He wanted to be a herpetologist. So he planned on majoring in biology at South Carolina State University.
But in 11th grade, he began studying with a new violin teacher, and soon his interests were creeping in a different direction.
“I loved science, but I didn’t love math,” said Kellen Gray, the son of a Rock Hill music teacher and a school librarian. What might he do with the rest of his life then? He could imagine it with a violin in his hand.
The violin has played a critical role, but it turns out that, these days, it’s usually a conductor’s baton he has in his hand.
In the spring of 2018, Gray was named assistant conductor of the Charleston Symphony Orchestra and music director of the Charleston Symphony Youth Orchestra. He is a strong advocate for diversity and equity in classical music, hoping to inspire young people of color and others without easy access to the arts to learn an instrument and contemplate a career as a professional musician.
Between 2016 and 2018, he was an assistant conductor and Project Inclusion Fellow at the Chicago Sinfonietta, an organization that takes seriously its mission to build communities, mentor minorities and propel them into the professional world, Gray said. Chicago Sinfonietta was among 14 U.S. organizations to receive the MacArthur Award for Creative and Effective Institutions. Its fellows succeed.
“We are sentinels out in the field,” he said. “So I do carry the banner, and I do choose to promote diversity, inclusion and equity.”
In Charleston, he keeps busy. The Youth Orchestra, comprised of serious middle and high school musicians, is scheduled to perform a fall concert on Nov. 23 and a spring concert on March 28, as well as a concert during the Piccolo Spoleto Festival. The young players work with the older professionals, performing together in a “Side-By-Side” concert featuring the winner of the Nov. 9 CSYO Concerto Competition.
Gray leads all full and sectional rehearsals, and he works hard to engage families. The orchestra, he said, “is meant to be part of the bigger community. It takes a village to raise a youth orchestra.” So he sees himself as more of a caretaker or shepherd, helping to drive the group “in the direction the community needs it to go.”
The Youth Orchestra is part of the Charleston Symphony’s education programming and an important component of the organization’s larger strategy, according to Executive Director Michael Smith.
The ensemble, once an independent nonprofit, was absorbed by the Charleston Symphony in 2017 in order to bolster community and educational outreach and to give young players a rigorous musical experience and exposure to professionals in their field.
It also helped justify adding to the organization’s music staff, Smith said. The Youth Orchestra conductor also assists CSO Music Director Ken Lam with preparation for Masterworks concerts and more.
In 2018, the CSO held auditions to find a new assistant conductor, and more than 80 applied for the job. After narrowing down the field to six finalists, and gathering input from the young musicians, Kellen became the obvious choice.
“Of the six finalists, he was the one the kids wanted,” Lam said.
His abilities on the podium demonstrated plenty of competence, but it was the interviews that helped tip the scale, Smith recalled.
“He showed such a genuine passion for music, for music education, for working with students,” he said. “He has a real vision for what he wants to offer the community as a whole.”
Besides, Smith added, Gray is genuine, generous and gregarious.
“The human connection piece really shined through in the interview process,” he said. “So we hired him, and he’s been absolutely outstanding. He talks about growth on and off the stage with these kids. It’s not about who’s better than who, but about who cares about who.”
Not destined for football
Gray, 34, was born and raised just south of Rock Hill. His mother, Clara, was the school librarian at Sunset Park Elementary School; his father, Kim, was a music teacher and assistant football coach at Great Falls High School.
In middle school, puberty set in and soon it was evident to Kellen that the regional obsession, football, was likely not his destiny. So he tried his hand at a few musical instruments and discovered an affinity for the violin.
“I was smaller than the other kids, so the timing was good,” he said. Music gave him something to pursue, and it instilled confidence.
“In sports, at the end of the day, you either win or you lose,” he said. “In music, you never lose.”
But he couldn’t yet imagine making a career of it.
