DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I’m Dave Davies, in today for Terry Gross. Today we’re going to hear from an accomplished musician with quite a story to tell.
(SOUNDBITE OF TUBA)
DAVIES: Richard Antoine White is principal tubist of the Santa Fe Symphony and is in his 10th season as principal tubist of the New Mexico Philharmonic. He’s also the first Black musician in the United States to earn a doctorate in tuba performance and is now a professor of tuba at the University of New Mexico. But what makes his story remarkable is where he came from. Richard White spent his early childhood in poverty, at times sleeping in abandoned houses or parks in the city of Baltimore. He’s written a memoir about those who helped him transform his life and about his love for and commitment to making great music. His new book is “I’m Possible: A Story Of Survival, A Tuba, And The Small Miracle Of A Big Dream.” Richard White’s story is also told in the documentary short “Hi I’m Richard Antoine White,” which is available for streaming on the Magnolia Plus (ph) platform.
Well, Richard Antoine White, welcome to FRESH AIR.
RICHARD ANTOINE WHITE: Hello. Thanks for having me.
DAVIES: You know, your story is certainly one of great accomplishment. But in the early years, as the title of your book says, it’s a story of survival. So I want to talk about those early days, when you were, you know, 3, 4. You would wake up where and to what?
WHITE: First of all, I’d like to say I feel privileged in many ways because I only had 4 1/2 years of a really extraordinarily rough life. Some people have 10, 20, 30 years of a rough life. So in that sense, I feel blessed. For me, living on the streets, I had somewhat a normal life in that I wanted to wake up and play. But in my case, I had to also look into gutters for coins to figure out how I was going to eat. And every day was pretty much about waking up, playing, finding a way to eat and finding my mom. And at the end of the day, sometimes I would find her. Sometimes I wouldn’t. And when I couldn’t find her, that led to sleeping under trees, on cardboard, abandoned houses or wherever I could find shelter.
DAVIES: When you went to sleep, were you with your mom, typically?
WHITE: No. Sometimes they – you know, they had a tree, I think, in Baltimore. It’s at Riggs Avenue. It’s no longer there. But they might be drinking and playing dominoes or something. And I would be under the tree on a cardboard, and then they might wander off, and I would stay there – other times, nowhere to be found. It was just me searching endlessly. And I didn’t succeed every time.
DAVIES: Right. And sometimes you would be in an abandoned home with your mom, right?
DAVIES: What did you know of your biological father?
WHITE: Very little – interesting story connected to that – I hadn’t seen my dad. You know, he was incarcerated from when I was a baby. At the premiere of the “R.A.W. Tuba,” the film – documentary – some random person stood up before I was going to play “We Are The World” to the audience and thanked my former teacher, David Fedderly, principal tubist of the Baltimore – my dad – my stepdad, Richard McClain Jr. and said, I’m thanking you for taking care of him. Thank you for showing him the way. I want to thank the whole audience for being there for him because I couldn’t. I was incarcerated. That person was my dad – first time I seen him in my life.
DAVIES: Oh, my heavens.
WHITE: (Laughter) Yes – unbelievable.
DAVIES: And did you connect with him that day? Did you maintain a relationship?
WHITE: I ran off the stage first. I gave him a hug. And then I told the orchestra I needed a few minutes because it’s hard to play tuba when you’re crying. And then I proceeded to play the tuba. And then afterwards, he said he wanted to connect with me. We had dinner. And it was a really heartfelt moment because I know he did all he could. When I met him at the place we had dinner, he gave me a hug and shook my hand. And in my hand he put 40 bucks, which I know was a lot for him. But I know he wanted to show me that he loved me. Since then, we’re doing our best to stay communicated. As you know, my life has recently exploded, so we’re working on getting better.
DAVIES: Wow. I mean, he was, I think, 19 when he fathered you and went to prison. Is his life in better shape now?
WHITE: Yes. I think he was able to secure some education. I think he found religion. And when he was released, I think he completed a degree in social work. So he’s being a very responsible citizen now – taking care of his family, taking care of his kids and trying to reconnect with the things that didn’t go so well in his past. So from a distance, I’m proud of him. The distance being that, you know, my dad is my adopted dad. That’s the family I know.
DAVIES: You tell a story of a little scar next to your navel, which was a relic of something that happened when you were an infant. You want to share that with us?
