Christian Okeke, a self-taught cellist, pursuing music degree at UMSL

by | Mar 13, 2023

Okeke worked two jobs to buy a used cello and learned to play by watching YouTube videos. Now he is excelling under the tutelage of acclaimed cellist Kurt Baldwin.
Young black male sits on chair playing the cello on stage with his back to the empty auditorium.

Christian Okeke, a self-taught musician, worked hard and sacrificed in order to learn to play the cello, and is now excelling in the UMSL Department of Music. (Photo by August Jennewein)

Christian Okeke was 19 the first time he ever saw a cello when his friend took him to a classical concert at a Catholic church in his hometown of Lagos, Nigeria. He was so enthralled by the instrument that he decided to learn how to play it.

The problem was that there were no music teachers nearby, so he decided to teach himself.

Now, eight years later, Okeke is a sophomore at the University of Missouri–St. Louis studying music with acclaimed cellist and music professor Kurt Baldwin.

When Okeke decided to learn the cello, the first step was to acquire one. He met a cellist who allowed him to come over and practice on his instrument. He’d walk several miles to play for a few hours at time, teaching himself by reading the book, “A Tune a Day – Cello.”

Okeke saved up for a year, working in a bar and a factory, doing 12-hour shifts to purchase a used cello from a different cellist who had an old one he didn’t need.

“It didn’t really have any strings, any pegs, no bridge or any tailpiece,” Okeke said. “It just came that way.”

He got it fixed and continued to play, eventually quitting his jobs to allow himself more time to practice.

His affinity for the cello is not only because he loves the instrument and its sound, but it also serves as an escape.

“It’s a place where it takes your mind out of any other moments,” Okeke said. “It removes your mind from any other problems. You just think about making music.”

Later, his father died in 2020, and he had to go back to work to help his mother make money to support the family, including seven siblings. But he didn’t give up.

He kept practicing, teaching himself with YouTube videos, and joined the International Cello Society’s Facebook page, where he connected with Dianne Betkowski, a renowned cellist, who would turn out to be instrumental in Okeke’s path to a formal music education.

Betkowski was intrigued by Okeke’s burgeoning, self-taught talent and began giving him feedback on the videos he’d send of himself performing. She immediately recognized Okeke’s promise as a musician and wanted to help him refine his skills.

“Christian seemed to have a natural affinity for the cello, a physical approach that looked second nature,” Betkowski said. “He was a diamond in the rough. You could hear his potential when he played because he did so many lovely things with the music. But he needed instruction to help him eliminate the kinds of habits that come from teaching oneself. I was really excited to hear what he could do under these circumstances.”

Impressed with his level of ability and progression under her tutelage, she encouraged him to apply to music school and helped him create his audition video.

Okeke got accepted to UMSL and the University of Victoria School of Music in British Columbia. He was elated. But there was a hitch.

When he first applied for a student visa, he was denied. A St. Louis resident, aware of Okeke’s plight and talent, paid for him to receive interview coaching with a former visa officer. He applied again and was granted the visa, the officer telling him, “We believe in you. You’ll make music.”

After being accepted into school, Betkowski created a GoFundMe campaign to help Okeke raise funds for his tuition and expenses. In addition to helping Okeke raise money, even holding a fundraising concert with friends who played with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and her colleagues in Miguel Espinoza Fusion, who flew to St. Louis to perform, Betkowski has been an overall source of support. She even invited Okeke to spend the holidays with her family last year.

Betkowski also reached out to a colleague who was so taken with Okeke’s talent that he became a generous anonymous benefactor. The colleague suggested Okeke choose UMSL because he was familiar with Baldwin’s reputation.

The support Okeke has received from the community of cellists and people he’s never even met has been very touching to him.

“It feels totally amazing, just being able to connect to people who are willing to help me,” he said. “It’s really something. I feel very lucky and privileged to be helped by people I don’t even know, but we are connected through our love of music.”

In December 2021, with UMSL now his destination, he was preparing to take his first plane trip to the United States. But he got sick with malaria and typhoid fever, which delayed his trip. Once well, Okeke got on another flight to his new life as a music student studying with Baldwin, who also found him to be exceptional.

“It’s been such a pleasure to have the opportunity to teach Christian,” said Baldwin, who in addition to his teaching performs as a member of the Ariana String Quartet. “Before coming to UMSL, he and I worked some through Zoom. I was immediately struck by his talent, his musicality, and even through Zoom, his communicative skill.

“He is a talented musician, but it takes much more than talent to achieve in music. What stands out about Christian is his ability to listen, emulate and then make something his own. Christian has a beautiful approach to sound and expression, and he is a unique and special player. Christian’s skills are blooming, and his future is extremely bright for a life as a musician.”

Another bright spot in Okeke’s life is getting the medical attention he’s needed to manage his rheumatoid arthritis, which at times has rendered his hands virtually immobile.

“It’s really frustrating,” he said. “It is really hard to do things you really love to do or have to do like tie your shoes. There was a restriction. It was pretty bad.”

With the help of Barnes-Jewish Hospital rheumatologist Dr. Deborah Parks, as well as medication and a specific diet, Okeke is managing his disease. It’s allowed him to keep up with his work in the UMSL orchestra ensemble and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra’s IN UNISON Academy and the rigors of his coursework. He even made the Dean’s List in the spring and fall semesters of 2022.

Okeke hasn’t just dealt with his challenges, he’s thrived in spite of them. It’s not his nature to give up. He is remarkably tenacious and focused, with an inner strength coming from his faith in God and the support of his family.

“I just kept going because it’s something that I love and that I was going to pursue,” he said. “I also love being together with people too. That’s really what kept me going. I kept on pushing.”

Wendy Todd

Wendy Todd

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