Dennis O’Keefe doesn’t get nervous anymore when he picks up his mallets and starts playing the marimba. 

“Music does so much for so many people,” said O’Keefe, a graduate student at Fredonia who will be graduating this month with his Master’s in Music.  

Music offers O’Keefe a wealth of experiences, opportunities, and an outlet.

“I can bring my voice into the conversation without actually having to say anything.”

The Fredonia student is letting his talent speak for him. He is the first student from the university selected as a winner in the prestigious VSA International Young Soloists Competition. Through this program, put on through the International Organization on Arts and Disability, O’Keefe will have the chance to perform at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C., spend a week working with young musicians living with disabilities, and is being awarded $2000. 

O’Keefe, who is on the autism spectrum, began playing percussion instruments in fourth grade. Now, he plays all of them.  He is performing a Bach piece on the marimba during his solo performance at the renowned concert venue on May 30th. 

That’s just a few weeks before he heads off to Maine to spend the summer with the Bowdoin International Music Festival and it’s about two weeks after he graduates with his master’s degree from Fredonia where he’s been studying under Dr. Kay Stonefelt.

“Dennis is a special artist,” said Dr. Stonefelt, wiping tears from her eyes. “It’s a wonderful opportunity. [Art] is a great way to go through life and connect with humanity.” 

Dr. Stonefelt says getting into these camps and being selected to perform with these organizations can be difficult for several reasons – the talent pool is large and financial resources are small. 

She works as an advocate for all of her students, encouraging them to apply, writing letters on their behalf, assisting with their arrangements, and watching as they spend hours practicing. 

“Dr. Stonefelt really saw something in me that I never saw in myself,” said Dennis. “It take a lot of talent, practice, and patience.”

O’Keefe naturally has the talent; he’s put in the practice, and has showed great patience, applying for the VSA award six times before receiving his acceptance letter.

While it isn’t easy for the grad student to put into words how he feels when playing, he easily vocalizes his plans for the future – making the most of this and every opportunity afforded to him. 

“I’m not giving up.”