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Playing to the Beat of a Distant Violin


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One of my favorite stories from my checkered career is this profile of Stephen Kelley, a fine symphony violinist who at the time I interviewed him lived in a trailer park and worked a warehouse job — not exactly what you would expect from a classical player. Various traumas sent him on a path of meditation, yoga, philosophy, and enlightenment, hardly the pursuits you associate with a trailer park resident.  But then again everything about Kelley was incongruous, always in an interesting way, always overturning your stereotypes.  He’s a genuine eccentric in the best sense of the word.  I understand he’s still playing of course but that he’s left behind that warehouse job to teach school.  This story epitomizes my penchant and instinct for writing about people and their passions and their magnificent obsessions. I think I gravitate to these subjects because I identify with the subjects so much.  The piece originally appeared in the now defunct Omaha Weekly.

 

Playing to the Beat of a Distant Violin

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the Omaha Weekly

 

The surprisingly spacious house trailer is situated on a small lot in the Park Meadows Mobile Home community in northwest Omaha. The pale blue trailer’s owner, Super Target warehouse laborer Stephen Kelley, is a balding, middle-age man dressed in the sweatshirt, jeans and sneakers he will wear on the overnight shift that evening. The decor inside is warm and cozy. Vintage photographic portraits adorn the imitation wood-paneled walls. By mid-afternoon a fine bottle of wine has been opened and, as sleet showers shimmer outside, a relaxed Kelley removes his concert violin from a case and begins playing a passage from Antonin Dvorak’s Four Romantic Pieces. The vibrato is rich and sweet. The technique, assured. The incongruity of it all — a mobile home dweller who stocks frozen foods for a living who also happens to play the violin sublimely — is a bit surreal. But, in one of those instances where appearances and labels can be deceiving, it turns out his craftsmanship is the result of years of serious classical training. He has, in fact, played in the first violin sections of several Midwest symphony orchestras, including the Omaha Symphony, which he first joined at the tender age of 18.

Once on the fast track to a promising career in the mainstream classical music world, Kelley has in recent years chosen to follow a road less traveled, especially for someone with his solid credentials. He has two degrees from Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, he trained under top violin instructors and he boasts a resume full of solid professional music performances. A self-described “misfit,” he has largely dropped-out of traditional music circles to pursue an artistic-survival course some might call eccentric. That has meant working a series of regular jobs, including a long stint as a manager and maintenance supervisor with McDonald’s, to support himself, his wife and son. Since suffering a severe head injury in an automobile crack-up in 1985, and reeling from an emotional collapse that followed, Kelley has worked no fewer than nine positions.

 

 

All the while, he has continued perfecting his violin playing. He did advance studies with, among others, the late David Majors, who was a respected violin instructor in the area, and with noted violinist Kenneth Goldsmith, a member of the world-renown Mirecourt Trio. He has performed occasional solo recitals and as part of several ensembles. He still sometimes sits-in with area orchestras.

He has also continued a lifelong search for inner peace and spiritual enlightenment. Raised a Catholic, Kelley became enchanted with the writing of Thomas Merton and at one point came close to entering the monastic life (he earned a vocation scholarship to Benedictine). Later, he fell away from Catholicism to explore Quaker teachings and Eastern philosophies. In the past six years he has immersed himself in yoga, using meditation, along with his beloved music, to help him deal with his demons. Chief among those demons is his highly emotional nature and his fanaticsim with doing things right. A serious student of past music and musicians, Kelley sets standards that are perhaps beyond his reach. An instructor of piano at Creighton University, Elaine Majors, knows Kelley well and his preoccupation with trying to achieve a purity in his playing that approaches the masters. “He is so well-versed in how a piece of music should sound that if he can’t produce it, it’s very defeating to him and absolute agony for him.” It’s why, she said, he would find teaching music too frustrating — as the search for that perfect golden tone would surely always elude him or his students.

