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February 19, 2014IM -
White, once he’s finished defending his dissertation this spring, will be the first African-American to earn a doctorate in tuba performance from Indiana University (IU), though this accomplishment once seemed all but impossible. Born homeless on the streets of Baltimore, White relied upon an innate affinity for music and a gradually-developed discipline to get his life going in the right direction. With guidance from a series of supportive teachers, White has propelled himself to levels of success that his musically-curious sixth-grade self never could have foreseen. As a player, teacher, and scholar, White’s approach is simple and solid: “I need to do this to be successful and so that I can show people that it’s possible.”
Early on, White showed aptitude in music; when he would get in trouble, his parents would take away his trumpet, and he’d do whatever he could to get it back. Still, he had other goals in mind. “I had no interest in being a musician. I wanted to play football,” he says. But after breaking his hip in seventh grade, White shifted his priorities and ended up dragging his sousaphone, on loan from his middle school band director, to audition for the Baltimore School for the Performing Arts. Unfortunately, he had missed the audition date, and showed up to an empty school. One teacher was there, and after initially being stunned by White’s audacity, the teacher gave him a hearing.
White had learned the instrument by rote after previously playing trumpet and baritone. He recites the instructions that were his earliest lessons: “Welcome to the sousaphone. This is Bb instrument … Please turn tape over,” he says, imitating the monotone of the speaker on the cassette tape. Though White couldn’t read the music that the teacher put in front of him, he showed the teacher what he could do on the instrument, and it was enough to earn him a spot at the school.
White now calls the School for the Performing Arts “the miracle school” and says, “How they chose to keep me, I don’t know.” After struggling to adjust to a rigorous educational environment, White stumbled upon an opportunity:A local news channel was doing a special on the school, and he jumped at a chance to appear on TV.
“I started to become a spokesperson from the school,” he explains, and his story—someone raw from the streets turning into a polished young man—received widespread attention. White fed off this recognition and began practicing religiously. “I knew what doors could be opened,” he says, “and they ended up putting a picture of me with my tuba on the balcony of the school.”
White’s fast rise continued when he entered The Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University, although the administration wasn’t sure at first how to handle him. He recalls the administration’s approach: “This is a kid who is not hopeless—he needs education and tools.” “There’s a difference between having bad rhythm and having never been taught how to count,” says White.
He credits Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Principal Tubist David Fedderley of Local 40-543 (Baltimore, MD) with lighting a fire underneath him from his very first days at Peabody. Though White felt he had entered the institute somewhat under-prepared, Fedderley quickly helped to bring him up to speed.
“I can’t explain how people reached out to me at Peabody. At my very first lesson, Fedderley said, ‘I heard something special in you,’” White explains. Fedderley told White that, in a few years, he would have to make the decision whether to recommend him for graduate studies, and right off the bat, he told White, “I won’t lie.”
Though it took him several weeks to completehis first assignment—reading the book Arnold Jacobs: Song and Wind, a collection of teachings by the late great tubist, written by Jacobs’ assistant. White was immediately transformed. “I came back astonished by what I just read, and Fedderley said, ‘Now imagine where you’d be if you’d read it the first time I told you to read it.’ He easily could have told me to get out.”
Fedderley worked with White to improve his rhythm, drilling him with flashcards, and White worked doggedly to improve. “The first few years at Peabody, I was just out to get respect,” White says. “I had this determination to show that I really do belong.”
White chose to pursue graduate studies at Indiana University (IU) Jacobs School of Music partially because of the school’s track record of graduate tubists landing orchestral positions. Before entering, though, he took a job that would help pay for studies.
White had seen Canadian Brass perform during his childhood in Baltimore and playing with the group was almost like a dream come true. White toured with the Star of Indiana for the Brass Theater productions, which later spawned the drum corps musical BLAST! “I had to learn drum corps and choreography, and that’s where I developed a real interest in making a living playing tuba,” he says.
The touring position also allowed him to sit in with the group’s core quintet, while the group’s tubist, Chuck Daellenbach of Local 149 (Toronto, ON), a mentor to White, took a rest.
At IU, White studied with Daniel Perantoni of Local 196 (Champaign, IL) and immediately placed into the top orchestra, something unheard of for a first-semester graduate student. “I wanted to push as hard as I could,” White says, adding that his approach in repertoire classes was “I’m going to get into an orchestra, or I’m going to die trying.”
Perantoni, knowing of White’s background and accomplishments, told him, “You can’t miss with this!” and White remembers his teaching fondly. “He’s a teacher who doesn’t care if his students are better than he is. He goes the distance,” White says, often calling him by the affectionate nickname “the Godfather.”
After completing his masters, White seemed determined to explore every musical possibility in Indiana before moving on to a new venture. His inspiration in this pursuit came from retired IU professor Harvey Philips, member of Locals 3 (Indianapolis, IN) and 802 (New York City). “He said, ‘You’re never ready to leave a school or a state until you can say you’ve done everything you could do with your instrument’,” White remembers.
White first joined the AFM as a member of Local 3 and set out on a career as a freelance musician, playing with the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra, substituting with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, and working in recording studios. He says that the professional foundation the union provided him was an additional boost to his career as a per-service player and as an orchestral tubist in search of a permanent position.
White followed per-service work wherever it would take him. He even traveled to the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, South Carolina, and back to Indiana to substitute with the Indianapolis Symphony, despite never having played the piece on the program. That experience prompted a change in his approach.
“It wasn’t about talent at a certain point; it was about preparation,” White says. “Later, when the Indianapolis Symphony announced their season, I printed it out and started learning the pieces. They didn’t know, but I didn’t want that nervous feeling from Spoleto.”
In 2004, White began searching intensively for a permanent orchestral position. Several became available in a short span and he went from Boston to Denver to San Francisco for auditions, before landing a one-year position with the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra (NMSO) in Albuquerque. When a second year was offered, White stayed on. Soon he took root in New Mexico and earned tenure with the orchestra, in addition to teaching at the University of New Mexico and playing with the Santa Fe Opera.
Even after heading west, White had his doctorate in mind, and after several years of work, he submitted his first draft thesis for review in August. The title, rather than being filled with academic jargon, is almost whimsically simple: “What If Bach Had Had a Tuba?” He explores Baroque music, including figured bass, and delves into the accuracy of transcriptions of Bach’s scores for White’s chosen instrument.
The hard work that White has put into shaping his career has come, in part, from a natural curiosity and an eagerness to explore the possibilities of his instrument. “The tuba was only invented in 1830. The ability to get a doctorate in tuba only came around in the 1970s, maybe,” he explains. “It hasn’t been that long. The world has no idea what the tuba can do.”
With the dream of completing his doctorate just a couple months away, White has become a leader within the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra. During his initial one-year trial period with the orchestra, White spoke up at a budget meeting, reciting that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing while expecting different results.
The orchestra leaders were impressed and asked White if he would like to serve on some committees. He soon joined the negotiating committee and served as the orchestra’s Regional Orchestra Players’ Association (ROPA) delegate.
“Before, I wasn’t involved and I just paid my dues,” he says. But the atmosphere of the orchestra and opportunity to lead inspired him to become more active. “The potential here is ridiculous,” White says of the NMSO.
The potential White sees in Albuquerque is like the energy he has drawn on throughout his career: unseen but deeply felt, like the talent that belied his background or the overlooked instrument at the back of the band room. Now, with his coveted orchestra position in place and his dream of a doctorate all but completed, White knows that there’s still more to be done. “You can have good days or bad days, but what you can say at the end of it is: you’re not done yet,” he says.