The Current

How music pulled Richard Antoine White out of homelessness to tuba stardom

Richard Antoine White, the first African American to earn a doctorate in music for tuba performance, recounts what it was like to grow up black and homeless in Baltimore as the son of an alcoholic mother — and how, through music, that childhood did not come to define the rest of his life.

R.A.W. Tuba documentary chronicles White's journey

Richard Antoine White (left) and Chris Lee (right) in studio with The Current's Matt Galloway. In a documentary, titled R.A.W. Tuba: From Sandtown To Symphony, White recounts what it was like to grow up black and homeless in Baltimore — and how music saved him. (CBC)

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Richard Antoine White calls the tuba the "underdog of the orchestra" and that mentality is something which has resonated with his own life's story. 

In a documentary titled R.A.W. Tuba: From Sandtown To Symphony, White recounts what it was like to grow up black and homeless in Baltimore as the son of an alcoholic mother — and how, through music, that childhood did not come to define the rest of his life.  

White is now the principal tuba player with the New Mexico Philharmonic orchestra and a music professor at the University of New Mexico. He defied the odds and became the first African American in the United States to earn a doctorate in music for tuba performance, the University of New Mexico said. 

He remembers that life growing up was about "having fun, finding my mom and finding something to eat," White told The Current's Matt Galloway. 

"I often shared this story — I learned the technique of chewing food and then putting it under my tongue because I didn't know when I would eat again."

WATCH l R.A.W. Tuba documentary trailer

Because of his mother's issues with alcoholism, White would have to search neighbourhoods, the local park, and hangout spots to try and find her. Some nights he was unsuccessful and would have to "crawl into an abandoned house" or wherever else he could find shelter, White said. 

However, White says he held dear to his heart that she was "actually a hero" because it must have taken "a tremendous amount of courage and embarrassment" for her to give him up for adoption.

"She realized that she couldn't provide for me. So she made one of the hardest choices — anyone with a kid out there understands — and gave me up so that I could have an opportunity to have a better life."

'No one notices the tuba'

White said he was first introduced to music in the fourth grade after being inspired by his elementary school friend, Dante, who played the trumpet.

"I said, 'Hey, man, we should pick trumpet. It's only got three valves. It can't be hard.' Boy, was I wrong."

But it wasn't until a few years later that White picked up the tuba. He said he was not happy about being the 18th trumpet player in the school's orchestra. White then vowed, after seeing only one tuba, that that was the instrument he was going to play.

"The rest is history. I played tuba from there and then I got a football injury. I broke my hip. So I was like, 'Well, I guess football is over now.'" 

If it's the instrument that you hear in your mind and heart, choose it. And the tuba is not a bad one to choose."- Richard Antoine White

The tuba resonated with White because "no one notices the tuba." That aspect of the instrument struck a chord with him because of his homeless upbringing. 

"Give the tuba a chance to play the melody," White said.

"If it's the instrument that you hear in your mind and heart, choose it. And the tuba is not a bad one to choose."

Following high school, White applied to Baltimore School for the Arts. He says he arrived a day late for entry auditions.  

"The director just happened to be there and he looked me in the face and said, 'What are you doing here? Auditions were yesterday.' And I said, 'But I'm here now,'" said White.

"He thought that was the boldest thing ever."

White said the greatest accomplishment in his life was not earning the doctorate in music, but that he gets to go to work every day to teach and "make a difference in a kid's life, because that's what someone did for me." 

Competitive spirit key in mastering tuba 

Chris Lee, one of White's oldest friends and a fellow black tuba player from Toronto, said it was White's "unique and intense, ambitious goals" which drew them together. 

"We became quite competitive at tuba and basketball, video games, everything. And it was sort of a family. He's like my brother," Lee said.

White said it was through that competitive spirit and how the friends were "generally honest when we weren't on a level of excellence," that really drove them to become masters of the instrument. 

The two friends were among only five black students who were studying music at graduate school. 

"There's a difference between being included and feeling like you belong. So seeing Chris and other people that look like myself made me feel more like I belonged," White said. 

Orkidstra students preform. The program offers free instruments and music lessons to children and teenagers in Ottawa. (CBC)

Tina Fedeski, co-founder of an Ottawa kids program called OrKidstra, said the program hosted a screening of the documentary where children were able to perform in front of White. 

"They were really excited to prepare for it. We've worked hard to get them ready. You could see the gleam of pride in the entire group," Fedeski said. 

OrKidstra, which was established in 2007, offers free instruments and music lessons and began with the "passionate belief in the transformative effect of music."

It is now helping over 800 children and teenagers from a variety of backgrounds "find their voices through music," she said.

White, who is helping OrKidstra train future musicians while in Ottawa, said he can "feel the energy" in the city. 

"These kids are going to see opportunities that they wouldn't otherwise normally see, see people that look like them on classical stages," he said. "And boy, Canada's about to grow in a fantastic way."


Written by Adam Jacobson. Produced by Alison Masemann and Paul McInnis.

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