 

 

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Thomas Merton

 

Those familiar with Kelley confirm he is an artist of rare insight who has followed a maverick path. “He has a very fine musical background. He’s very talented. He’s very perceptive. He studies other musicians carefully. He’s constantly self-analytical. He continually veers off in other directions. He’s always looking for new approaches. He’s interesting, he’s different and he’s engaged. Music is his life,” said Elaine Majors, whose late husband, David, he studied under many years.

“His talent is evident in his unflagging interest in all aspects of the violin,” said Arnold Schatz, a longtime Omaha Symphony player and retired music educator whom Kelley has studied with on several occasions. “He has not only a deep interest in the violin, but rather a passion and almost an obsession with the violin.”

Kelley acknowledges his hard-to-satisfy aesthetic nature has been a source of torture inside and outside the music scene. “I’m sensitive and I’m a perfectionist, and that’s very tough on me. I often work with people who don’t understand me at all. People harass the hell out of me. But I understand how to do my job very well. I don’t ever slack off and I don’t ever do second-rate,” he said before charting a litany of dirt he asserts has been done to him by employers and co-workers upset with his overzealousness. “I’ve had all sorts of nasty things happen to me. I’ve been walking through disasters for 20 years.”

He realizes he sometimes may have exacerbated bad situations by having “stepped on a few toes” or by “taking a stance” or by speaking out against “greedy, ruthless, dishonest” practices he feels are rampant in corporate America. “What you find out in these companies is that everybody’s in it for themselves.”

Call it naivete or idealism, but Kelley himself sometimes sounds like a dreamer who cannot quite come to terms with the human condition. He has paid a price for his rather romantic notions and high-strung nature. For example, as a young man he crumbled under the strain of losing a prized violin and breaking up with his then fiance in short order and subsequently endured the first of his nervous breakdowns. While he has avoided further emotional crises since the head trauma he suffered in the 1980s, he still occasionally battles a bad case of nerves when performing in public. His stage fright first reared its ugly head when, as a Benson High School senior, he froze on a solo of Autumn Leaves during a school concert. “I locked up and I couldn’t move the bow. The nerves just exploded on me. I never even put the bow on the violin. I had practiced the piece so intensely and with so much trepidation that when the movement came my body gave out — literally. So, I’ve had to fight nerves ever since.”

 

 

 

 

 

He said he has come to largely control his butterflies through a combination of intense preparation and pharmaceutical aids. “Part of dealing with nerves is being prepared 200 percent and understanding your craft like a rocket scientist. I’ve been working on my craft for over 30 years, and I still fear the nerves. I tend to take a beta blocker to keep from flying off the handle. The pill doesn’t stop the adrenalin at all, but at least I can function” with it.

Far from being crippled by his intuitiveness, Kelley makes great thrift of it when performing, which for him is an intense experience but one made even more so when playing passages of heightened emotion. “When I play a piece of music I look for the emotional high points. The passages where goose bumps come. They’re there. If you don’t find them, you don’t know the music.” Those moments become what he calls “ecstatic” moments for him and, hopefully, audience members as well. “The emotions are overpowering and I let them flow into the music. The emotion is carried. You want to connect emotionally with the audience — from your very heart, right to the person in front of you, so that they can feel you right through the violin.”

Not unlike meditation, he said playing can transport him to another place. “There are spots in the music where I feel the breath coming and releasing with a sense of peace. They’re like lifting spots. It’s rather magical.”

