Music and Its Maker: A Love Story

K

ate Kelly had given up. Enough was enough. She was tired. Tired of moving from teacher to teacher. Tired of having her voice suppressed. Instead of fostering her raw, organic talents, the people hired to help only became roadblocks.
No, Kate Kelly. You can’t be yourself today, sorry. Forget your natural instincts and place your fingers on the ivories we tell you to. Play the music we tell you to play. Practice this Sonata. Practice, practice, practice. You need to be ready for the competition, even though you’ve never made it in the past. Is it so much to ask for a little Ben Folds to be worked into the curriculum, and maybe an opportunity to improv?
Apparently it was. The answer was no. It was always no.
Some of the piano teachers would occasionally meet and talk about their students. There were a few who had taught Kate. When her name came up, there was usually a general consensus about the small, petite teenage girl: she just wants to do her own thing. And that wasn’t the pedagogy these rigid instructors employed.
Walking away from the piano was one of the hardest things Kate ever did. The same instrument that moved her to tears after playing just two chords was now completely removed from her life. But it’s easy to see why she did it. There was no joy during the lessons. No person wants to be tortured, especially by the thing they love.
In the midst of giving up her instrument, Kate experienced turbulence in her personal life as well. After freshman year of high school, she spent the following summer entertaining her curiosity about life. It was a time of growth, exploration, and transformation. When she returned to school, though, she was ostracized by her friends. They told her she had become a stereotypical “cookie-cutter” high school student.
Alone. Without music. This was Kate’s life. And it would remain this way until she met Angela.

M

overs pulled a piano from a truck parked in the Oakleigh Garden District in Mobile, Alabama. It belonged to Angela Rayburn. One of her former students in Boston purchased it for her as a gift. The student offered to take Angela to the legendary Steinway store in New York City, but that isn’t her style. Instead she walked into a store in Beantown, sat down at this piano, played a few notes, and started to cry.
The piano chose her.
Angela began teaching piano in 1997, first in Kentucky and then Boston. She isn’t one of those fuddy-duddy type teachers, though. You know, the rigid ones who push sheet music and Sonata practice on their students? She is an imaginative soul who has created learning systems for students with Dyslexia, and other people with disabilities, using colors and elements of pop culture, like Star Wars movies.
She likes to do her own thing.
But when Angela came to Mobile in 2008 after her husband’s work led them to the Port City, she had nothing. There was a piano teacher who lived close by that put her in touch with other teachers in the area, the “inner-circle,” if you will. But those people weren’t her tribe, she said. Having no students or knowledge of the area though, Angela’s options for a cohort were slim-to-none.
Shortly after joining the “inner-circle,” Angela was asked to present at the Mobile Music Teacher’s Association. She chose to talk about creativity. It went terribly. She tried to use teachers as volunteers to illustrate her methods, but they did not respond well. She was all but booed off the stage.
The new kid isn’t welcome here. Not in the exclusive club. Take your methods of madness and go somewhere else. As if finding her tribe wasn’t hard enough, Angela’s mother had been diagnosed with cancer right around the time she moved to Mobile.
No friends. In pain. This was Angela’s life. And, it would remain this way until she met Kate. The small, petite high school girl who quit the piano.

I

nside the Cream & Sugar cafe, on the second floor, Angela sat comfortably in a green chair, feet tucked underneath her, gripping a porcelain cup of decaf coffee with two hands. Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ faintly played in the background.

 

‘Cause this is thriller, thriller night. And no one’s gonna save you from the beast about to strike!

Her eyes closed, visible behind the glasses sitting on her face. Not closed so tight that her eyelids are wrinkled and stressed, but more of a peaceful and relaxed look. “What do you say when you meet someone for the first time and you know your souls are alike,” Angela asked sincerely, opening her eyes. She stopped to ponder her own question and then smiled, already knowing the answer.
Angela had heard the teachers talk about Kate. They would roll their eyes when her name came up. Never practices. “She must not be interested,” Angela thought. She’s got all this talent but she won’t apply herself. “It must not be being channeled in the right direction then,” Angela thought. When she looked around at the people speaking about a soul this way, she thought, “ You are everything I don’t want to become.”
Who knew how cutthroat piano teachers could be? But all of the unkind things said about this student, Angela saw as good soil.
Kate knew the inner-circle talked about her, but she heard rumblings of a new teacher intrigued by all of this Kate-Kelly-bashing. A teacher who thought, “Who is this kid? She just wants to do her own thing? That sounds like my style.”

