Richard A. White sits next to his tuba

Credit: Eric Draper

In his new memoir, 'I'm Possible,' musician Richard Antoine White thanks the village of people who lift him up

On a January 2018 morning, 12 undergraduate and graduate musicians in the University of New Mexico's tuba ensemble prepared to travel to Canada for the group's first international performance. Before they'd even left Albuquerque, four were complaining. Richard Antoine White, then a UNM associate professor of tuba/euphonium, had founded the ensemble in 2005; it is officially known as the Harvey Phillips Chapter of the International Tuba Euphonium Association at the University of New Mexico. They were attending a low-brass festival and giving a few performances in Manitoba and Winnipeg. Flying a dozen students and himself from Albuquerque to Winnipeg meant splitting the group in two—and four had to catch a 6 a.m. flight. Those students grumbled about having to leave on a 4 a.m. bus from campus to the airport.

a photograph of tubist Richard White on stage, holding a tuba, shot from behind

Image credit: Eric Draper

They ended up being the lucky ones.

One undergrad sleeping through his alarm clock prevented White and the other students from catching their flight. They were rerouted through Calgary and ended up spending the night at the airport. "I'm in full teacher mode and I'm panicking," White recalls, worrying that he's got four undergrads in Winnipeg and the rest stuck in transit. Sleeping at the airport became an impromptu bonding experience, with a few students whipping out their Nintendo Switches to play video games. Once they finally arrived in Winnipeg the next day, they got to the hotel and discovered another little problem. Everybody has rooms, but the spaces reserved for rehearsals and a few performances are under construction. Completely unusable.

White, Peab '96, isn't easily discouraged. He's a 6-foot-5-inch, 300-pound Black man from Baltimore—"and that's before I grab a tuba," he says—performing and teaching classical music, an art form slash institution that is predominantly Western European, white, and male. He's the first African American musician to earn a doctorate in music in tuba from the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, in a program built by tubist Harvey Phillips. Indiana and Florida State University are the only two music programs that offer a DM in tuba, a degree that adds an intensive music history and education requirement to the more performance-focused studies of DMA degrees. Doing things that somebody hasn't done before isn't a new predicament. And if White had to become the first University of New Mexico assistant tuba professor to take a student ensemble on an international tour and hurriedly locate a new space for them to rehearse and perform, all from a hotel room, then so be it.

"In great Baltimore Richard fashion, I asked for a phone book, found the [local] high schools, and just started calling numbers," White says during a Zoom interview in June. He's got the kind of rich, expressive voice you want reading every one of your favorite novels as an audiobook, and the kind of contagious laugh that makes you inexplicably start laughing yourself.

"The first school I call, I explain their entire situation to the woman who answered," he recalls, adding that she put him on hold for a second and returned. "And she said, 'I talked to my administration, and we believe you couldn't have made that story up. The janitor is at school. He has keys; you can have whatever you want."

White's graduate student assistant Tyler Lischynski is a native Canadian, and his father a local bus driver. "We had a yellow cheese bus, took us anywhere," White continues after a quick chortle. "It was very gracious and just amazing. It makes you feel proud to be where there's good people, where you can just pick up the phone and say, 'Hey, we need a rehearsal hall. You have a school. We have people with instruments. Can we practice at your school? I know you don't know me. I'm not even from your country, but what's up?'"

Music was where White first felt a sense of belonging. It provided a peer group, a chance to be part of something bigger than himself, the vehicle through which he was going to find his voice.

Talking about that phone call reminded him of a different series of calls someone else made to help him get to Peabody, a story he recounts in his new memoir, I'm Possible: A Story of Survival, a Tuba, and the Small Miracle of a Big Dream (Flatiron Books, 2021). White grew up hard in a 1980s and '90s West Baltimore ravaged by real estate redlining, white flight, radical postindustrial labor changes, and the failed war on drugs. His mother wrestled with alcohol use disorder, and he spent too many of his earliest years with no fixed address, bouncing from friends' and family's homes to his mom's peers—sometimes sleeping in abandoned houses or among a tree's knotty roots. He learned to store food under his tongue in case he didn't have anything to eat later.

Music was where White first felt a sense of belonging. It provided a peer group, a chance to be part of something bigger than himself, the vehicle through which he was going to find his voice. Public elementary and middle school bands led to the renowned Baltimore School for the Arts, which he hoped would lead to a conservatory. He only picked schools he could afford to travel to by Peter Pan or Greyhound bus. He worked—ushering at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and a movie theater, stocking shelves at a department store, pouring concrete for somebody in the neighborhood—in his spare time to save money. And when acceptance letters began arriving, none included enough financial aid to make them feasible.

