Practice makes perfect, but Keely Rendle’s talent makes practice short and rewarding.
By the time most winners of the annual concerto competition step on stage to solo with the orchestra, they will have prepared their pieces for a full year.
A winner of this year’s competition, sophomore Keely Rendle didn’t leaf through the pages of her Bruch violin concerto until the start of the fall semester. But according to Professor of Music Melissa Knecht, the judges declared her performance “perfect.”
The secret to her success doesn’t lie in a frenetic semester of practice; it lies in her unique combination of musical skill and love for performance cultivated through her band, Erwilian.
The band is made up of six other musicians and a plethora of instruments, ranging from guitars and mandolins to recorders and hammer dulcimers.
“It’s like a second family,” Rendle said.
Rendle’s love for Erwilian almost kept her from coming to Hillsdale, but her band encouraged her to pursue her interests in both music and in counseling, as she plans to major in psychology.
Rooted in Rendle’s home town of Renton, Washington, Erwilian’s seven musicians perform, arrange, and compose their own music. The composition process usually starts with a chord sheet, “the bare bones of a song,” as Rendle explained. Improvisation is key.
“Sometimes, they’re like, ‘Keely, here’s 32 measures. You have a solo. Here!’” Rendle said, laughing.
The final product always carries on the Erwilian sound, which Rendle describes as “energetic, fresh, and sometimes heavenly,” largely based on its use of the hammer dulcimer’s angelic tones.
Erwilian’s music is purely instrumental, so Rendle has learned to make her violin tell stories for her. Among Erwilian’s annual Christmas set list is “The Coventry Carol,” a melody that mourns the story of Herod’s slaughter of the innocent children in Bethlehem.
“I have high parts, and then really soft, sobbing parts,” Rendle said, “like a wailing, moaning mother.”
Years of performing and practicing with Erwilian have kept her fingers and mind nimble, preparing her for the chance to perform on stage at Hillsdale.
Rendle loves the Bruch concerto she will perform in May partly because of “the space to breathe between the phrases,” she said, humming the melody and tracing its arcs in the air with her finger. “I can take my time and emote.”
According to Knecht, Rendle’s successful performance combined technical proficiency, years of experience, and an intelligent understanding of the piece. But what sets Rendle apart isn’t technical skill alone.
“It comes down to what kind of person you are,” Knecht said. “Keely is this very warm individual, and it’s that warm, strong presence that comes through in her music. That’s who she is.”
A truly talented performer can “touch the vein of those that listen,” Dr. Knecht said. “I think Keely has the ability to do that.”
Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 caught Rendle’s ear because it matched the mood of her previous playing, but she ultimately chose it because she wanted to learn something new.
Though she’s played in orchestras before, Rendle has never soloed with one in her 11 years of violin. In fact, she only considered the competition after Knecht told her to do so.
Rendle’s preparation for the competition bears witness to her love of the process of learning and performing great music, rather than her desire for competition titles.
“Some performers think they’re too good for instruction,” Dr. Knecht said. “That’s not her at all.”
Rendle has a reputation among her friends playing offstage, no matter the audience. Remembering one visit to a preschool with a Hillsdale mission trip over this past spring break, freshman Caroline Hennekes said Rendle accompanied a story with sound effects twanged from her violin to entertain the children.
Freshman Jenny Buccola, a friend Rendle’s family, said whether in her local church’s youth group or in Erwilian performances, Rendle “has always shared her music with her friends.”