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Violinist Katherine O’Neill discovered love of instrument at age of 12

Submitted photo Katherine O’Neill, assistant concertmaster for the Warren Philharmonic Orchestra, plays violin with symphonies in Warren and Youngstown.

Katherine O’Neill fell in love at age 12. Today she virtually is married to the object of her desire — her violin.

She is assistant concertmaster for the Warren Philharmonic Orchestra, plays with the Youngstown Symphony Orchestra, and appears all across the Mahoning Valley and beyond with her Silver Bridge Strings group.

“Boardman High School had a big orchestra program. My older brother played the upright bass there,” O’Neill said. “I was 10 and I did everything he did. I wanted to play the upright bass, too. But my mom didn’t really want to carry one around. She told me, ‘Play the cello, instead.’ But I was obstinate; I told her, ‘No, I’ll play the violin.'”

This was not O’Neill’s first exposure to music, nor her first instrument. Two years earlier, after her uncle gifted the O’Neill family with a baby grand piano, she commenced her lifelong adventure in music by taking piano lessons. Only when her brother joined the high school orchestra, though, did she switch instruments.

“I wanted to copy him,” she said, laughing.

When her first violin teacher took a job as an orchestra director in Cincinnati two years into O’Neill’s studies, she recommended an instructor at Youngstown State University. But he did not accept young students. Nonetheless, he relented to a two-week tryout.

He told her mother, “I’ll teach Katherine for two weeks, just to determine her skill level. If she practices two hours a day, I’ll recommend her to another teacher to take her on.”

He never did that. He kept her to himself.

O’Neill remembered, “The first week he gave me Carl Flesch scales to learn, the kind of scales college students study. I went home and cried because I couldn’t play them.”

By her freshman year at Boardman, O’Neill had surpassed all other students in her school to win the orchestra’s fourth chair, first violin seat, beating out even the senior students.

This is what happens when you fall in love with your instrument.

Not content with sight-reading, O’Neill discovered her ability to play by ear.

“My mom would challenge me. She’d say, ‘Hey, play me this song.’ I would figure it out by ear and play Andrea Bocelli and other songs just for fun.”

This was a skill that would stand O’Neill in good stead a few years later, when she formed her current string ensemble, Silver Bridge Strings.

During her sophomore year at Baldwin Wallace University Conservatory of Music in Berea, O’Neill attended a jazz ensemble concert that altered the course of her music career.

“The audience hollered and cheered,” she said. “I was uncomfortable with that at first because in orchestra, you don’t do that. You don’t make a peep until the piece is over and then you politely clap.

“I thought, ‘What is this rebellious, awesome music?’

“I fell in love with jazz. I would play CDs by jazz artists like Stan Getz and Chris Botti, who plays with Sting. I would mimic them and try to play every note in their solos.”

Her first foray into her own jazz group proved to be a false start.

“I formed a jazzy string quartet at first, but the other players weren’t very jazzy. It was kind of a disaster and I got embarrassed,” she said.

“So I dropped that and formed a combo with Dave McHenry — an amazing guitar player who sings like Robert Plant — and drummer Chris Acree and Rob Chase on bass and violin.”

Despite her satisfaction with this group, O’Neill felt conflicted. Was her future in music to be jazz or classical? She didn’t know. Searching for an answer, she worked as a server and a cook at the old Lemon Grove in Youngstown.

This led to a watershed moment for O’Neill.

“Which career path should I take?” she wondered. “I was overwhelmed and couldn’t give all my energy to either one. I was afraid of making the wrong choice.”

One night, the violin teacher who inspired O’Neill as a 12-year old prodigy walked into the restaurant.

“He saw me on stage playing with a band, playing by ear, drinking beer. He asked me, ‘What are you doing here? What are doing with your life? Get your butt into my studio. Come be my grad assistant at YSU.'”

This event marked the beginning of O’Neill’s ascent to her present positions with the Youngstown Symphony Orchestra and as assistant concertmaster for the Warren Philharmonic Orchestra. Her Silver Bridge Strings group has become one of the Valley’s most popular musical groups for weddings and special events.

Her credits also include playing on the Barry Manilow U.S. and Canadian tour, Earth Wind & Fire show, Tran-Siberian Orchestra shows, the International Jazz Festival in Tuscany, Italy, with the Turtle Island String Quartet, and with symphony orchestras in southern Florida and West Virginia. She also has performed with jazz greats like legendary Youngstown drummer, Cedric Hobbs.

O’Neill has resolved her inner conflict and is now making music in the best of both musical worlds.

Reflecting on her 33-year-old life, she said, “I was making 20 bucks an hour as a 14-year-old kid playing the violin. Now I play with orchestras and I play with bands, I play classical and I play jazz. I’ve come full circle.”

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