She was right.
Angela wanted to work with this girl. She had to work with her. When Kate’s mother called to ask about lessons, she could barely contain her excitement. She could not wait to meet her.
It was all happening. The wheels of the Universe were turning.

Kate Kelly sits on her dock looking out over Dog River before her house-show performance.

T

here was a stack of papers tucked beneath Kate’s arm when she walked in to Angela’s home for the first time; a mixture of sheet music and books. She must have brought them out of habit, because she sure as hell didn’t find them interesting or useful. Nevertheless, Kate took a seat at the piano. The same piano that chose Angela in Boston. The same piano she cried at.
Angela let Kate play what she thought her new teacher wanted to hear for about 10 minutes. She then interjected. “This is crazy. This isn’t you. This has no life. Play something that comes from you.” Kate’s fingers started to move. It was a song by Coldplay, Angela thinks. She isn’t 100 percent sure. But she remembers seeing a fire spark in the young girl.
It was inside her all along.
When Kate finished, Angela asked if she wrote songs. “No. But I write poetry and journal,” she replied. “Then you write,” Angela said. The unconventional teacher encouraged her new student to bring in poems and journal entries. This was perfect material to transform into song.
But Kate was hesitant.
“She was so afraid of being judged,” Angela said with a hint of sadness in her voice, shaking her head from side to side. “She had just been judged so much.” Slowly though, the fear evaporated and Kate began to open her heart and create. Perhaps it was the level of comfort she felt with Angela. The first time they met, Angela said looking at Kate was like looking in a mirror. She felt as though she could relate to this young soul.
The feeling was reciprocal.
Kate had been living without any outlet of expression for so long. She had been isolated and depressed. Lost in her musical journey. Angela helped remedy that. Her new piano teacher allowed Kate to play the music she wanted. Angela saw how strong Kate’s ear was, so they scrapped the sheet music. “They [inner-circle] were trying to shove things on Kate, that is not Kate. At all.”
Then came the songs.
“I was this depressed, annoyed teenager who was bringing in her journals to piano lessons,” Kate said, chuckling. “And then I started turning them into songs.”
Angela was involved very little in the writing process. She showed Kate how to write a song, and then she stepped back and watched her student evolve. The material Kate was creating was powerful stuff, Angela said. She was in awe of the depth this young girl had shown in her musical gifts. “I remember her talking about coming out of the mud, roots and gnarling around,” Angela said.

It gave her chills.

A look at Kelly performing through a doorway of an adjacent bedroom.

This was the first time music actually provide healing for Kate. Her mental health. Her ability to feel happy about herself. It was also healing Angela. The pain she felt from her mother’s diagnosis. The rejection of the inner-circle.
Together they witnessed the therapeutic power of music. Together they helped each other cross a threshold.

T

he snow that covered the streets of Nashville one morning in early March began to melt. By 3 p.m., it was like the winter wonderland never happened. The skies were blue, the sun was out, and the Portland Brew Café was warm and cozy.
Kate had just gotten off work when she arrived at the café. She ordered a London Fog to drink and a blueberry muffin to snack on. The second floor seemed more attractive because of the natural light pouring in through the windows. That’s where she sat. At a table next to a window of the second floor.
As she picked at her blueberry muffin Kate talked about her day. She is a music therapist at a facility in Nashville. Her patients range from those with psychological disorders to memory issues. She uses music to help heal. Like it did for her. Like it did for Angela.
Singer/songwriter is Kate’s other title. Combining these two passions, music therapy and songwriting, was a no-brainer. Kate says she excels in intimate settings. “I’ve never been the type of person that’s very ego-driven with their music. Like, ‘I want be a star,’” Kate said authentically. “Really, I realized my calling is connecting with people through music.”
Few things are more intimate than having the ability to connect with an audience. At work, it’s patients. At venues, it’s crowds.
She has grown so much as an artist and individual. The guitar is her instrument of choice now. Angela said it was always her instrument anyways, that it called to her. Before she arrived at Belmont University in Nashville, there was no music therapy program. There is now. Kate played an instrumental role in helping create the program, after which it became her major and psychology her minor. She graduated fall of 2016.
In 2015 she spent a summer in Cahuita, a tiny village in Costa Rica, earning her certification to be a yoga teacher. On her time off she explored the country by backpacking through its jungles, villages and oceanside beaches, alone for the most part. Away from technology, friends, and most importantly, her instruments. She found herself singing as she rode her bike through villages, or humming melodies.
She missed music.