He told Ronnie Block, the Baltimore School for the Arts' guidance counselor, about his situation. She made note of what each school was offering and called each one to ask for more robust financial aid packages. Thinking back to that day, he imagines giving Block the same kind of baffled look that his assistant gave him as he started calling up high schools. "What else can I do?" White remembers saying. "I'm going to call some people up and ask for help."

That resiliency is one of the first things David Fedderly noticed about White. The former principal tubist for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and White's mentor at Peabody now lives in South Carolina. He first got to know White as a BSO usher, as White would not only stay and listen to the entire concert unlike most ushers, he'd also approach him after the performance with questions.

Fedderly was struck by how White listened. "There was an insight into music and how you work the instrument within an ensemble that was very advanced, even for somebody whose playing was not advanced," Fedderly says. He recognized White's raw talent and knew he had a long way to go. "I don't think I've seen a harder worker in all my years of teaching. I probably was tougher on him than on any other student because he had so far to go, but he also had the talent and a real resiliency that could take it."

He adds that it wasn't until after White left Peabody that he learned about any of White's personal struggles or family life; White never brought those subjects up. And he tells me about a call he got from White about a year before The Lion King remake came out in 2019. White was invited to be part of recording an updated version of Hans Zimmer's score. When White asked if Zimmer had either heard him play or seen his résumé, he was told the composer had done neither. The studio wanted to put together an all-Black orchestra for the project after receiving backlash for not doing so on a previous movie. White declined the invitation. "He gained a lot of traction with the people in LA because he didn't play it because of that," Fedderly says. "He told me, 'I've never gotten anyplace because of the color of my skin and I'm not going to start now.' He's that driven and that honest."

Fedderly dryly laughs. "He did say to me, You taught me that, and I thought he just gave up $50,000 and probably $10,000 a year of residuals," he recalls. "But that's really who he is. He's the real deal."

What a real deal artist looks likes in the 21st century is what White's figuring out these days. At 48, he's now resided in Albuquerque for more than a decade. He lives with his partner, Yvonne Martinez Dewitt, and is stepfather to her three grown kids. During the pandemic, virtual teaching continued but performances vanished, and White says he's been feeling more like a motivational speaker than a tuba player as he gets invited more and more to tell his story. He was the principal tubist for the New Mexico Symphony from 2004 until its untimely demise in 2011 and that same year was one of the co-founding members of the nonprofit New Mexico Philharmonic, where he's currently the principal tubist. He's a celebrated musician who's been invited to play with the Canadian Brass Band and other ensembles and orchestras, and he was hired for recordings under film composer John Williams and Cincinnati Pops conductor Erich Kunzel. He wants to be the first tuba player to play a recital on all seven continents—only Africa, Australia, and Antarctica remain.

"I'm not done telling that story yet," he says. "I feel that the ears of other people listening to my story may be a bit fatigued in my inner circle. But I've combated that by saying, rather than talk about it, I'm just going to show you. Because of everything you put in front of me, I'm going to make it. In spite of all these obstacles and institutions, I'm going to make full professor. That's my attitude.

"My biggest fear is that I'm going to run out of time before I get to do everything that I wish to do, or make the impact," he continues. "I feel like I'm running against the clock. I don't know if that's a Baltimore thing. I just feel like I don't know if tomorrow is guaranteed. And that's a serious fear of mine."

In 1946, a novelty song penned by lyricist Paul Tripp and composer George Kleinsinger transformed tuba clichés into legend. "Tubby the Tuba" is a fantasia of spoken word and music about Tubby, the sad, solitary tuba in the orchestra who longs to play the beautiful melody instead of simply blowing oom-pah, oom-pah. The song didn't create these tropes out of whole cloth: there is only one tubist in an orchestra; brass bands and their patriotic marches had made the oom-pah oom-pah bounce of low-end brass a part of American musical vernacular; and even movie star Gary Cooper could be seen as a bit of a simpleton yokel because he played the tuba in Frank Capra's 1936 Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. But "Tubby," especially the 1947 version performed by Danny Kaye, is basically an origin story. This version of the tuba, and by association the people who play it, informs popular imagination through multiple animated film adaptations and recordings. In 2005, the original 1946 recording was added to the National Recording Registry, the archive of sound recordings deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant," alongside Thomas Edison's cylinder recordings, Franklin D. Roosevelt's fireside chat radio broadcasts, and the 1939 recording of Billie Holiday singing "Strange Fruit."