WHITE: Yeah. So I still have a scar on – right below, I guess it would be my tummy. And I never knew what happened there. But you know, my uncle and /brother – I guess if you read the book, you’ll understand why Ricky Jr., the son of my adoptive father, Richard McLain Jr., is both my uncle and my brother. I asked him, you know, what’s up with this scar? We were chatting one day. And he said, oh, man, you were left in a burnt-out, abandoned home. We were called. I came down there. I just panicked man. I saw the rats on you. I shot them with a .22. I thought you would be deaf. So I was scared. Turns out, you know, I can hear just fine. But I was being eaten by rats because my mom was often into her illness, which unfortunately sometimes is very uncontrollable. Alcoholism is a very strong illness. And when the need arises to serve it, I think it comes first, regardless of anything that’s in front of you.
DAVIES: You know, there’s more than one way of telling a story. And this part of your story could be written, you know, as an appalling case of child neglect. But you tell it from the point of view of a child who loves his mom more than anything and doesn’t really question the world he lives in – as kids don’t, right? We take for granted the world we inhabit. On the other hand, you know, I’m sure as a kid you certainly saw other kids your age who had more stable homes. Do you ever remember thinking – being jealous or thinking you were ill cared for?
WHITE: No. It was the hand I was dealt. I played it to the best of my ability. And I had such a strong love for my mom that every day was really simply about surviving, finding food and finding her at the end of the night. And I think that connection ran both ways. I think we have to be conscious in our country. We’re often willing to give help, so we’ll give level-5 help. And if you don’t achieve at level-5 help, then you’re a failure. You’re not working as hard. But we all have different strengths and weaknesses. Maybe the next person needs level-6 help, level 7, and then they can excel. I’m lucky that my mom loved me and she was able to meet me where I was at. And I think the same holds true for our education system. Meet kids where they’re at, and find something that you absolutely love. Although my mom had deficiencies and certain illness, there’s no question that she absolutely loved me. And that worked to my advantage.
DAVIES: So we were talking about how your early days, you were poor and sometimes homeless in Baltimore, until you were taken in by Richard and Vivian McClain. They were a couple who had actually sort of adopted your birth mother, too. So they became your new guardians, parents. Tell us a little bit about where they lived, what kind of life they had, what they expected of you.
WHITE: They lived in Northwest Baltimore. Richard McClain Sr. served our country in the Korean War. And he was retired from that and worked for the Mass Transit Association. He drove the bus. So that made me very cool ’cause I could get on the bus and go to school, and my dad would be driving, which was awesome. And Vivian was a shipping-and-receiving supervisor at Mercy Medical Center. So they were a middle-class family. To me, I even say it in the book, their house looked like Buckingham Palace. I had never seen anything like it.
There were some extraordinary adjustment periods living with them. One, I didn’t know you’re supposed to eat three meals a day. So they would make me a sandwich. I would eat half of it and stick the other half in my pocket. And they would be like, no, no, no, you can have as many – just ask for another one. And I looked at them like, yeah, right. I’m going to keep this sandwich in my pocket. Bubble bath and pajamas – they would wash me and put me to bed. I would put my dirty clothes on, end up sleeping on the floor. And ultimately, I was angry at them at the beginning of living with them – although I recognized that it was Buckingham Palace. I was so angry that, as a kid, they have taken me from my mom that I talked to myself in the mirror, and it was the only person I would communicate with for a very long time.
DAVIES: And there were rules. There were chores, right? This was new to you.
WHITE: Yes, that – the structure was really unbelievable because – imagine me being with my mom. I could roam off anywhere. So some of the us getting lost or me getting lost and being detached from my mom would be me just roaming off because there was no structure. And so moving into Vivian and Richard’s, where, you know, you had to come in when the lights come on, I was like, what is this? You know? Or you were taught responsibility. Take out the trash. You know, wash the dishes. And it was interesting because you got paid for doing these chores. It was like, what’s happening here? All of this had to be explained to me.
DAVIES: And you describe when you were going to start first grade at a new school, Vivian took you to Kmart to get clothes, and this was a memorable experience. Why?
WHITE: Oh, fascinating (laughter). First, we walked into the Kmart, and it was like winning – you know, like, if you win “The Price Is Right,” you have a 15-minute shopping spree or whatever. It was like that. Whatever I wanted, I could put in the cart. I even wanted some low-top shoes, some high-top shoes, and Vivian was like, get both. And so we’re putting pants, different colors, shoes in there. And I’m like, wow, this is amazing. And then I got really scared ’cause I was like, oh, we got to go to the checkout. Who’s going to pay for all this? You know, in my little kid’s mind, I was like, we’re in big trouble now. And Vivian, at that day – I don’t even know. I want to say she whipped out a check (laughter), you know, and paid for everything. And I was just so amazed and beside myself. And, you know, later when I went to school, it turns out that, you know, kids are pretty intense sometimes because I got teased for my Kmart shoes, my Kmart pants. I didn’t care, man. I had some clothes. They had no idea of where I came from because they weren’t name brand. I didn’t have Nikes. I didn’t have Jordache. But I didn’t care. I had shoes. I had pants. And I was OK with that.
