Flying High with Low Brass

Images captured during production of the Early Light Media documentary film about Richard Antoine White R.A.W. directed by Darren Durlach and David Larson. Image by John Waire.

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.

‘Music Helps Me Engage’

Composer and trumpeter Kurton Harrison III plays the "Rising Stars Series with Sean Dobbins" in the Kerrytown concert House.Photo by Jeff Dunn

By Leslie D. Green

Songs are not minor in trumpeter’s life

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.

Diagnosed at age 5 with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Kurton Harrison III keeps defying expectations.

Rather than talk, Harrison pointed, pushed and developed his own sounds to communicate. He didn’t make eye contact and was so sensitive to some sounds and touch that he would physically respond in a negative way. Even warm water provoked a burning sensation for Harrison.

As a result, his doctor said Harrison would probably have to live in a group home.

The devastating outlook made his mother, LaJuana Harrison, cry. It also compelled her to act. She knew her son was capable of so much more.

“I would say, ‘We have to train him to do what we need him to do,'” Ms. Harrison said. “I would look in his eyes and say, ‘I know he’s in there.'”

To help him associate words with his world, LaJuana Harrison used Post-It notes to write down the names of every item in their house. She stuck them where her son would see them. Then she, her husband, and her mother dedicated nearly a year to instructing him to speak.

“If he wanted it, he had to touch it and say it before we would do it,” Ms. Harrison said.

Once Kurton Harrison started speaking, they made him spell the words before they would respond. Eventually, he started to string words together, though not always in the right order.

One day, shortly after they arrived at a family friend’s home, 6-year-old Kurton pulled himself up to the friend’s piano and started playing “Fallin'” by Alicia Keys. He had just heard the song on the car’s radio during the drive.

While Harrison’s mom was freaking out about her son bothering someone else’s property, her friend told her to stop and listen.

“He barely spoke, but he was playing this song,” LaJuana Harrison said. “I went out and bought a $700 keyboard and got fussed at. But it paid off in the long run. He played everything he heard.”

Then her son asked for a trumpet.

Pleased with his progress, his parents rented him a trumpet and enrolled him in the Detroit Academy of Arts and Sciences. Still, Harrison’s grades were poor and he would only talk if the subject was about music. He got into fights with bullies.

His mother told him the trumpet and keyboard were going to go if he didn’t stop fighting and improve his grades. Then, when he reached 7th grade, they encountered another issue.

“The music teacher said they could no longer work with him because his skills were too great,” Ms. Harrison said. “They wanted him to go to MSU Community Music School-Detroit (CMS-D).”

Operated by Michigan State University, CMS-D, an independent affiliate of Michigan State University, provides more than 60 music classes and music therapy for students of all ages, skills and incomes.

His mother enrolled him in CMS-D’s Aspiring Musicians Program (AMP) Camp. When she picked him up, she found a different kid.

“Kurton was so friendly there,” Ms. Harrison said. “He would walk into CMS with his trumpet, knowing he could play anything he wanted there, even the snare drums. Now you have a kid who can sit in a circle with these other kids and talk about music. Now he can talk about what he saw on TV because the music opened the door for him.”

Kurton Harrison said that he didn’t feel as if he had an opportunity to talk with people before AMP Camp. “Music helps me engage,” Kurton said.

“Before I participated in the camp, people picked on me and teased me because I am different from everybody else,” Kurton said. “Meeting more people that are engaged with what I want to do made me able to have a conversation. They are open to each other. Networking with other musicians is easier than talking with classmates who aren’t in your industry.”

Most teachers were willing to just pass Harrison to the next grade or class without challenging him because of his diagnosis, his mother said. However, his grades increased from Cs and Ds to As and Bs, landing him in the National Honor Society because of his participation in CMS-D.

CMS-D also helped get Harrison in the Detroit School of the Arts high school and in the Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s Civic Youth programs, which are all within walking distance of each other. As a result of these musical connections, Kurton would perform his own composition at the Detroit Jazz Festival.

Doctors once didn’t think it possible, but Kurton Harrison received his high school diploma in June. What’s more, rather than living in a group home, he will be living in a college dorm this fall.

Harrison was awarded a full ride – a $73,000 a year scholarship — to Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio to play trumpet as his primary instrument. He also plays piano, bass guitar, and most horns. Plus, he composes jazz, classical, orchestral, big band, and modern music.

“I can’t say where he would have been if it hadn’t been for that MSU program,” Ms. Harrison said. “I don’t think he would have grown like this without the music. Put an instrument in their hands and their minds will wake up.”

About Autism

• Autism is a bio-neurological developmental disability that usually appears before age 3

• Autism affects 1 in 59 children

• Autism effects the normal development of social interaction, communication skills and cognitive function

• More than half of children diagnosed with autism are classified as having an intellectual disability or borderline intellectual disability

• 40% of children with autism do not speak

• 25%-30% of children with autism have some words at 12-18 months of age but lose them

• No two people with autism are alike

• Children with autism can progress but early intervention is key

Source: National Autism Association


This story was originally published on 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.

Student finds her spark: Career academy drives pupil to her passion

A very shy Shakarah Nelson wanted to attend the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math school, but it was too far from home. Instead, she enrolled in Whites Creek High School in Whites Creek, Tenn.

“I really did not want to go there,” she said.

The school, part of the Academies of Nashville, has a distinct program. Rather than choosing random electives to accompany customary courses, students after their freshman year choose career-specific programs. With guidance from  Ford Next Generation Learning and partnerships with companies including UPS Inc., Piedmont Natural Gas and Louisiana-Pacific Corporation, Whites Creek offers four career academies: Education and Law; Community Health; and Alternative Energy, Sustainability, and Logistics along with corresponding Community Health, Entrepreneurship, Law, Teaching as a Profession K-12 and Automotive Technology.

Because Nelson wanted to be an engineer, she chose the automotive path. One course, though, wasn’t what she expected.

“I got my schedule and saw Alternative Energy Production, and I was like, ‘I don’t want that.’”

The class was small with only six other students, none of whom knew what the course was about and none of whom wanted to stay. But the teacher, Dr. Garry Gibson, was persuasive.

Read the full story here.

Crain’s 40 Under 40 Class of 2016: LaKeisha Florence

LaKeisha Florence had two dreams growing up. The first was to wear a business suit.

Unsure of a specific career to accompany the suit, Florence followed the business track at Cass Technical High School and fell in love with accounting. Later, her teacher invited a guest from Deloitte & Touche LLP to speak.

“I knew then I wanted to work for Deloitte,” Florence said. Once there, her passion for education garnered notice.

Read full story here.

Crain’s 40 Under 40 Class of 2016: Abdul El-Sayed

Abdul El-Sayed wanted to be a pediatric neurosurgeon in sub-Saharan Africa, where access to surgeons is in short supply.

When he discovered social epidemiology, the study of why some populations suffer diseases more than others, he shifted his academic focus to health policy and science. That way, he could find out why people get sick and what we could do about it.

Although he earned his medical degree, El-Sayed became a tenure track professor in the department of epidemiology at Columbia University. But he found his work there too esoteric and conceptual.

Read full story here.

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