Giving into one’s emotions during a performance can detract from technical perfection, which is why he said most classical violinists prefer to play it safe rather than expose their depth of feeling and risk tonal variations on stage. “Part of that reluctance,” he said, “is because everything is so professional and competitive and it’s the whole thing about — you’ve got to get every note perfect and the critics have to like what you do.” It’s not that Kelley doesn’t believe in rigorous technique. He does. In fact, he finds far too many of today’s players technically sloppy, with excessive movement in their bowing elbow and wrist producing a wavering and somewhat flattened vibrato. The player is working against his instrument rather than being one with it. The technique he prefers employs minimal arm movement, which he said produces a richer, more seamless tone. “I have a very advanced, efficient violin technique that is focused, tight, fast, and that produces the incomparable…the essence — beauty. There’s no other word for it. There’s a little roundness to it. Not so much that it overpowers what you’re trying to play. But it just takes it further. Then you’re bringing out the potential of the violin. And then if you think beauty, it seems like the violin itself responds.”

Kelley’s affinity for the mystical and ethereal has driven his quest to try and master yoga. Since attending a public meditation given by her in Boulder, Co., Kelley has become a devotee of Shri Anandi Ma, a world-renowned instructor in Kundalini Maha Yoga, which is based on the premise that there is a divine healing energy in each of us waiting to be tapped. Kelley, who describes her as “a saint,” feels yoga has changed his life. “It has been very effective for me with stress reduction and with moving me into other levels of consciousness. Breath regulation is the be all and end all of it. My most intense experiences — what I call ecstatic experiences — have meant that my breathing went from self-control to almost divine control. The sensations in the body are subtle and intense. The feeling within you is a physical sensation of great cellular togetherness and peace. Breathing becomes almost like a joy. I wish my violin playing went that far.”

 

 

 

Beyond these ancient mind-body-spirit traditions, Kelley derives what might be called spiritual sustenance from his favorite authors, including Loren Eiseley and Sherwood Anderson, and from his favorite composers, including Johann Brahms and Franz Schubert. From early childhood on Kelley has indulged his two primary passions — reading and music — with the kind of enthusiasm found only in the most ardent followers. He once owned an extensive collection of books and records, but has sold or given most of it away. Before he began devouring books at the Benson public library (he read through all the classics as an adolescent), he had long ago cultivated a love of music.

“I was born with this connection to sound. Music was so strong with me that as a toddler I could walk up to the radio or TV and tell you who was singing. My mother was into music. I was able to access her record collection, which had some of the best classical recordings you could get your hands on, and I learned it all — forwards and backwards. At home we had an Admiral TV with a turntable and four speakers. It had unbelievably good sound. I ran that system from grade school right into high school.”

He began studying the violin at age 9, but did not take his first private lesson until 12. While not quite a prodigy, he made an auspicious recital debut about a year later when he played the Mylnarski Mazurka without accompaniment. Then, in a rare feat, he joined the Omaha Symphony just out of high school in 1968 — as an 18-year-old — under the baton of conductor Joseph Levine. He received a graduate music fellowship to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. And as a junior in college he played the entire Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, Brahms First Sonata and First Bach Sonata unaccompanied and from memory.

After such early success, including two later stints with the Omaha Symphony under conductors Yuri Krasnapolsky (whom he adored) and Thomas Briccetti (whom he despised) and performing with the Opera Omaha Orchestra under such famous guest conductors as Arthur Fielder, Kelley quit the symphony scene and its “politics” to do his own thing.

He made himself persona non grata with the local symphony when he publicly questioned Briccetti’s credentials in a Sun Newspaper commentary. He discontinued the UNL fellowship in the midst of his first nervous breakdown. He rebounded to perform as a member of the David Majors and Myron Cohen String Quartets.

He also founded and performed in a string trio — Les Troi Cords — for which he wrote many arrangements. More recently, he has used his diverse connections to serve as “a catalyst” in putting together concert programs, including performances by the Mirecourt Trio and the Omaha Youth Orchestra at his alma mater (Benedictine) and organizing and performing in recitals, like one in 1997 at First Unitarian Church in Omaha featuring “outcast artists” like himself.

The iconoclastic journey Kelley has opted to take has been a difficult one, but he feels venturing off the beaten track to follow his muse and to find the truth has been worth it. “It’s become more creative every step of the way. I do what I love to do,” he said, a contented smile creasing his face.

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