DAVIES: We’re speaking with Richard Antoine White. He is the principal tubist of the Santa Fe Symphony and the New Mexico Philharmonic. His new memoir is “I’m Possible: A Story Of Survival, A Tuba, And A Small Miracle Of A Big Dream.” We’ll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we’re speaking with tubist Richard Antoine White. He is the principal tubist at the New Mexico Philharmonic and the Santa Fe Symphony. He has a new memoir about his life. It’s called “I’m Possible: A Story Of Survival, A Tuba, And The Small Miracle Of A Big Dream.”
Eventually, you adjust to school. You start learning. How did you get into music?
WHITE: Oh, that’s an awesome story. So I picked up the trumpet in fourth grade because some musician came, music educator, and displayed all the instrument – woodwinds, brass percussion, everything. You name it. And I talked to one of my best friends at that time, Dante, who would later on become one of my best friends. We were probably just introduced to each other in fourth grade. I said, hey, man, yo, let’s pick trumpet ’cause it got to be easy. It only got three valves. Boy, was I wrong. (Laughter) I couldn’t have been more wrong, so…
DAVIES: You make all those notes with three valves.
WHITE: Right. I was like, this is – this one. This one. Easy, right? It was not easy. I actually started failing, and I was in jeopardy of repeating fourth grade. And the only reason I didn’t repeat fourth grade – because they thought I was too big to hold back again. So my parents got this brilliant idea that they would take the trumpet and that if I wanted the trumpet back, I would have to start passing. I wanted the trumpet back because music was the first time I felt a sense of belonging. You know, when you play in a band or you play in an orchestra, regardless of your ethnicity or your underrepresentation, we all get to choose from the same notes, and we all have this common goal. So I felt this sense of belonging. I was going to do everything in my power to get that trumpet back. And I did just that.
DAVIES: Yeah. You know, this becomes a pattern as I read your story. When people tell you, hey, if you want X, it’s going to require this. And you do it rather than saying, forget it.
WHITE: I think it’s an embodiment of who I am. I think in spite of, instead of, because of – because of this, I can’t do that. Because of this, this is not allowed. I think in spite of this deficiency, in spite of how impossible this look, I will show you that I can do it.
DAVIES: So you played the trumpet, but you migrated to, well, like, not the tuba, but the sousaphone, which is the version that you carry, the – right? – in a marching band. How’d that happen?
WHITE: So I think the transition was trumpet, baritone, sousaphone. I was in band. I was No. 18 probably out of 32 trumpets. I looked up. I saw the sousaphone, which was in a Frankenstein chair because if you’re in sixth grade, you can’t actually hold the sousaphone. It’s too big. And the director first moved me to baritone and then tuba. And I only picked the tuba because it was one. I liked the idea that it was the only one back there. And I never looked back.
DAVIES: A lot of kids play an instrument when they’re young. Very few of them get serious. You did. Tell us about getting admitted to the Baltimore School for the Arts, the magnet school for performance.
WHITE: I never wanted to be a tuba player or a musician. I wanted to be a football player and go to a vocational tech school and train to be a carpenter. But I broke my hip just before ninth grade. And the only thing I had left was a tuba. So I showed up on a Saturday at the Baltimore School for the Arts – and picture this – on crutches with a sousaphone – so half of it wrapped around my head and the bell – of my body and the bell on top of my head with crutches…
WHITE: …Going to take an audition. I’m banging on all the doors, wondering why the doors are locked. This school is supposed to be closed. One door was open because the director just happened to be there this day. And he says, what are you doing here? And I said, I came to audition. He said, auditions were yesterday. And I said – looked at him straight in the eyes and said, but I’m here now. (Laughter) He then said that kind of determination or audacity led him to say, I have to hear this kid play. Went upstairs – I played a Mozart piece. He looked at me and said, wow. Can you read this? Do you know what this note is? He pointed to E-flat. And I just pushed down my first finger. I said, it’s this. He said, but do you know what it’s called? And I said, I said it’s this. He said, but do you know the note name of it? It’s this, man.
WHITE: And he said, OK, let’s try this a different way. He went to the piano, played a melody, said, can you play that back? I said, yeah. And I played it back for him. And he went, made some phone calls and said, wow, you must be the lucky kid on the planet. We’re going to accept you into Baltimore School for the Arts. And to give the statistics on that, if 600 kids audition, they will accept about 35 of them.
DAVIES: Wow. You had some instructors. One of them was a guy named Ed Goldstein, who you’d – I guess you’d met in middle school, when he was with an extracurricular program. And he realized at some point, you know, you had talent, but you weren’t working hard enough at it. You weren’t practicing enough. What made you change?