"I think tuba is the butt of all jokes because it's the youngest, so it hasn't been around long enough to defend itself, and that leaves room for labeling and stereotyping."
Richard A. White

White repeatedly and skillfully embraces and pushes against these tuba stereotypes in his memoir. In conversation, he compares himself directly to Tubby, and a few minutes later brings up that the tuba, invented in 1835, is relatively new on the orchestral scene. "The first concerto written specifically for the tuba won't turn 100 years old until 2054," White says, referring to composer Ralph Vaughan Williams' Bass Tuba Concerto in F Minor (1954). He pauses just long enough for you to calculate how far off that date is. "I think tuba is the butt of all jokes because it's the youngest, so it hasn't been around long enough to defend itself, and that leaves room for labeling and stereotyping."

People get saddled with labels and stereotypes as well, as White's life story brings those assumptions into sharp focus. He was born premature in Baltimore in 1973, the same year as the Tubists Universal Brotherhood Association was formed; it changed its name to the International Tuba Euphonium Association in 2000. His mom, Cheryl, was 17; his father was 19 and incarcerated. Cheryl was raised by Richard and Vivian McClain, her adoptive parents. Cheryl took to living in the streets when her alcohol use clashed with the McClains' household rules, and White spent his first four years bouncing around with his mom, sometimes fending for himself. The McClains took in White in 1978 when the 4-year-old went house to house searching for his mom until a family friend let him in to stay the night during a blizzard.

Tubist Richard White walks across stage

Image credit: Eric Draper

These years of White's life, when he lived in the Westside neighborhoods often referred to as "Freddie Gray's Baltimore" as a shorthand for the city's disinvested and overwhelmingly Black inner city, could frame White's life story as one of those quintessentially uplifting American arcs—Publisher's Weekly has already called I'm Possible a "classic tale of grit overcoming adversity with a big assist from tough-love."

White doesn't come out and say such "classic" tales of pulling oneself up by one's bootstraps are stereotypes as well; he offsets the simplicity of such a reading in I'm Possible by combining that American trope with the African proverb of "it takes a village to raise a child" that entered larger American education and child wellness discussions in the 1990s. White sees himself as a combination of both. "I had four or five years of a rough life, then things got drastically better for me," White says of being taken in by the McClains, who eventually obtained legal custody/guardianship of him. "There are people that have 30, 40 years of a rough life. So, I was privileged in that, and I think everyone, even me, should acknowledge how privileged they are."

Privilege is an odd word to hear from a Black man from Baltimore, who knows what it feels like to be the only person of color in a music class or in the orchestra itself. He was a teenager who became 6 feet of probable cause when walking down the street and people locked their doors. "America is a place where if you work hard, all things are possible—that is true, but it takes a village, and privilege isn't equally available," he adds. "I don't think hard work is always the answer. It takes help."

I'm Possible complicates the American hard-work ethos by naming seemingly everyone in the metaphorical village of White's world who helped him in some small way: the teachers who taught him to read when he repeated first grade; Carl, the around-the-way older teen who chased White away from the basketball courts and its underground economy because "you got that bugle thing going for you"; Sunny, the Baltimore School for the Arts janitor who let White into the building early so he could hit the practice room, sometimes even passing him a sandwich.

Nobody is too small or insignificant to mention, and not every encounter or remembrance is necessarily positive. White recalls a School for the Arts teacher who respected him enough to be disappointed in him when he angrily stepped to her face during an argument. Yes, I'm Possible shows, it takes a village, but the village can be a messy, difficult, fraught, and confusing place to the child being raised by it and the grown man trying to find his own role in it.

Fedderly noticed White's teaching capabilities early on. "He had brass quintets at the school asking him to come in and coach them because they liked what he had to say about music and what the group needed to do," Fedderly recalls. "He had other college buddies asking him to come in and help them, too. They saw an amazing teacher and motivator there, even that early in his career."

Kevin Sanders started turning to White as a mentor in 1998, when he was an Indiana University first-year student and White was a graduate student. Sanders, director of the Rudi E. Scheidt School of Music at the University of Memphis, recalls meeting White in Indiana's "tuba basement," the storage locker room dedicated to the tuba players who also used it as a practice room and general hangout.

