Symphony Orchestra since 2018, was available because of COVID-19. The symphony has had to cancel its performances and reduced the number of rehearsals, giving Casimir the time to serve as Teacher-in-Residence with the Normandy High School orchestra.

      A native of West Philadelphia, Pa., Casimir started playing the violin at the age of 2. His parents, who are also musicians, were his first teachers and taught music in the Philadelphia public school system. Casimir, who studied at Julliard and the Oberlin Conservatory, is excited about his classes at Normandy but is realistic when it comes to his expectations. Right now, incremental improvement is what he’s looking for out of his class.

      “I just want to see growth in our students,” said Casimir, who graduated from the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. “They can play, they’re very talented, but we needed to work more on the fundamentals, so we’re focusing on reading music: time signatures, note names, key signatures.” 

      The progress made so far is impressive to Casimir.

     “Seeing what the kids can do, it makes me want to cry, but I can’t let them see that,” Casimir said jokingly. 

      Foster, who is a Normandy High School alumnus and has performed on Broadway, says he is in awe of Casimir’s patience and expertise.

     “The students are in awe of him and now think of him as a big brother,” Foster said of Casimir. “Their confidence is getting stronger every day. He is being patient and acknowledging when they are doing well and when they make mistakes.”

     This confidence is another area where Casimir, 29, hopes to help the students with. 

     “Even if you’re wrong, go into it confidently,” Casimir said of his students. “They’ll try something new and just do that, then wait for me to tell them to go to the next thing. Keep going. Don’t always wait for someone else to say yes or no.”

     Casimir, who is one of just a few African Americans to play with a major metropolitan orchestra, said the highlight of his experience so far, is when a student has that ‘ah-ha’ moment.

     “I get to see somebody who looks like me have that ‘ah-ha’ moment, ‘oh this is how you read music’,” Casimir said. “Now they get what I do.”

     LaShawnna Levy, a sophomore who has played an instrument since elementary school, says working with Casimir has been an “amazing opportunity for us.”

     Angel Shelton, a senior, says it makes a difference seeing someone who looks like her playing classical music.

     “I can connect with him. We see things from a similar perspective,” Shelton said. “I get the chance to work with someone who looks like me, in classical music -- it’s great.”

     Because of COVID-19 and the resulting restrictions, Casimir plans to stay at Normandy through the end of the school year. He hopes to continue to be that ambassador for classical music by exposing more students of color to the opportunities available. 

     “As a teen, I didn’t like classical music,” he recalled. “What brought me into classical music were other kids like me, just regular kids who had similar backgrounds and interests. Music as a whole was interesting, but classical music needs more ambassadors.”

michael casimir  

CAPTION: Michael Casimir who is serving as Normandy teacher-in-residence, is a violist with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. Casimir attended Julliard and is a graduate of the Curtis School of Music.