WHITE: Oh, a really bad day – a really (laughter) bad lesson made me change. I was so reluctant to follow through on my homework assignments. And Ed just came in one day, you know, eyes red, almost watery. He, you know how much I make doing this? You know, I don’t have to do this. You know, I do this because I want to give back and make a difference. You know, I pay this in parking. I pay this in gas. You know, I may turn down this gig here and there. So I’m not making money on this. And yet you refuse to practice. And you come in here and waste my time. I felt like I disappointed him so bad. I saw something in his eyes – which is a recurring theme in the book, too – I just don’t like hurting people – that I wanted to make sure that I would never let him down again. So that changed my whole attitude.
DAVIES: You had a good friend named Dante that you’d known when you were young, and, you know, that meant that relationship lasted for a long time. When you were in high school at the School for the Arts, you discovered – you know, he’d experience some of the same hardships you had when you were younger and was still living through some tough circumstances. And you describe a moment when you were at his house and something happened that really troubled you. You want to share that?
WHITE: Yes. Me and Dante were just talking about this the other day. And we were saying that – how our commonality brought us together, but our differences made us stronger. And I stayed in Dante’s house. I don’t know if we had rehearsal at school or something. Somehow I ended up at his house. And we were hanging out. And we’re sitting there. And then all of a sudden you just hear, bam, bam. Whoa, you know? I’m ready to run to the window. And Dante’s like, get down. Get down, man. Get down. Get down. I said what are you, talking about, get down? What was that explosion? It was a person being shot. And the person actually was deceased. They died.
And I had never seen this sequence of events before. So like, oh, man, maybe they take him to the hospital. And Dante said, fool – no, man. He dead. I was like, how you know? He’s like, when they put the black bag and cover it up, that mean they dead. And then, like, it just hit me. I was like – I had just seen my first person die. And that was intense because it was the world we were living in. And I think me and Dante probably looked at each other that night and said, man, we got to make it. We go to make it. It was a moment – a horrific moment, but also, it was a moment, I think, that allowed us to be brave, allowed us to be determined – more than we’d ever been before.
DAVIES: You know, there was – another moment that hit me was, you describe being on a neighborhood basketball court, when this guy named Carl (ph), who was a big guy – older – approached you. You were a little nervous about it. What did he say to you?
WHITE: I’m still fascinated by that to this day. And when I go back, they’re so proud of me. I haven’t seen Carl in years. But, you know, we know the activities that happen in the streets – you know, the drug dealers or whatever, the shenanigans. And they knew that I played the tuba – the bugle, they called it, you know? They would say, Shorty, you play that bugle. You got something good. You’re going to be something by yourself. So when drug deals happened or anything that was illegal, they – Carl in particular – would make sure I left and that I was home. And he would be adamant. You go home. I was like, I want to hang out, man. I’m cool. I tried to be cool. I can hang out with the big boys. I said, you go home. If he does not go home now, everybody here is in trouble – because he respected the fact that I was doing something positive and that I was bringing something to the neighborhood that nobody else was doing. And so he would send me home when shenanigans happened because he wanted to see me achieve – and I laugh – playing my bugle. (Laughter) I don’t know. I think it could have been a trumpet, tuba, trombone. It all would have been bugle to Carl (laughter).
DAVIES: Let me reintroduce you. We’re going to take another break here. We are speaking with Richard Antoine White. His new book is “I’m Possible: A Story Of Survival, A Tuba, And The Small Miracle Of A Big Dream.” We’ll talk some more after this short break.
I’m Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. We’re speaking with Richard Antoine White, a professor of tuba at the University of New Mexico and principal tubist for the New Mexico Philharmonic and the Santa Fe Symphony. He has a new memoir about overcoming poverty and homelessness in Baltimore and becoming an accomplished musician. The book is “I’m Possible: A Story Of Survival, A Tuba, And The Small Miracle Of A Big Dream.”
So let’s talk a bit about the tuba. You know, I think people think of it as a happy instrument, you know, with the oompah sound. When you were in high school in Baltimore at the School for the Performing Arts, there was an open class where everybody had to go with David Fedderly, who was a big guy. He was the principal tubist for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. You heard him. You ended up getting an usher for the symphony performances. And you wrote that – you write in the book that that his playing was like a drug. It permeated your brain. Can you put into words what was so different and meaningful about hearing him?
