Two and half years ago, at age 16, Pocatello native and classical guitarist Austin Keller set his sights on attending Juilliard — the most prestigious music conservatory in the world. As of today, not only has 19-year-old Keller, been accepted to some of the finest music schools, he has set his sights even higher: the world’s professional classical guitar stage. And the world is beginning to listen.
Austin, the son of Steve and Melinda Keller, moved to Pocatello with his family when he was 4 years old. His father is part owner of the Keller Construction Company that helped build such locations as the Stephens Performing Arts Center and the new Hobby Lobby. His younger sisters attend local public schools. Ellianna is a third grader at Edahow Elementary and Isabella is a sophomore at Highland High School. Austin, too, attended Pocatello public schools — Century High School his freshman year, and then Highland his sophomore year. After that, Keller chose to finish high school online to further his guitar goals.
Keller said, “I was so involved in things like drama, art and the pit orchestra that it was taking time away from music for me.”
Keller practices seven hours a day in a fairly regimented way. First, he runs through scales, exercises and intricate finger work for about an hour. Second, he practices music for recitals, concerts and competitions. Then, he practices new music his teacher has assigned and finally, he will “just pull up a song that interests me.”
Learning to play the guitar was a challenge at first for Keller who started at age 7. His teacher, Rebecca Battle, said that when Keller started, “He was so small that he couldn’t even reach around the body of the guitar so he had to just play on the neck. … But when there’s a will, there’s a way.”
Keller is also left-handed, but Battle made him learn to play right-handed because she knew that the guitar world catered to right-handed players. Keller said that this has actually become an advantage because he can use his “strong” hand to finger the fretboard more quickly and accurately.
All of Keller’s hard work and diligence is paying off — figuratively and literally. In 2013, Keller took second place in the Sierra Nevada International Guitar Competition — one of the top 10 competitions in the U.S. In 2014, he took first. Since then, Keller has continued to excel in the competitive arena. During the summer of 2016, he competed in the International Dallas Competition. After three rounds, the four finalists had to do a live concert while being judged by a panel of five judges. Keller was one of these final four and took second place.
Battle said that with the “scholarship money he won at competitions, Keller attended workshops and master classes given by world class guitarists and got a taste of the world outside Idaho.”
In 2016, Keller also competed in The Northwest Guitar Festival in Portland, Oregon. Keller felt that this one was even more intense than the others. He knew he’d be competing against the students of famous guitar professors such as Michael Partington, Yuri Liberzon, and Kyle Patterson.
Keller said, “I didn’t even think I’d make it to finals, because the day before semi-finals, in one of the Masters Classes, another competitor, who looked about my age or younger, was playing and the teacher asked him, ‘How long have you been playing?’ and the student responded, ‘Oh, over 13 years — since I was really little.’ I thought, ‘Oh great! I get to go against him. This should be really interesting.’ He played and it sounded amazing. (Keller had taken lessons for about 10 years and had only been serious about his playing for about eight) … But when that kid’s name was not called (for finals), I thought, ‘Oh, no. Everyone here is amazing. If he wasn’t called, what chance do I have?’ But I made it to the finals.”
And again, he took second place.
Keller has also started performing internationally. Last summer, Keller was invited by Matthew Denman, director of the Wanda Bass School of Music at Oklahoma City University, to tour Spain with him and about 15 other students (which included singers and instruments besides the guitar) to perform in a series of 10 concerts in Madrid.
“(Denman) has also invited me to go to Greece with him this summer and be in a competition there that he’s hosting called the Pelionint Guitar Competition,” Keller said. “Denman will be the guest artist at the competition. … If I win, I get 3,000 Euros and a hand-made guitar. … Usually, the youth range is 18 and below, but I just barely turned 19 and this competition’s range is 19 and below for the youth so this will be my last youth competition.” Keller also plans to travel with Denman to perform in China as well.
Out of the 25 prestigious college music programs that Keller applied to, including Juilliard, Cleveland Institute of Music, Peabody Music Academy, Pepperdine — the No. 1 guitar program in the country — USC and Cornish College of the Arts, Keller was accepted to 24.
“I ended up being the top pick for 10-plus of those schools with the professors wanting me as No. 1 on their list,” Keller said.
The one exception was Juilliard.
“Julliard is really strict,” Keller said. “I passed their pre-screening and then was invited to come for a live audition. I ended up getting a private lesson with Sharon Isbin (Julliard’s guitar professor who established the guitar program in 1989). It was really cool. … She only likes to keep three students in her guitar program, so she accepts 0-1 students each year. … Unfortunately, I didn’t get accepted.”
But he wasn’t too shocked.
“She rarely accepts undergraduate students,” Keller said. “It’s always graduate students so I knew it was a long shot to begin with.”
But the fact that he made it to the final interview round speaks volumes about how closely she was considering him.
Battle commented on how difficult the application process is for Juilliard.
“Austin was 10 when he set his sights on Julliard,” Battle said. “That’s when I started getting very strict with Austin. I had played with Julliard graduates and knew that Sharon Isbin makes me look like a ‘pussycat.’ Application to Juilliard is a three-tiered process: recording, video and then live interview/lesson. Austin skipped the middle tier and went right to the live interview with Sharon. He said she was hypercritical, but I knew she was testing his mental toughness. I want to prepare my students for those mental thumbscrews. I wanted him to be ready for everything they could throw at him. I didn’t want him to crack.”
Up until even the deadline date, Keller did not know which school he would choose. It came down to three: Cleveland, Pepperdine and OCU. The deadline was May 1 because Pepperdine required a non-refundable down-payment by midnight. With the estimated cost to attend Pepperdine about at $300,000 for four years, this was no light decision.
“They were all fighting and bidding against each other to get me to come,” Keller said.
Keller had had private lessons with each one of the renowned professors from the three universities, Jason Vieaux, Christopher Parkenin and Matthew Denman, respectively, but after making a pros and cons list, by 10:30 p.m. on May 1, the decision finally became clear for Keller.
“The professors were all really great and nice, but I just ‘clicked’ with one professor and I just felt like that was where I was supposed to be so I ended up choosing to go to the Wanda Bass School of Music at Oklahoma City University,” Keller said “… Kristin Chenoweth and several Miss Americas graduated from there.”
The variety of opportunities, larger guitar community and Denman’s goal to make it the No. 1 guitar program finally pushed Keller towards the OCU program.
Keller will not have to worry about funding his schooling either. He was offered over $1 million in scholarships from the schools to which he applied, and his tuition, fees, housing, travel, and food expenses will all be covered at OCU.
Reflecting on the work it took to get where he is, Keller said, “Yes, I did want to quit a few times. It was mostly in the first few years, however, and usually when things got tough. … I just wanted to play the guitar well. But I realized I would have to put in the work to make that happen. I didn’t like doing theory, learning to read music, etc., because it was hard at first. Learning to read music really is learning a universal language. … I have my parents to thank because they wouldn’t let me quit.”
As for his future dreams, Keller wants to go on for more education at either Juilliard or Yale.
“I’d like to become a professor so I’d like to get my master’s degree and ultimately get my Ph.D. in performance,” Keller said. “I’d love to perform all over the world and usually as a professor you get that opportunity. I can compose on the side and give lessons outside of college.”
Battle said, “As Austin progressed, his talent began to show and I have known for years that the only thing that could stop him from going all the way would be himself. I’ve always told him that a career on the world stage could be his if he wanted it.”
Austin Keller is well on his way to making that happen.