This month, the University of Oregon School of Music and Dance (SOMD) is shining a spotlight on Alfonso Keller- Casielles. The junior has studied violin for 17 years and will compete as a National Finalist in the Music Teachers National Association (MTNA) Young Artist Strings Competition this month! In the Q & A below, he talks about his love for the instrument and how SOMD has helped him succeed in his musical endeavors.
Q: When did you start playing violin?
A: I started playing violin when I was four years old. I come from a musical background. My grandfather was a composer and founded the local conservatory in his town. Both of my uncles are bass players, and my cousin is in a country band. Both of my parents are musical recreationally. My mom wanted to instill music into my childhood, but I don't think she was expecting me to pursue it as a career. But I did!
Q: What encouraged you to continue taking lessons all throughout your childhood? A: My theory is that kids quit music lessons because they feel obligated to go to them. But I wanted to go to my violin lessons growing up and my family nurtured that attitude. The motivation was always intrinsic. There was never an outside force pushing me toward anything. I wanted to do it.
Q: What do you love about the violin?
A: The violin is a beautiful instrument. It's like a voice that can always breathe. It can just grow and flower in ways that are amazing.
Q: Why did you choose the University of Oregon’s School of Music and Dance?
A: My parents live in the metro Detroit area, so I auditioned for some schools in Michigan and Ohio. I decided to visit the University of Oregon when my college audition prep teacher, Sonia Lee, suggested I check it out. She had a connection to Fritz Gearhart at UO, who is now retired. When I visited, I had a lesson with Fritz, and it was great! I had a feeling that this was the best school in terms of my playing. It was the place where I felt like I could build something off what I already had. Even though it is far from Detroit, I listened to my gut and chose UO!
Q: Now that you have studied here for almost three years, do you feel like you made the right decision? Has Oregon helped you develop in your playing?
A: Immensely! It has helped in every way imaginable. In terms of growth, I have made a lot of improvement in a short amount of time. I have also had a lot of opportunities. I performed in the undergraduate string quartet last year and that was great. I have also played with many orchestras, including the UO Symphony Orchestra, Orchestra NEXT, which works with the Eugene Ballet, and the Rogue Valley Symphony, which is in southern Oregon. In addition to that, I'm extremely fortunate to have been able to work with Dr. David Jacobs in graduate conducting classes. I like to conduct from time to time and I've been able to study that here, even as an undergraduate.
Photo Credit: Jennifer James-Long
Q: When did you realize a music career was right for you?
A: I decided towards the end of my junior year of high school that I wanted to be a musician. I spent 13 years taking lessons every week, and then I decided I could really make a career out of this. I went all in and said, “I'm going to make this work!”
Q: Why did you make the decision to pursue a music career?
A: I guess this is a “life happiness” thing. I could have pursued a lot of different careers. I had great grades and I came into UO with about 50 transfer credits from AP exams. But I felt that music was the one thing I could count on to make me happy in life. No matter what happened, I knew I wouldn't regret it. Don’t get me wrong - it’s risky and there are never guarantees. It takes a commitment to say, “this is what I'm going to invest everything into.” I was lucky because my parents were behind me. They said, “we'll support you in whatever you want to do.” And I said, “Okay, let's do it!”
Q: You mentioned choosing music is a “life happiness thing.” What do you mean by that?
A: Not to get all dark, but I feel like most people don't like their jobs, and that's sad to me. I could have been happy doing a lot of things but there's something about music that's quite magical; that connects people and the community.
Q: You are a National Finalist in the MTNA Young Artist Strings Competition. Who encouraged you to audition?
A: My current professor Anthea Kreston encouraged me to do the MTNA competition. She’s really pushing me to the next level and I’m starting to win competitions!
Q: How are you preparing for the competition?
A: The preparation has been crazy! I’m constantly recording myself and listening back to pick everything apart because that is gold. It really trains your ear to hear yourself outside your own performative headspace. You hear a lot more when you listen to yourself on a tape than when you hear yourself in real time. I’m getting to the point where I know the music like the back of my hand. That’s important because when I walk on that stage there must be no doubt. No doubt. You're almost like an actor. You just have to go up there with confidence and nail it.
Q: What other opportunities have you enjoyed at UO?
A: I do projects with the Theater Department regularly. The first show I performed in was A Christmas Carol about a year ago. That was great. It’s also interesting because they do months and months of rehearsal leading up to a show. Musicians, especially professional musicians, are used to three rehearsals for a concert. Maybe three, maybe two, right? Maybe you're even sight reading because you're subbing for somebody. The next project I did was Once. In the spring, I’m doing Twelfth Night and there are some musicians on stage for that. What’s exciting is I get three lines! Before, I was only playing music. Now, they’re giving me three lines, so that’s cool.
Q: What’s next for you?
A: I’m trying to keep all the doors open, but a master's degree is a possibility. I could pursue a Violin Performance master's degree or an Orchestral Conducting master's degree. I haven't decided yet. We'll see! And of course, I will audition for orchestras.
Q: What do you do when you’re not studying the violin?
A: Black and white photography is a hobby of mine. I have a Nikon FE from the 70s or 80s and it’s great. It's all manual so there is no automatic focus or anything like that. The real art is when you go into the darkroom to develop and print your pictures. With an iPhone, you just take a picture and it's there. But in a darkroom, you control a lot about how that picture looks. It's a great art form. I'm lucky my dad introduced it to me five or six years ago.
The MTNA Young Artist Strings Competition will be in Reno, NV on March 27th. The winner will receive a cash prize and perform in a Winners Concert at the competition. Break a leg, Alfonso!