“The most fulfilling part of teaching, gigging, and performing is that I feel I’m giving people something— I’m giving joy, connection, and love.”
Catherine O’Kelly began playing guitar at the age of 4 after being fascinated by it in The Sound of Music. Today, you can find her filling halls and performance venues around the Boston area with her enchanting music, and bringing guitarists together through lessons and RSC Guitar Weekend, which she began in 2022.
What was your earliest memory of hearing the classical guitar? What kind of impact did studying at RSC have on you?
The earliest memory I have of hearing the classical guitar is in the movie “The Sound of Music.” I was four years old when I first saw the movie, and I watched it over and over because I loved it so much. It’s probably what prompted me to ask my mom for a guitar when I was four. RSC was a great place for me to study guitar. I remember feeling very much a part of a strong community of guitarists, and (former RSC faculty member) Karen Jacques was the perfect teacher for me. She truly cared about all of her students, and she gave me a deep appreciation for the guitar and its repertoire.
When in your musical journey did you decide you wanted to become a professional musician?
It wasn’t until the last semester of my master’s program in classical guitar performance that I actually decided to become a professional guitarist. I entered the program with the goal of becoming a better guitarist just for my own personal fulfillment, with no intention of teaching or performing professionally. Then as I was practicing for my final solo recital for my degree, there was a moment when I thought to myself, “I guess I could do this for a career.” I’ve looked back on that decision many times, and every time I look back, I know that I made the right decision.
What’s one of your most memorable performances?
My favorite performance story is from when I was a student at RSC. I was performing in the Seminar on Contemporary Music, and I was sick with a cold, so I wasn’t thinking my best. I was playing a piece by Frederic Hand, and about two thirds of the way through the piece I lost focus and couldn’t remember what came next. As I tried to think of what came next, I completely forgot what I had just played. The only thing I could remember was the beginning of the piece, so I jumped right back to the beginning with barely a pause. I knew that if I kept playing the whole piece, I was probably going to have a memory slip again in the same place, so I figured I needed to end the piece somehow. So I slowed down, placed a random chord, and ended the piece. Somehow it worked out really well! The only two people in the audience who knew something went wrong were my teacher and my mom.
Why did you create RSC Guitar Weekend?
The concept of Guitar Weekend came about during the early weeks of the pandemic, around April of 2020. Everything was shut down, and it felt like there was nothing to look forward to. Students didn’t have any festivals or events to work towards, and my colleagues didn’t have any gigs or performances. I felt there was a need for an event to bring people together, so I created the Online Guitar Festival, which took place in June of 2020. It was a four-day festival that was entirely online, and it involved master classes, a composition class, a songwriting class, a student recital, and an ensemble piece that my friend Michael Stubblefield wrote for the festival to be performed through Zoom. It was a lot of fun for everyone involved, and it gave us all the connection we were missing. In putting together the Online Guitar Festival I realized I had a lot of ideas for future events, and RSC Director Gabriella Sanna suggested I plan those events at RSC.
What was the highlight of this year’s Guitar Weekend?
The most memorable event of Guitar Weekend this year was the master class with Xuefei Yang. Xuefei has a way of relating to each student so well and knowing how to help students express the music. She is so animated and kind, and her love of music comes through in everything she says. I know all of the students had a lot of fun working with her.
Do you have any plans underway for the next one?
Yes, I have started planning for Guitar Weekend 2024, and one of the events will combine performance, history, and storytelling. One of my aims with the festival is to feature interdisciplinary events, such as this year’s presentation on acoustics and guitar building, which was fascinating. So I will certainly continue to combine guitar with other disciplines, such as history, acting, and dance. I hope to add a chamber music component to the festival at some point and I would love to put together a Guitar Weekend ensemble with all of the festival participants.
Who can learn classical guitar?
Anyone can learn to play classical guitar! You are never too old to learn a new instrument, and in fact I teach group classes at RSC for adult beginners. My favorite thing about teaching beginning students of all ages is seeing the excitement when the students begin to master a new skill. When you’re a beginner, every new skill or song you learn is a big accomplishment.
Interested in learning about RSC’s guitar offerings? We offer private lessons, and group Adult Guitar and Suzuki programs.