I

t was about two hours until doors as Kate relaxed on the dock. The cool Alabama wind rode along the surface of Dog River and then leapt up, engulfing the dock with a sudden gust, sending Kate’s hair in all different directions. The 23-year-old laughed and smiled, took a sip of her Bud Light with one hand and fixed her hair with the other.
“When you identify as an artist, you can choose what you say to the world,” Kate said stoically.
Her first EP New Heartbeat was released in 2016. She recorded it over a three-year period at the Sound Shelter in Franklin, Tennessee. A friend of hers worked there, so they got free studio time. But the times were usually pretty late, typically around 1 a.m. or 3 a.m. Free studio time is free studio time, though.
The songs Kate created from journal entries were very personal and private. Written for Kate. A lot of times they came from a victimized standpoint.. That’s essentially what New Heartbeat is — a collection of journal entries. A collection of deeply-personal songs she decided to share with the world.

A copy of Kelly’s setlist from her house-show performance. Tiptoe is the only song from her EP New Heartbeat, the rest are all new material.

But she didn’t want to write journal songs anymore. She wanted to write songs that made her feel empowered. That’s when she wrote Honey, a story about learning to love to be alone. Learning to chose who you want to surround yourself with. It’s about learning to accept one’s flaws and putting yourself out there.
“I’m totally human. These aren’t journal songs anymore. These are our songs. I’m a vessel for them,” Kate said, pressing her hands close to her heart and then pushing them out, palms toward the river. “When Honey arrived within me, I was like, ‘Oh, that’s Kate Kelly!’”
It took two months to create. Verses came sporadically, or in bits and pieces. When it was finished, though, it set in motion a transformation.

The new Kate Kelly had arrived.
There were about fifty to sixty people in the guest house of Kate’s home on Dog River, the venue for her house-show. Some were seated in chairs that had been set up to form rows, others sat on couches against walls, or stood wherever there was room. It was around 8 o’clock when she picked up her guitar and thanked everyone for coming.
The room fell quiet. Quiet as a mouse.
She played only one song from the EP, and the rest was new material she’s been working on. Hidden in the playlist was a cover of Van Morrison’s Into the Mystic, one of her parent’s favorite songs. Kim and Clark looked at each other from across the room and smiled as their daughter sang the lyrics.
In between songs she would tell stories. Whether it was about lightning bolts of inspiration responsible for a song, or about her and her boyfriend listening to a Joni Mitchell record on a Friday night in Nashville, she kept the audience engaged. It was like being at a VH1 Storyteller taping.
And in the audience was Angela.
The piano teacher who became Kate’s best friend in high school. The woman who helped her cross a pivotal threshold that led to her future as musician and music therapist. She watched Kate command the audience, her face radiating like a proud mother. The student no teacher wanted. The student who helped heal Angela’s pain.
“My love for Kate is granite,” Angela said. “It is granite.”
The guest house is empty. It is silent and dark, except for a sliver of light spilling in from a bulb illuminating an oak tree outside. The energy from tonight’s show is all that remains. A feeling of connection fused together by music.

That’s Kate Kelly’s gift, though. A product of her calling to connect with others. Just like she does with her patients. Just like she did with Angela. Just like she did with people tonight.


Kate Kelly had given up. Enough was enough. She was tired. Tired of moving from teacher to teacher. Tired of having her voice suppressed. Instead of fostering her raw, organic talents, the people hired to help only became roadblocks. It’s easy to see why she did it, though. (This purpose of this paragraph is to serve as an excerpt for the story. It is not a continuation of the work above)

The original title of this story, as published in Bellum: Featured Artist: Kate Kelly. It originally appeared in the print edition released June 1, 2017.