WHITE: Yeah. I first met him in – you know, we have something called Thursday noon or masterclass. And he came and played at Baltimore School for the Arts. I’d never heard tuba like that before. I was blown away. And I studied with Ed Goldstein. But Ed Goldstein plays Dixieland, sort of a jazzer (ph). So this was a different, orchestral, you know, just magnificent sound. And I wanted to absorb this sound. I couldn’t afford lessons with Fedderly. And I couldn’t afford tickets to the symphony, so I figured I’d just become an usher. Then that way, I could hear him every night when there was tuba in the repertoire.
So what I meant by that is that I heard this sound that was just the ultimate sound, optimal performance sound. I wanted to achieve it. But I was afraid that I would lose it because I heard him first at the Baltimore School for the Arts. I was like, I got to keep hearing it. I don’t want it to go away. I was afraid that it would go away. So if I was an usher, I could hear it every day. And then I could ask him questions about how to get this sound. And so it became a part of my education, listening to Fedderly play and absorbing that sound, because I wanted to achieve it. And I can hear it in my head now. It’s just – that’s what I base my sound off. And I think it was developed because I got to hear it every day.
DAVIES: Yeah. He became a mentor of yours. I mean, when you later went to the Peabody Conservative, you took classes with him. I think he said in the documentary about you he thinks he pushed you harder than any student. You said – it’s maybe in the documentary – that you left every lesson with David Fedderly in tears. Explain this (laughter).
WHITE: Well, I have to give him a lot of credit because he was very hard on me. But I think that hard love transformed me to be the best version of me that I could be. And I can’t thank him enough. I think I realized some hard truths with him, that there would always be a tuba player more talented than me. There will always be, you know, other musicians more talented than me. But what I discovered with Fedderly is that no one would ever outwork me. So I left every lesson crying. But I was determined to do the work to get where I needed to be. And that philosophy has served me well.
I think there’s always a starting point, that I was so deficient in some areas with Fedderly that I had to figure out what, can I do? So for example, if there was a concerto, I’m like, I cannot play this. I would say to myself – and now I teach my students the same thing – well, let me play the first note. And I would literally play the first note, feel OK about myself. And then I would play the last note and then feel better about myself. And it’s like, ha, ha, ha, I got the beginning, and I got the end. OK. Now I just got to work on the middle (laughter). So that was my approach. It may take me a while to get the middle, but at least I got the beginning and the end.
DAVIES: Wow. So the tears in the lessons were tears of frustration, like, gosh, this is hard. But you were determined to keep at it. You know, I thought – I was – I have a little piece to play here of your music. This is not a symphonic piece. This is with the brass quintet called The Enchantment Brass, “The Music Of John Cheetham.” Let’s just listen to a little bit of this.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE ENCHANTMENT BRASS’ “A BRASS MENAGERIE: V. BRILLIANTE”)
DAVIES: And that’s our guest, Richard Antoine White, playing the tuba. You know, one of the things that you wrote is that one of the things you love about the tuba is that the orchestra – that everyone relies on the tuba player for pitch and rhythm. And that’s one thing I could hear in that little piece was that you are kind of driving, you know, this almost, like, as percussion.
WHITE: Yes. I think the tuba has multiple roles. I often say in these interviews that my job is to show everyone else how much they suck at pitch and rhythm.
WHITE: And I really hold that really dear. That’s my job. And you can sink or, you know, elevate the boat however you choose to as a tuba player, you know? Tuba players don’t make mistakes. When you make a mistake in the orchestra as a tuba player, it’s called a blunder (laughter), you know?
DAVIES: Because it’s so visible?
DAVIES: You know, after you finished the Baltimore School for the Arts, you went to the Peabody conservatory in Baltimore, and then to Indiana University, a highly respected music program. And throughout all of this, you know, you were often the only Black person in class or one of very few, often in places where there were no Black instructors or administrators. How hard was this?
WHITE: This was difficult because you don’t see anyone that looks like you. And it’s not until you’re in close quarters in a theory or musicology class that you realize, whoa, I’m the only one here. And at that time, they didn’t have Black Student Alliance. This was so new. Even at Peabody, the oldest conservatory in the country, you didn’t even have a jazz program. And I complained about these things. And ultimately, I had a dean that listened. I said, you don’t even have my heritage music here. He said, well, this is a conservatory. And I was like, well, we all play from the same notes, right? And I sparked enough interest in him to listen to me and check in on me to see how I was doing because he recognized the lack of diversity.
And also, you know, when I talk about not lowering the bar of excellence, I had teachers – when I turned in my first musicology paper, it was very apparent that I was not in the league of, you know, Ivy League (laughter), you know? But I was given a map. And I was pointed to the writing tutorial services because my writing was not on the level. Now, that person could have easily just failed me and wished me good luck. But, you know, they had a standard that they were going to uphold. And throughout my time there, regardless of the lack of representation, underrepresentation, they all acknowledged that something needed to be done and that we were going to reach new heights together. And I’m grateful that Peabody saw things that way.
