As a longtime middle school orchestra director in Austin, Samantha Stewart is well-versed in coordinating, organizing, and directing talent. So even though it was not much of a stretch for Stewart to turn her chamber music jam sessions with friends into a business, she admitted to being nervous. But, despite her reservations, Stewart – along with her two best friends, fellow musicians Nicole Taylor and Julie Allevato – in the fall of 2016 took the leap from making their mutual hobby and side hustle, the Sienna String Quartet, to what has since become a nearly full-time gig that provides the soundtrack to everything from wedding proposals and weddings ceremonies to celebrations of life and charity fundraisers. The musicians’ group plays in the Austin area, is expanding into San Antonio and, possibly, Houston, and has grown to 25 musicians.
“It has taken a long time to get a list of 25 [all female] musicians,” Stewart said in a phone interview with Texasliving on her way to San Antonio.
“Before, I was keeping it very small; I had maybe ten to twelve people I trusted. It takes a long time to find people you trust and who trust you to do a good job. The thing I love about us is a lot of other gigging groups have 100 people on their list, but because we keep it small, we get to play together all the time. We’re all friends, which I really appreciate. There have been a lot of people who don’t fit with our vibe, and it takes a long time to figure out who does, and I’m so excited that we finally have that now.”
Stewart began playing music in the fifth grade. By middle school, she “hated” orchestra class. “All I wanted to do was go to gym [class],” she said. “We had to choose between gym and orchestra, and I was like, ‘Let me go to gym [class].’ In high school, we had a rock orchestra, and my teacher was so inspiring, and we got to do pop music and classical music. That was one of the only things I was into other than sports.”
In college, she earned a performance degree in viola. “It’s not the star instrument; you play the harmony. After college, I loved the violin so much that I switched, and I’ve been playing [violin] almost ten years.”
Before turning the Sienna String Quartet into a business, Stewart and her musician friends enjoyed playing together and hanging out afterward. Occasionally, they were hired to play at weddings. “Then it just blew up, and we started performing a lot, and then we were like, ‘Well, this needs to be a business.’”
As the Sienna String Quartet’s numbers have grown, so too have its gigs. Stewart said that the group has more than 200 bookings a year, Stewart said, “but that doesn’t mean days, because some days we have ten gigs in a day. Thursdays are usually corporate things, and Fridays and Saturdays are usually [wedding] proposals and weddings.
“I have a huge spreadsheet with all my contractors, and I have all their availability, so I assign [quartets to events] based on [that]. Today we have three different weddings going on, so I have different groups going to those.”
While weddings are the Sienna String Quartet’s most frequent jobs, funerals are Stewart’s favorite because “they’re some of the most beautiful,” she said. “Sometimes they have us play their favorite songs, and I think it’s so cool that we’re celebrating people who have lived a great life.”
Music with Passion
The Sienna String Quartet also partnered with the Austin Chamber Music Center to perform outreach concerts in schools. “I wrote a program, so we show [the students] classical music, mariachi, pop music on our instruments, and answer questions they have. The kids seem to really enjoy it.” For Stewart, reaching youth through the power of music is something she gets to experience nearly every day.
“As an orchestra director, I see these kids really enjoy coming in and doing something physical. They’re putting their fingers on a string… doing math in class, and… learning a new language. They’re learning new notes, and as we know, learning multiple languages is great for intelligence. Music, I think, is another language. It’s [also] just so important for them to not be on screens all the time. I teach orchestra like it’s a sport. We warm up, and I really work them in class.”
“I work in a Title 1 school, and I’ve been there for ten years, and I’ve seen a lot [of my students] graduate and go on to music school [who are] first-generation college students. It gives them something to hold on to, to keep them out of trouble, and get them out of where they are; they’re going to college now. That’s amazing.”
Booming [Music] Business
Stewart has found that she is in her element as the owner of the Sienna String Quartet. “I love organizing stuff; I love taking the contracts and finalizing them, sending invites out to musicians, and scheduling them. The second thing I really love is when I’m finally at the event, and I can take everything out of my mind and just play. When I’m playing, I’m very focused on my technique and playing the song correctly, so I can’t think about other things like what’s going on at that other wedding or that proposal. It’s like what happens, happens; I get to play right here, right now.”
The group’s growth and ever-increasing notoriety have been exciting, Stewart added. “It’s not that I want to be famous, but I love being a businesswoman, and I never thought I would be, and I love growing [the business]. I love bringing my other musicians with me. Julie is so excited to do this in Houston, and Nicole loves helping with all this growth. It’s just so cool to be a part of something that is growing and getting bigger, and – hopefully – people really enjoy the music we’re providing.”