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Violin-playing brothers raise spirits, money for college

CLIFTON HEIGHTS – Tabitha Porter had a way to make sure her firstborn child would have an interest in playing the violin. 

While she was pregnant with her son Samson, she played violin music every chance she could. When he was 5, he started taking violin lessons. He had looked at various instruments and thought violins were cool, she said.

Samson’s brother, Sidney, came along when Samson was 3. Today, as Samson is 11 and Sidney is 8, they’re both advancing in their violin skills and using them to bolster their college fund.

“I am proud of them for their diligence and their hard work,” said Porter, a single mother who lives with her children in the Clifton Heights neighborhood. 

Tabitha Porter stands with her sons Sidney (left), 8, and Samson, 11, in Tower Grove Park on May 23, 2020. The boys play violin in public to please listeners and collect donations to help pay for college. Photo by Jim Merkel / MetroSTL.com
All of the works the boys play offer challenges, and both of the boys show extra resilience in dealing with them. She said that she didn’t push them if they’d rather not, but that they continued nonetheless.

Starting last year, the boys played at places including South Grand Boulevard, festivals and other venues, with their violin cases open. People dropped in more than $1,400 in bills and change. Of that, 70 percent went to the college fund and about 30 percent for spending money.

Their grandmother also took them to a nursing home to play.

This year, COVID-19 robbed Samson and Sidney of the chance to raise money for college. But that changed on the Saturday before Memorial Day, when they played together at the Tower Grove Farmers Market. To protect against the disease, they used a bucket instead of their violin cases to collect donations.

A visitor who stopped by that day heard both play the tune of an old folk song, “Go Tell Aunt Rhody.”

As Burl Ives sang it in the classic version, the lyrics say, “Go tell Aunt Rhody, the old grey goose is dead.” But as the boys learned the song in the Suzuki violin method in the Community Music School in Webster Groves, the lyrics are, “Go Tell Aunt Rhody, I Like Ice Cream Cones.” That helped them play the song more easily, their mother said.

Those happier words suit the reason Sidney plays.

Samson Porter plays his violin in the subway of New York City, for the enjoyment of passersby and to raise money for his college fund. Samson, 11, and his brother, Sidney, 8, were visiting NYC with their mother, Tabitha Porter.
“When I play, people can finally hear something good,” he said. They can finally hear something happy and not sad, he said.

“Sidney’s still in the beginning stages of learning the classical pieces,” said Porter, who is a sales project manager for Millipore Sigma.

Samson is an intermediate player, Porter said. He doesn’t play Mozart concertos, but people say he plays beautifully and with compassion, she said. He’d like to play piano, and has branched off into fiddling and pop violin. 

“What I like about playing violin is I can express my[self],” Samson explained. 

“They play well,” Porter said. “They’re very friendly and approachable.”

With that kind of background, you would think the two Porter brothers would be headed toward a career as professional musicians. Their mother discouraged that.

“I told them that being a musician is very difficult,” Tabitha Porter acknowledged.

Instead, Samson decided he’d be a lawyer, “So I can give people a chance in court.”

Sidney wants to be a doctor, but not any kind of doctor. He wants to be an OB-GYN.

That may take a while for Samson, who will be in sixth grade next year at St. Margaret of Scotland Catholic School; and Sidney, who next year will be in his third year studying Chinese at the St. Louis Language Immersion School. Samson also attended the St. Louis Language Immersion School through fifth grade. 

While they make their money a different way, they’ll keep playing. Mom will watch, but she won’t play. She never learned, but her sister plays violin, and her brother plays the piano.

A woman drops money into the violin case of Sidney Porter, 8, who plays his violin in New York City’s subway. Photos courtesy of Tabitha Porter
Earlier this year, before the situation with COVID-19 got bad in this country, the three had been scheduled to go to New York as the first step of a trip to China to work on their language skills. The trip to China was canceled, but they still were able to spend four days in New York. There, the brothers played their instruments and got their pictures taken at such places as Times Square.

Such progress requires encouragers, and Tabitha Porter credits several. Among them are the Webster Groves Community Music School and their instructor, Joanne Keene; and instructor Alyssa Avery, who worked with Samson while he spent a week at the Nashville Blair Institute Summer Suzuki program and who is in charge of the St. Louis Strings Collective.

At the top of his list of role models, Samson picks Black Violin, two hip hop artists who are classically trained in string instruments. “[H]e practices diligently because one day he hopes to be as skilled as the violinist in that group,” Porter explained.

“I’m so proud of Samson and Sidney,” Tabitha said in an email. “Not only for their playing but for the diligence and resilience they’ve demonstrated over the past six years as they learned and advanced through their lessons. The way that they’ve taken partial ownership for the fiscal responsibilities of college at such a young age. Samson has been such a great role model and advocate for Sidney; his involvement in helping his brother learn the violin is priceless.”

The two boys’ mother enjoys watching her sons and does what she can to encourage them. If things work out, each will have two careers: the one that makes them money and the one that brings audiences joy.

If that happens, Mom will be in the front row.

Jim Merkel

southsidemerkel@gmail.com Born and raised in the St. Louis area, Jim Merkel covered communities throughout the area from 1991 to 2013 for the old Suburban Journals of Greater St. Louis. He is the author of five books about the Gateway City published by Reedy Press. The latest is Growing Up St. Louis: Looking Back Through the Decades. He and his wife, Lorraine, live in the Bevo Mill neighborhood of south St. Louis with Miss Jenny the Cat. For more about Jim, visit www.jimmerkelthewriter.com.

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