DAVIES: You could even write a book someday, huh?
DAVIES: You know, after you finished the conservatory, you went to Indiana University. And you began to play professionally. But you wanted to get a job in a symphony. And that is a hard thing to do, and there are these huge auditions. Tell us a little bit about that experience and how you learned to master it.
WHITE: I think there’s a hierarchy. First, you know, everyone’s in school. So you get into school. You got to at least pay to do that. Then when you’re in school, you have to at least pay to get into top ensemble at your school. And then once you do that, you have to get into the music festivals, and then you take the professional auditions. If you get into a really top-notch music festival, it means you’re really close. You’re just missing a couple ingredients. So I auditioned for, I don’t know, maybe 10 or more music festivals one year. I didn’t get in. So I taped all of those rejection letters around my room. And on the top of my ceiling every morning, there was a note on the ceiling that said, when you don’t feel like practicing, remember these.
DAVIES: Wow (laughter).
WHITE: The next year, I auditioned and got into every music festival I auditioned for. And at that point, I learned a valuable lesson. What I learned is that failing is equally important as succeeding. And I have this acronym I use for failing – finding an intended lesson in needed growth. So what that means is that I got rejected that first time, but there were things that I needed to know that I didn’t know that now I do know. So now I can succeed.
DAVIES: So tell us about the breakthrough when you went to New Mexico.
WHITE: So, you know, prior to winning New Mexico, I was there two other times prior. And I played – my first audition was just astonishing ’cause I probably played three excerpts, and then you hear this voice that goes, thank you. And I’m like, you got to be kidding me. I did not travel all the way from the Midwest to the Southwest to play, you know, a minute (laughter). That’s it?
I think the breakthrough was I realized I had to give it everything that I had. So everything – if you keep doing what you’ve been doing, you’re going to get what you’ve been doing. I had to change my methodology. I had to be all in, meaning I had to practice with my music in front of me, with a metronome to keep the rhythm to the left of me, with a tuner to the right of me to ensure my pitch. I was all in. And I was honest. This lesson that I had from Fedderly – I put – because this book – Don Green – gave you instructions on how to do this. I put my excerpts in three categories – excerpts that I owned, excerpts that I can kind of play at the start of the line and excerpts that I couldn’t play. And the idea is to move everything to category one. So I took the top 30 excerpts for tuba and worked, you know, until no end to get them to category one. And then I started advancing.
That’s an amazing feeling once you start it. When they call your name, going onto the next round – Richard White- you’re like, oh, wow. So the third time, I heard that – Richard White will be advancing to the semifinals. And in that moment, I thought, I might not ever make it here again. I don’t know why. I didn’t think that to prior auditions that I advanced, but this time I was like, this might be the last time. So I went to the practice room practicing with intent to win. And it was bad. It’s like someone telling you, don’t think about the blue horse. It was not coming out right. But when I got to the stage in the finals, everything came out as well as I could have ever played it. And then they came out and said, we’d like to offer the job to Richard White.
WHITE: Amazing feeling.
DAVIES: How did you react? (Laughter).
WHITE: I first smiled because when they announced the job, you know, the prior – the prelims and the semifinals are behind a screen. So it’s anonymous who’s there. And in the finals, the screen comes down. So when the screen came down, they saw a brother with cornrows with red beads in his hair and red shoes, 250 pounds. So they was like, whoa.
WHITE: So I – even though there were no sounds, I could see the shock in their eyes and in my eyes. So I just smirked actually (laughter). It was a surreal moment.
DAVIES: But you had found a home. Wow, wow.
DAVIES: We need to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you again. We’re speaking with Richard Antoine White. He is a professor of tuba at the University of New Mexico and the principal tubist for the New Mexico Philharmonic and the Santa Fe Symphony. His new memoir is called “I’m Possible: A Story Of Survival, A Tuba, And The Small Miracle Of A Big Dream.” We’ll continue our conversation after this break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we’re speaking with Richard Antoine White. His new book is “I’m Possible: A Story Of Survival, A Tuba, And The Small Miracle Of A Big Dream.”
Well, after all of your hard work, you eventually got a job in New Mexico at a symphony. And, you know, the story is fascinating. From there, you made a life as a musician, but things weren’t easy. The symphony went bankrupt after the financial crash of 2008. And – hardship on you, but you managed to persevere and build a life there. I wanted to play a cut from the documentary short made about you and your life. It was originally called “R.A.W. Tuba.” That is R.A.W. as in Richard Antoine White Tuba. It’s – you can now see it under the title “Hi I’m Richard Antoine White” on the Magnolia Plus platform for streaming. This is a couple of scenes where you went back to your old – the old neighborhood in Baltimore after having, you know, been away in New Mexico and succeeded in music there. And we’re going to hear two scenes in succession. One is where you say hello to a woman from the neighborhood who remembers you as a child. And then we’re going to hear you going to this park where you spent time as a kid looking for your mom, sometimes even sleeping there. So let’s listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, “HI I’M RICHARD WHITE”)
WHITE: My mom was Cheryl White.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Oh, his mama’s name was Cheryl White.
