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Tuba player Richard Antoine White’s journey from homelessness to ‘belonging’ on stage

Transcript

Judy Woodruff: And now one man's unlikely journey from the streets of Baltimore to concert halls around the globe, thanks to his mastery of the tuba.

Jeffrey Brown has this story for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Richard Anton White, Classical Musician: Sound goes in.

Jeffrey Brown: It's not every day you get a tuba demonstration.

Richard Anton White: I take a deep breath. And, sometimes, I like to have fun, which means I like to do multiphonics, which is singing in the tuba.

Jeffrey Brown: Especially one like this.

Richard Anton White: And then I like to add a little beatbox to it. And you put it all together.

(MUSIC)

Jeffrey Brown: Now, is that in the classical repertoire?

Richard Anton White: Not yet, but we're working on it. We're working on it.

Jeffrey Brown: Richard Antoine White is a classical musician. He's principal tubist for the Santa Fe Symphony and the New Mexico Philharmonic. And if he hasn't yet brought beatboxing to the tradition, he has brought an inspiring personal story.

Richard Anton White: If you look at my entire life, it was a long shot for me to be successful. Against all odds, I am possible, taking the word impossible and turning it into I am possible.

Jeffrey Brown: And that's what he's titled his new memoir, "I'm Possible: A Story of Survival, a Tuba, and the Small Miracle of a Big Dream."

The 6'5'' 330-pound White weighed just over a pound when he was born to a teenage mother who battled alcoholism. As captured in a 2019 documentary, his earliest years were spent homeless on Baltimore's West Side, every day a struggle to survive.

Richard Anton White: My routine was, look in the gutter, try to find some coins, figure out how I was going to get some chicken gizzards or chicken wings for the day, and then off to find my mom, if we weren't together. That was my normal.

Jeffrey Brown: And figure out where to sleep?

Richard Anton White: Where to sleep, yes. And it was an open space. So I could sleep under a tree. I could sleep in an abandoned house.

Jeffrey Brown: At age 4, his mother's foster parents took him in and got legal custody. His mother, Cheryl, died at age 36. In his book, White calls her a hero.

Richard Anton White: Because I think she did one of the hardest things there is to do, is for a mother to give up their child and to be selfless to have that child have a chance at life. And on her deathbed, her last dying words to my brother was, "I want you to be like your brother," which I can get a little emotional now because, to me, it signifies that she really loved me.

And that's really real.

Jeffrey Brown: Music became his way forward. In middle school band, he latched onto the tuba, which he calls the underdog instrument.

Richard Anton White: It represents me. The tuba is big, it's bulky, clumsy sometimes, but yet it can be powerful, beautiful and dominant.

I always say my job in the orchestra is to show everyone else how bad they suck at rhythm and pitch.

(LAUGHTER)

Jeffrey Brown: He attended high school at the highly selective Baltimore School for the Arts, college at the Peabody Institute, the oldest conservatory in the country, and Indiana University's prestigious Jacobs School of Music, where he became the first ever African American to earn a doctorate in tuba performance.

Richard Anton White: And one and two, and one and two, and one and two, one. Stop. Absolutely amazing!

Jeffrey Brown: Now 48, he teaches at the University of New Mexico, one of just two Black tenured tuba professors in the country.

He made it on his own terms.

Richard Anton White: On the classical stage, you can't help but be aware that you're the only one that looks like you on stage.

Jeffrey Brown: Which is probably the case for you a lot, right?

Richard Anton White: Yes. You're the only tuba player, because there's only one tuba for orchestra. And then, on top of it, you're the only African American. If you look out in the audience, you're lucky if you see one African American in the audience. So, you are conscious of that.

What's fascinating to me is that we all have to choose from the same notes. Whether you're Caucasian, African American, hey, when I'm on the stage with my colleagues, there's not a set of notes that says for Black people. And we work together towards a common goal.

And I think finding the musical instrument was the first time I experienced a real sense of belonging.

Jeffrey Brown: He shares that now with students, tutoring a high school Jr. and helping him toward a full college scholarship.

Man: Yes! You see what I'm saying? We're speaking the language. And yes!

Jeffrey Brown: Steering a graduate student to improvise, New Orleans-style, contributing to a music scholarship he helped establish at Indiana for under-represented students, even though he still carries his own student loans, and prepping recent alums for orchestral auditions.

It's all part of paying back those who helped him succeed. He lives with his partner, Yvonne, and her adult children just outside Albuquerque, where he's helped build the 10-year-old New Mexico Philharmonic.

Richard Anton White: I have never been in a place with so much potential that hasn't quite achieved it yet. I want to be a part of the potential.

I could have auditioned for other orchestras, but I think there's a sense of building something, growing something, and saying, man, I was here from the beginning.

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