Peabody Johns Hopkins University Magazine

Big Instrument, Big Dreams

Big Instrument, Big Dreams

Richard Antoine White (BM ’96, Tuba) is slowly turning a dream into a reality. 

Since the fall 2020 publication of his memoir, I’m Possible: A Story of Survival, a Tuba, and the Small Miracle of a Big Dream (Flatiron Books), the University of New Mexico tuba professor and principal tubist for the New Mexico Philharmonic and Santa Fe Symphony has inspired people nationwide with his gripping life story of moving from the streets of West Baltimore to becoming the first Black American to earn a doctorate in music in tuba and his ensuing career. He’s appeared on NBC’s The Today Show, Comedy Central’s The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, NPR’s Fresh Air, and the PBS NewsHour, with more to come. 

Headshot of Richard White

Now, he’s wanting to build the RAWTuba Ranch, which he mentions in his memoir, at his home residence outside Albuquerque. He envisions this space as a stage with an open microphone and free beer, ramen noodles, and chili, where musicians of any age or variety can hear music, play music, and hang out. He’s received a few donations toward the ranch, and has been in touch with city administrators about permitting. “They’re helping me out. So I am going to build the RAWTuba Ranch, and I’m astonished at the amount of people that want to help see this through.” 

White’s contagious positivity makes it easy to forget the challenges he’s surmounted. He spent a few early years itinerant, bouncing with his mother, who wrestled with alcohol use disorder, from the homes of friends and family to the streets. At 4 he was taken in by his mother’s adoptive parents, who became his legal guardians. He discovered band in school and learned how to play the tuba by ear from lessons on cassette tapes. He got into the Baltimore School for the Arts even though he showed up to audition a day late, pursued an undergraduate degree in music performance at Peabody, and eventually earned his doctorate from the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music in 2012. 

In January, White received a UNM Research and Creative Works Leadership Award, a universitywide faculty honor. “It feels like my purpose is aligning with the universe,” he says, defining that purpose with the accessible simplicity that marks his memoir: to inspire hope. He says all of the applicants auditioning for his UNM studio this year, save one, are either African American or Latinx. “So there’s a connection being made — like, ‘If he can do it, I can, too.’” 

Currently, White is looking forward to touring Europe with the Chineke! Orchestra in the summer and finishing a picture book exploring diversity through the instruments in an orchestra. “Diversity is not just a Black and white issue,” White says, noting that diversity must include sexual orientation, age, religion, disability, and more. “We have to remember that, and we have to keep excellence always at the fore — but we’ve got to start thinking about tradition in addition to.” 

“Tradition in addition to” is White’s catchphrase for revamping music curriculum and rethinking access to art and arts education from the ground up. He speaks from his experience as a teacher hearing what careers his students want to pursue, as well as a performer playing a wider variety of music. He says that tubists today shouldn’t only play the tuba, as low-brass players also need to play B-flat tuba, C tuba, cimbasso, and sousaphone, which is used in Mexican banda music. 

“The industry has changed but our curriculum has remained the same,” White says. “We have the old guard fighting the new and we need to say, We’re on the same team. Let’s keep your tradition — but in addition to your tradition, let’s add these things.” 

What he’s driving at is a music education and industry that’s more accessible to all aspiring artists. Music educators leave lasting impressions on students — White’s tuba ranch is inspired by one of his Indiana mentors, Harvey Phillips, who had one outside Bloomington — and as far as White is concerned, yes, it takes the proverbial village to raise a child, and that village should always be expanding. 

“My role in inspiring hope to teachers is showing that I am the result of what happens when you don’t give up,” White says. “It’s about the thousands of Richard Whites that you potentially produce and help elevate every day. I want as many educators to see that as possible because they need to see the value of what they do in real life.” 

-Bret McCabe