By Renee Foose, Special to the AFRO
Most people would agree that being born into homelessness is not a good situation. Few, if any, would consider such a circumstance to be a blessing. However, one Baltimore native falls into the category of feeling blessed to have been born homeless to a single mom who struggled from alcoholism.
Richard Antoine White has used his early life experiences to shape his journey from being cold, barefoot, hungry and alone in the Sandtown-Winchester community in West Baltimore to healthy, happy, educated, and playing symphony music on a world stage.
Born to a single mom who battled addiction, White was often left alone to fend for himself as he wandered the streets looking for his mother. When searching for her, he’d also scan storm drains and sidewalks looking for spare change. “Eventually when I had a dollar, I would go buy chicken gizzards so I could eat,” White told the AFRO. “I would keep gizzard meat under my tongue all day, to help with hunger.”
White recalls sleeping under trees, and on park benches as a child not having reached school age. “There is a problem when everyone sees a child running around without shoes and sleeping in a park,” White said. He also has scars on his torso from being bitten by rats while sleeping, he said.
After police found him sleeping on a very cold morning he was placed in foster care. His new foster parents were the same foster parents that raised his mother. and they were eager to adopt him. “He didn’t have much trouble adjusting, my children and the other children we had, helped him quite a bit,” said foster parent Richard McClain, Sr.
McClain, who is active in his church choir, doesn’t play an instrument but supported White’s desire to learn how to play music. “We put him in school and he wanted to play music, so I got him a trumpet,” said McClain.
Eventually a music teacher believed White had strong lungs and natural strength, so he was given a sousaphone, a lighter version of a tuba. White didn’t read music well, so he listened to cassette tapes of tuba players and practiced until he could mimic the sound. “I played for fun with no real interest in being a musician,” White said. “I wanted to play football until I broke my hip in a street game, then I became more serious about playing music,” he said.
When it came time to enter high school, White took his basic music skills and a borrowed sousaphone to audition for a seat at the Baltimore School for the Performing Arts. Unfortunately, he missed the audition date, and showed up to an empty school. Luckily for White, he was greeted by Chris Ford, the head of the music department.
“He was an intriguing sight, a kid on crutches carrying a plastic sousaphone,” Ford told the AFRO. Ford, now the director of Baltimore School for the Arts, said he chose to give White a chance to audition because he sensed White’s determination.
“He couldn’t sight read music, and his ability to sing back pitches was weak; but he had a way of manipulating sound in a meaningful way,” Ford said. White was granted admission to the school and began playing the tuba.
As he planned to further his musical talents, he worked as an usher at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. During concerts, White paid close attention to the principal tubist, David Fedderly. “During performances, most ushers congregate in lobby areas; Richard didn’t do that. He’d stay and listen to the music and after the performance he would find me and ask questions,” Fedderly said. “I knew he wanted to learn tuba and I knew he wanted to gain admission into a good college program to become a good musician,” Fedderly said.
Fedderly, who also taught music, became White’s teacher at The Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University, where he worked closely with White to master the tuba. Upon earning his bachelor’s degree, White enrolled at Indiana University to pursue graduate studies. After just a few years, White earned a doctorate in tuba performance and became the first African American at Indiana University to do so.
The American Federation of Musicians report that African Americans make up less than four percent of symphony musicians world-wide, and White became one of the elites after accepting a one-year position with the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra (NMSO) in Albuquerque. New Mexico became his new home and he earned tenure with the orchestra, in addition to teaching at the University of New Mexico.
In 2011, NMSO filed for bankruptcy and White was out of a job. The survival instincts he learned as a homeless child kicked in, and White did something few would consider. He met with university athletic staff and proposed a scenario to help the marching band with breathing techniques and choreography.
“He saw an opportunity and presented a way how he could help the university,” said Chad Simons, associate professor and director of marching bands University of New Mexico. White’s pitch worked, and he was hired as the assistant marching band director. “His motivation and positive message are powerful for nineteen-year-olds to hear,” said Simons.
White is now a tenured faculty member at the University of New Mexico. After the collapse of the NMSO, White was one of several musicians to form the New Mexico Philharmonic, where he is the principal tubist.
His personal journey through destitution to doctoral studies only became widely known after two Baltimore-based filmmakers contacted Ford with an interest in creating a documentary about arts education being underfunded. Darren Durlach and David Larson are the founders of Early Light Media. Their inspiring and award-winning films capture the human element in a way that compels viewers to be open to new perspectives.
When Ford suggested the filmmakers contact White, they were unaware of all the nuances of his journey, but quickly saw a powerful message. “Our challenge in making the film was finding a way to tell the story in an authentic way,” said Durlach. “The story is one of persistence, and how a teacher can make all the difference in someone’s life,” he said.
Durlach and Larson documented White’s journey and compelling message of hope, help and hard work. The film, RAW (White’s initials) Tuba is a contender for several independent film festival awards around the nation.
White considers his journey a blessing and wants his message to inspire others to find hope, commit to a work ethic, and never give up. To hear music performed by White, visit his web page at RawTuba.com.