Richard Antoine White likes his tuba R.A.W.

Richard Antoine White. Photo: John Waire

Richard Antoine White is an associate professor of tuba and euphonium at the University of New Mexico. He is also a tuba soloist and principal tubist of the New Mexico Philharmonic Orchestra. His journey is an improbable one from poverty in Baltimore to a life full of music and success. He is the first African American to receive a doctorate in music for tuba performance, As a child, White slept where he could, sometimes in abandoned homes where he was bitten by rats as he slept. He still carries the scars. A film of his life so far has been made and is called R.A.W. Tuba: From Sandtown to Symphony. The film will be screened at the Carleton Dominion-Chalmers Centre on Feb. 25. This is a free event. Before the screening and a Q & A with Richard Antoine White, he answered some questions from ARTSFILE. 

Q. Take me back to Sandtown in Baltimore, Maryland. What kind of a place is it?

A. Rough. It’s the kind the environment you see in movies, where you say to yourself … that’s not real, no one lives like that. It must be the cameras. But unfortunately it’s the harsh reality of many — drug infested, violence, cracked-out individuals and very little hope.

Q. What was your family like? What was your childhood like?

A. Pre-adoption: Every day was simply about surviving. Finding food, my mom, shelter and having fun.

After being adopted: the early years were full of blessings, but to me it represented punishment because all I wanted was my mom🤷🏾‍♂️. Later my childhood was filled with love, understanding and a ton of hard work from two loving parents and a community of teachers, friends and family.

Q. When, how and why did you turn to music?

A. Grade 4: Someone visited the school with all the instruments so I turned to my friend Dontae Winslow and said ‘Yo, we should pick trumpet, it only has three valves. It’s gotta be easy … not true. Eventually in Grade 6, I switched to baritone, then tuba by the end of Grade 7.

Middle School: I wanted to be a football player, but I broke my hip … so I showed up at the Baltimore School for the Arts the day after auditions and the rest is history.

High School: I was told you could get scholarship — I equated tuba playing with money and never looked back.

I discovered tuba in middle school because I was trumpet number 18 and saw there was only one tuba and asked to play it.

Q. You have called it the underdog of instruments? What do you mean by that?

A. It’s the underdog, much like my entire life. I think it’s my connection with it. Much like the story of Tubby the Tuba, I just wanna be like everyone else, and play the melody.

Q. Does the tuba deserve more love?

A. Absolutely. It’s the coolest because it’s the youngest of the brass instruments. Our first concerto won’t be 100 years old until 2052! The tuba is just getting started which is great because the sooner you get to the end, the sooner your greatness is over. Best part about tuba is that we are not done yet ;).

Q. How do you know Chris Lee who is principal tuba in the NAC Orchestra?

A. Chris Lee is my brother, aka best friend! I met him at Indiana University where we both did our Masters. It was do or die for both of us to make it as professional tubists. We didn’t have a choice, we had to make the tuba work… so we gave it our all, and bonded ever since❤️.

Q. Music has a power to lift us up. Is there a way to describe that power?

A. The imagination is not BS. Many nights, as a homeless kid, I had to imagine a full tummy, or a warm blanket. Music works in the way it provides hope, and extraordinary possibilities. It pushes our hearts, minds, emotions and abilities to achieve things that don’t require words … just our attention and effort. Effort is always between you and you!

Q. Did music save you? 

A. Yes, often times I am asked what does it take to make it in music? My reply is everything … but it has also given me everything, including life. Music turned IMPOSSIBLE to I’M POSSIBLE for me.

Q. Now you are bringing the message of your life to people in Ottawa. What do you hope they take away from the film and from the dialogue that you have with them?

A. My message is simple: Be Kind. Our world is full of problems, and I believe that 99 per cent of them would be solved if we just learned to be kind to one another. So be kind, and keep swinging because the next try may be your home run. You can do it, I can do it, we all can do it, even better, if we do it together.

Q. You teach and you play, is this other part of your life taking over your life? 

A. My life is changing. I believe I was put on this planet to make a difference, and no matter what, to show people that hope is real, and that they can achieve regardless of one’s disadvantages or advantages. Life is good. My goal is for everyone to visit the RAWTuba Ranch one day. It’s a place of fellowship with stage and 24/7 ramen noodles, chili and beer. If you’re having a bad day or just want to scream come on down. It’s a place where everyone has a friend and can be themselves.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.