Approaching life with a song in his heart

Musician Brian O'Keefe is embracing a new career in music hoping to receive a full ride to the Musicians Institute.

By Brandon HENSLEY

For Brian O’Keefe in a year that saw his family business shut down and the economic crisis worm itself into his life like it has so many others, the Boston piano that sits in his living room represents hope, a starting point for something new and yet a way for his life to come full circle.
“Our life is about renewal,” said O’Keefe, also speaking for his wife, Julie. “We’re starting over.”
In these times, it’s not like he has much of a choice. He may not exactly be Rodney Dangerfield in “Back to School,” but the 58-year-old keyboard player is hoping to enroll later this year to the campus of Musicians Institute in Hollywood, and has entered the school’s Full Ride Scholarship competition which is currently underway.
“Now I have this opportunity again to really do what’s in my heart,” said O’Keefe.
A native of Michigan, O’Keefe moved to Southern California in the 1980s. Over the years he has played piano for ballet classes and in different nightclubs. Now, the La Crescenta resident of 14 years is looking to finally take the next step.
“I want to get to a different level with my musicianship and creativity and see what other new opportunities are out there,” he said. His ultimate goal is to teach a summer at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Crazy, right?
“Yeah, but you have to dream,” he said.
In the nationwide competition, contestants submit their music videos or audio of their work and can have fans vote for them on a daily basis. The top vote-getters advance to the next rounds, until MI judges decide which finalists will be flown to Hollywood to perform live in front of a panel.
There are three prizes contestants can win: full paid tuition plus an additional $10,000, a full paid tuition, or partial paid tuition.
Jonathan Wilder, director of admissions of MI, said tuition can cost up to $7,100 per quarter depending on which program students enter so this is something that can appeal to a lot of people.
“It’s really an amazing opportunity for a student at this point, and judging by the way the economy is, it’s just a different approach to help students,” Wilder said.
O’Keefe has a bachelor’s degree in music education from Oakland University in Michigan, but Wilder said someone like him is still a perfect candidate to take advantage of the school’s offer.
“We have career changers,” he said. “That’s the beauty of this school. It’s very much a career-focused school. Students are here with the intention of making a life-long career in the music industry.”
Wilder said since the contest opened in November, over 2,000 musicians have registered. Students have until Feb. 4 to submit their work. Final voting ends Feb. 18.
O’Keefe, who called the Institute “a mecca for professional musicians,” is hoping to get into the school any way possible, but said the scholarship money is the best option right now because of his financial situation.
“If we don’t have the scholarship funds, or tuition, how are we going to maintain the house, and all that kind of stuff?” he said.
Since 2001, O’Keefe had been a partner with Julie in her store, Botanicals of La Cañada.  But in October, the shop closed due to the economic downturn. They still run an online floral service, and their lives have had to adjust.
“You have to rethink and re-gear what you’re doing online,” O’Keefe said. “Until things get turned around, everybody’s trying to reinvent themselves and figure out what to do.”
O’Keefe teaches piano and sells a music book he created for students, Musician’s Notebook, to various colleges. Julie still pushes on as a floral designer.
O’Keefe’s longtime friend, Tom Sawyer, said he and his wife felt for them when Botanicals closed.
“Personally, it’s very sad for us because they’re our friends and to have a business they worked so hard at [close], it’s just a sign of the economic times,” Sawyer said.
Last year, O’Keefe surprised Sawyer for his birthday by creating a slide show of pictures he took of Sawyer’s Porsche at the Montrose Car Show, and set it to an original piece of music, entitled “The Long Way Home.” O’Keefe submitted the video for the Full Ride contest.
“Brian’s just a really creative, artistic guy, and he spent a long time [taking pictures] at the car show, and put the slide show together for me,” Sawyer said. “That’s who he is.”
O’Keefe said the title of his song reflected his thoughts looking at Sawyer’s car that day. “Why would you take the short way home when you have a Porsche?” he said.
“And then I was thinking a little more about it … maybe the long way home is more about me too, because I’m coming back to music … I started with music, went on different trails and so I’m coming back the long way home.”
Sawyer said he is fan of his friend’s music, and has been voting for him regularly in the contest. Even if he doesn’t win anything O’Keefe said he is determined to make something happen.
“Everybody goes through difficulty, changes, and it doesn’t matter what your age is,” he said. “You have challenges and you think everything is great and then all of a sudden life takes a different turn.”
Where those turns will take O’Keefe are still unclear, but at the end of his road, he’ll still be the piano man, ready to play for those in the mood for a melody.