WHITE: Tinka (ph). My family used to live right here. Grandma Emma?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Emma.
WHITE: I’m baby Ricky (ph).
TRACY: Oh, my God.
WHITE: (Laughter) Who are you?
TRACY: Regina (ph).
WHITE: Oh, that’s my aunt.
TRACY: Amare Stevenson (ph).
WHITE: Yes. Who are…
TRACY: I’m Debbie’s (ph) sister Tracy (ph).
WHITE: How are you doing, Tracy?
TRACY: Oh, my God.
WHITE: (Laughter) How are you?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I remember last time I saw him, when you go up through here – when you go up Colton (ph) Avenue, that school building right there. It was pouring down rain, and he was standing right there underneath the building like this – no shoes and stuff on. He didn’t know where his mother was at. And that’s for real, yeah.
WHITE: I haven’t been back here since – this park, this spot – since I was 4. And this water fountain has got to be just as old as me because it’s where I would drink and bathe if I needed to. And I could barely reach this. I would be like this. And you’d step on this and the water would – oh, it still works (laughter). Wow. And I would do this. And – wow. It still works. Man – just this emotional.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Why?
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “WON’T LET YOU GO”)
BEN COCKS AND MO BRANDIS: (Singing) All I know, darling, I won’t let you go.
WHITE: That was my bathroom, man.
DAVIES: And that’s from the documentary “Hi I’m Richard Antoine White,” which is available for streaming on the Magnolia Plus platform.
Quite a moment – have you come back to Baltimore more since then?
WHITE: No, I come back to speak, just to inspire hope. And hearing those two scenes, I don’t know when it’s going to get to the point where I can watch that documentary and not relive it or feel emotional. You know, the first scene that you just played is really important because as we were making this documentary, there were some issues of credibility in terms of, how do you remember? I was 4. I was like, I actually don’t know. I hope I’m not making any of this up. I’m pretty sure this actually happened this way. And so we randomly were picking spots in Baltimore. We randomly picked that time, randomly picked that place and ran into neighbors that confirmed everything that I was saying. And so the film people immediately put drones in the air and said, Richard, the universe is working with you. We no longer have any credibility issues because the people told and verified my story, which was incredible. And I got answers to some things I was searching for.
The second scene was, I obviously suppressed a lot of things to move forward in life. So being at that water fountain, what I realized is that I was so small, first of all, that I couldn’t reach the pedal and drink at the same time. And so that’s how I ended up in the fountain. I just said to heck with it, I can’t reach the water. I’ll just jump in the fountain. And I realized in that moment that was my bathroom. So I just broke down in tears. I hadn’t really thought about it since. And yeah, it was a magical moment of reconnecting with my past in a very emotional way.
DAVIES: Yeah. We are speaking with Richard Antoine White. His new book is “I’m Possible: A Story Of Survival, A Tuba, And The Small Miracle Of A Big Dream.” We’ll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we’re speaking with Richard Antoine White. He’s the principal tubist for the New Mexico Philharmonic and the Santa Fe Symphony. His new memoir about overcoming poverty in Baltimore and becoming an accomplished musician is called “I’m Possible: A story Of Survival, A Tuba, And The Small Miracle Of A Big Dream.”
When you were living with Richard and Vivian McClain, your adoptive parents, your mom would come from time to time. And one point, she shows up with this little kid. She had told you she wasn’t going to have any more children. Tell us about this moment.
WHITE: I didn’t know my mom had another son. When we were on the streets, I had often wished for my mom to have another child so that I wouldn’t be alone on the streets. I was told that, you know, she couldn’t have a kid. Her tubes was tied. I don’t know the rest of the story to that in terms of how she actually had my brother. And when I met my brother, I was already committed to the McClains and my new family, happily so. And once they left, my relationship with my brother never developed. And it wasn’t because I didn’t care or, you know, I lacked love for him. It was simply because I didn’t know him.
And after that moment, throughout the years, my brother would call, ask for certain things. My way of showing love to him was what the McClains did for me. I would just buy him the latest video game, the latest jacket. And one day, he just got mad. And he was like, why don’t you talk to me? Why don’t we have a relationship? And I said, because I don’t know you. And he looked at me or was on the phone and said, I never thought about it like that. Well, can we get to know each other? And it changed the whole trajectory of our relationship. We worked on getting to know each other. I’m proud of him now. He’s a freestyle rapper working in Dallas. He’s married now. And he changed his entire life, just like me – off the streets of Baltimore now and just being a contributing citizen. And I think that’s awesome.