In 11th grade, his father, a music major in college, asked one of his old professors, Leroy Sellers, to give Kellen private violin lessons. Sellers had integrated the Charlotte Symphony and had established himself at Johnson C. Smith University as an important musical mentor.
As Gray began to recognize that he could succeed, he became increasingly disciplined, he said.
When it came time for him to go off to college, his teacher recommended the Schwob School of Music at Columbus State University, where the young musician landed a scholarship, studied with Patricio Cobos, and earned an undergraduate degree in violin performance and an artist’s diploma in orchestral conducting. That led to a master’s degree in conducting from Valdosta State University, which in turn led to a lot of teaching and performing and scrambling to pay the rent.
And that led to, well, beekeeping.
In 2009, Gray took a break from music, moved to Savannah and, thanks to an auspicious dog walk, hooked up with the Savannah Bee Co., a retail operation that sells good honey and other bee-related products.
Gray became a store manager, developed a friendship with the owner, got certified as a beekeeper — in other words, he drank the honey-sweetened Kool-Aid. Music fell by the wayside as he cultivated his interest in bee culture.
Music school and the professional life after it was competitive, full of brooding people elbowing their way forward, he said.
“At the Bee Company, everyone was super happy, super healthy, loved the outdoors; they were glad to be around one another,” he said.
Eventually, he established two hives of his own (to the dismay of his landlord) and helped out at the warehouse. He was happy, he was healthy, and his hiatus from music extended to five years.
But then that itch returned. It always does if you’ve got music in the bones. He was rusty, but he decided to plunge back in.
In 2014, he was back in school, but he decided he didn’t want to be isolated in a practice room for hours every day, alone with his instrument, worried about how he might elbow his way to success.
“I wanted to be a better musician overall,” he said. He wanted to learn theory and history and composition. He wanted to think about the role music plays in the community. “It just hit me like a ton of bricks: Conducting’s kind of all of that.”
He had no podium experience — “I had never held a baton before,” he said — but he got lucky. He called one of his former conductors, Howard Hsu at the Valdosta Symphony and asked for lessons. He got more than he bargained for.
The ripple effect
At Valdosta State University, Gray pursued his master’s degree, served as assistant conductor and librarian of the school orchestra, performed regionally to earn a little cash, and landed a fellowship, one of eight, to work with maestros Gerard Schwarz, Grant Cooper and Jose-Luis Novo at the Eastern Music Festival in North Carolina.
Soon he was named a fellow at Chicago Sinfonietta, working under Music Director Mei-Ann Chen, as well as associate conductor of the Columbus Ballet in Georgia.
Chen said her young student was “a great person to be around, and that’s wonderful in the field of conducting.”
Her organization seeks to train young people who lack other opportunities and launch them onto a career path, she said. The program teaches not only conducting techniques but also the importance of marketing, how to deliver a good elevator speech, how to develop an artistic vision, how to engage the community and how to work with people with diverse backgrounds.
“Kellen is one of our best examples of how it’s a very personal program,” Chen said.
The conductor’s program was started five years ago, and already it’s making an impact, she said. Its graduates find positions and contribute to the diversification of classical music, and major orchestras seeking that diversity are reaching out for help. Slowly, the field is changing for the better, Chen said.
“I am very encouraged that this ripple effect is going to become more obvious in the years to come,” she said.
Gray’s experience is not altogether typical: Many young conductors get their start at conservatories such as Juilliard, Curtis or Peabody. Not Gray. He traveled secondary roads in lieu of the highway.
In a way, Lam did too.
“I was a lawyer, he was a beekeeper, but we love (music) so much, the music comes back to us,” Lam said. The roads traveled might differ, but the goal is the same. “The common thread is that we can’t live without this music.”
Gray said music can teach his young apprentices much more than the masterworks of yesterday and today. It teaches fundamental life lessons, too, such as critical thinking, collaboration, self-motivation and discipline. It sharpens the mind and trains the muscles. It leads to exciting new places.
"I want to create opportunities for kids' lives to be changed by music like mine was," Gray said.