Flying High with Low Brass
By Leslie D. Green
The Ford Motor Company Fund recognizes that creativity and artistic expression enrich lives and inspire innovation and that communities which support and provide access to the arts are stronger for it. In this collection of stories, we share how and why music affects us at all ages and stages of our lives.
Clothing and a safe place to sleep once were just dreams to Richard White. His earliest memories include being homeless , scrounging for food and running barefoot on the streets of Baltimore, Maryland.
“I would knock on a door and (people) would give me a sandwich,” said White, 46, now a professional musician. “They knew my mom was an alcoholic and that I was the snot-nosed kid running around with no shoes.”
During a snowstorm one winter when he was 4, White recalls crawling into an entryway to stay warm and then waking up with blankets and cup of hot tea. Strangers had found him. The authorities eventually found his mother’s adoptive parents, Richard and Vivian McClain, who took him into their care.
Yet, White wasn’t comfortable in his new surroundings. He didn’t trust the people he thought took him from his mother.
White would eat half a sandwich and put the other half in his pocket, just in case food would be scarce later. And he wouldn’t talk with the McClains, except to mutter a few polite remarks, like “Hello and goodbye,” as necessary.
Little did his foster parents know when they gave 9-year-old White a trumpet, that they also were giving him access to a healthier, happier future.
“I believe that magic is real in the imagination,” White said. “I had to imagine a warm blanket and full tummy. But without music, I don’t have my magic wand. Music gave me the ability to change my own life.”
Today, White is also a principal tubist for the Santa Fe Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Early Light Media is making White’s life story into a documentary film called “R.A.W. Tuba.”
It’s a turn-around story worth knowing. And telling.
As a young student, White decided there were too many trumpet players at school, and he wanted to stand out. So, he picked up the sousaphone, an instrument in the tuba family. His teacher, Mr. Burns, rewrote songs for him to play and Mr. Burns gave him rides home from school on Fridays — so he could practice with the school sousaphone over the weekend. On Monday mornings, Mr. Burns would pick up White, and the bulky and heavy brass instrument, for the ride to school.
At the time, White thought his hope for the future would be a career as a carpenter or football player. But kids in his neighborhood saw a different future for him.
“I tried to hang out on the basketball court with the drug dealers, but they would say, ‘Shorty, go home and play the bugle,'” White said. “Even they were cognizant enough to know I might have a future.”
Then, White, who was going to vocational tech school, broke his hip on the football field and doctors said he might not be able to play the sport anymore. With crutches in hand and a sousaphone wrapped around him, White headed to the Baltimore School for the Arts.
“I literally just showed up at the school and said, ‘Yo, I’m here to audition.’ But Chris Dr. Ford (the current director at the BSFA), told me, ‘Auditions were yesterday.'”
Impressed by White’s hunger to learn, Chris admitted him.
“I would leave my house at 6 a.m. and practice every day before school,” White said. “I thought somebody’s going to pay me to do this.” And White began talking to his family.
He worked even harder in college at Peabody Conservatory of Music at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, where he studied with David Fedderly, then principal tubist for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.
“I didn’t see anybody that looked like me there,” White said. “The dean saw that I was having trouble and started having meetings with me. He took diversity seriously.”
The McClains sent him $200 a month, religiously.
“It was a sacrifice,” White said. “They were proud. I was the first in the family to go to college.” White added he also worked a job while going to the Peabody Conservatory.
School was incredibly difficult, White said. He still used poor grammar, didn’t have a typewriter or a computer to write papers and didn’t understand, at first, how students knew the music before going to class.
“The teacher said I was missing so much, but he knew I could do it,” White said. “He knew I could take it. After every lesson, I would walk down the steps and cry.”
Under the pressures of school and work, White decided to quit his job and just focus on his music. He shared his plan with his professor.
“He told me he would fail me if I quit,” White said. “He told me to figure it out and learn to be disciplined.”
White endured and graduated from the Peabody Conservatory of Music. From there, he attended Indiana University Jacob School of Music and eventually became the first African American to earn a Doctor of Music in Tuba Performance, then taught at New Mexico School for the Arts. Today, in addition to performing globally, White is associate professor of Tuba/Euphonium and associate Marching Band director at the University of New Mexico and the Albuquerque Youth Orchestra Programs ( and low brass specialist with the Albuquerque Youth Orchestra Programs).
However, learning tuba didn’t just provide White with professional skills and opportunities. Music introduced him to someone he never thought he’d meet.
During a concert one afternoon, a man stood up and began thanking everyone who taught White how to play tuba. The man was White’s birth father, and it was the first time White had seen him.
“I ran off the stage and hugged him and had to go back to play,” White said.
White said his story is an example of why the arts matter. “Music gave me the ability to change my own life,” he said. “Now, I change other people’s lives.”
The Ford Motor Company Fund supports a range of music-rich programming, including the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, the Mosaic Youth Theatre of Detroit, the Sphinx Organization, The Ark in Ann Arbor, Michigan, the League of American Orchestras in Washington, D.C., the GRAMMY Museum’s GRAMMY in the Schools program and Latin GRAMMY Cultural Foundation’s Latin GRAMMY in The Schools program.