DAVIES: There’s something remarkable about – when your mom, who died – I think she’d had asthma, your biological mom we’re talking about. And something he – she told your brother, William, about her aspirations for him. Share that with us.
WHITE: Now you’re going to make me cry on air, man. But her last dying breath, the last thing she said right before passing over was for my brother to be like me. She said to him, I want you to be like your brother. And that still rocks my world because – I’m sorry. It really means that she loved me.
DAVIES: And when did you learn she had said that? And did you learn it from William?
WHITE: Yes, because he was so angry that I wasn’t there. I couldn’t be there. I was in another state. He didn’t understand, because he was young, how his big brother didn’t come to save his mom. There was a lot of frustration, emotion. I mean, watching your mom die has to be difficult for him. So he had to direct that anger and frustration that he had towards the universe, and some of it filtered towards me. And he shared that story with me. Obviously, we’re both intense and emotional. And it’s just a really powerful story, and it’s just a really tremendous contribution to how I think about her in that – you know, and the last thing she did before leaving this world is to think about her two kids and to try to give them a piece of advice that would help them be the best version of themselves and help each other.
DAVIES: In the documentary about your life, the short documentary, we meet William. And he says candidly that he was doing some things in Baltimore, in the streets, that would eventually land him in jail or get him killed. And he was determined to change. And the clip I wanted to play was from a remarkable moment where you and he, your brother William, collaborate in a studio. You’re the tuba player. He’s the freestyle rapper. Tell us a little bit about how this happened and what the collaboration was. Then we’ll listen.
WHITE: It was a very magical moment. We had never rehearsed, never practiced. To the listeners, I’m a classical musician. I read from manuscript, staff paper (laughter). So making up a beat with instruments and my brother freestyling – I was like, how are we going to do this? And shouldn’t we have had a couple of rehearsals? It just came together me, starting a bass line, adding a drum, the trumpet, sax, and then William came in with this remarkable freestyle. It was an extraordinary, organic musical moment that I hope everyone gets to see because it is truly magnificent.
DAVIES: Well, let’s listen to this. This is from the film, “Hi I’m Richard Antoine White.”
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, “HI I’M RICHARD ANTOINE WHITE”)
WILLIAM MAURICE SMITH: What’s up, Richard? You got your brother on the track. I’m going to style out a little bit.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SMITH: I think y’all can hear me. How y’all doing tonight? I’m going to get into a different type of zone right now. You know what I’m saying? All right, listen. (Rapping) I’m dark-skinned. I’m cool. Attitude, I’m light (ph). Me and my brother, we good. We love each other for life. Don’t get it confused. If he 3,000 miles away, beef come (ph), I come through, hit you where you stay. Listen here, my brother. He’s magnificent, the ruler, talk crazy when he use the tuba. Y’all can’t see him now ’cause these are better dreams (ph). You got to say, Dr. White, and that’s the pedigree. I got it in, so I’m…
DAVIES: And that’s our guest Richard Antoine White with his brother William from the documentary “Hi I’m Richard Antoine White.” This was quite a moment for you, wasn’t it?
WHITE: It was (laughter) quite a moment for everyone in the room, in the studio. We all screamed, jubilation. We couldn’t believe what just happened. And it was the pinnacle of the film. We realized that, wow, we didn’t know how this was going to end, but this is it. Just a really magical moment defining the importance of art, family – everything came together through music. It was – I can’t think of any other word to say other than phenomenal.
DAVIES: Richard Antoine White, thank you so much for speaking with us.
WHITE: Thanks for having me. It’s been a pleasure.
DAVIES: Richard Antoine White is a professor of tuba at the University of New Mexico and principal tubist for the New Mexico Philharmonic and the Santa Fe Symphony. His new memoir is “I’m Possible: A Story of Survival, A Tuba, And The Small Miracle Of A Big Dream.”
On tomorrow’s show, Terry speaks with The Washington Post’s Greg Miller about a massive trove of private financial records revealing how many heads of state, criminals and wealthy people have shielded assets in secretive accounts, including in the U.S. Those accounts have held billions of dollars, keeping them out of sight from tax authorities, creditors and criminal investigators. I hope you can join us.
FRESH AIR’s executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Sam Briger. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Thea Chaloner directed today’s show. For Terry Gross, I’m Dave Davies.
(SOUNDBITE OF RAY CHARLES’ “DAWN RAY”)
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