Indiana University is hallowed ground for tuba players, thanks in large part to the efforts of Harvey Phillips, called the "Paganini of the tuba" when he died in 2010. Phillips spent his professional and teaching career as a tuba advocate, an enthusiasm carried on by White's Indiana mentor, Dan Perantoni. White added his own personality to that energy. "He had an unofficial mentorship relationship with the undergraduates, myself being one of them," Sanders says. After Indiana, Sanders and White teamed up to create a presentation they give to other music educators, "Hustle and Flow: Everything You Didn't Learn in Music School." "Richard's got this infectious positivity about him, and that was something I really gravitated toward. We were in this classical music field where no one knows who's going to make it, and you've got this friend in the tuba basement who spends every single day talking about all the different ways that you could possibly make it."

Indiana was a place of tremendous musical learning for White, his home while he auditioned for the many orchestra positions he didn't get, the fountain from which he drank deep the tuba culture the music department created for its students. It was a place where he learned about—and eventually pledged—a Black fraternity. He also experienced an intense "slavery reenactment" educational program at the Conner Prairie living history museum, through which he started thinking about his experience of American systemic racism in the context of how slavery, as he writes, "turned love and community into a tool for oppression." In I'm Possible, this anecdote is a short section about learning "how to be myself and play the way I play"—to have the assurance in his own musicianship to perform when the time comes. It's a subdued way to explore being comfortable in one's own skin in a country and profession that continue to discriminate against people of color.

In I'm Possible, White writes about how hard it was to return to Baltimore for Christmas break during his first year at Indiana. Earlier that semester, a friend he had a hip-hop group with at the Baltimore School for the Arts, Tupac Shakur, was shot and killed in Las Vegas. On New Year's Eve, he was watching the news and learned of the first murder of the new year: his cousin.

Overcoming poverty and its accompanying economic and physical violence typically figures into overcoming adversity narratives. The village that lifted up White includes his friends as well as adults, notably one he's known almost his entire life. "We have been tutoring each other since the third grade," says Dontae Winslow, Peab '97, '99 (MM). Winslow and White have a rare friendship, both coming up through West Baltimore's hard-scrabble impoverishment.

They initially met in the first grade, came across each other again as they started school band, and then both proceeded to attend the same middle school, high school, and Peabody. White writes about hanging out at Winslow's grandmother's place as a teen after school to practice, hearing gunshots right out front, hitting the ground, witnessing the aftermath, and feeling the same fate could happen to either one of them any day. Now, they're both carving out careers in music, and in each other they found somebody who not only knows how it was to come up the way they did but what it takes to forge a music career and how that process sometimes makes you feel like you're leaving part of your history behind to work in an industry that hasn't always welcomed you.

Winslow says their looking out for each other extended from helping one another fill out college applications to "walking down the street [together] and not getting beat up or killed or your instruments stolen; we've helped each other back and forth. I think as Black men from an inner city, where both of us grew up under the poverty line, both grew up with trauma and many disadvantages, different kinds of abuse, we've transcended so many stereotypes and beat the statistics and the odds. Now, even though we came through all of this, we're still at our manhood level of how we express blessings to our fellow man, being good to ourselves, and striving for excellence. So the friendship is very, very deep, and we're brutally honest with each other."

White echoes the "brutally honest" thought when asked about Winslow, capturing how deep their mutual respect resides. Winslow has said he's sought White's help when arranging horn sections for Queen Latifah, and White helped him find a low-bass section in one of her songs to add an extra oomph to the low end; White says Winslow hooked him up with Adams Musical Instruments, the manufacturer that now sponsors White. "The thing I cherish most about Dontae and me is that we are Baltimore," White says. "You want to know what it's like growing up as a kid in Baltimore? You can't pick a scenario that we can't relate to in our own lives, and there's a true sense of pride in that. Say what you want about Baltimore and its stereotypes, but here are two people representing Baltimore and all of its problems and we're succeeding with Baltimore—take that."

Figuratively speaking, "take that" is White's default response to resistance. In I'm Possible, people who tell him he can't do something, such as the BSO manager who said he'd never play on the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall stage, are eventually proved wrong. "That's just the way I work, the Baltimore swagger," he says. (For the record, White first played on Meyerhoff stage when Fedderly invited his senior students to join him for Berlioz's Requiem, which requires four tubas.) "You don't tell me what to do. You can ask me to turn my hat around to face front, but you don't tell me. If you ask me, I'll turn it around. But if you tell me, we're gonna have a problem."

Tenacity, determination, grit, resolve—such words come to mind when thinking about that kind of gumption, which White wraps inside issues of class and race in his memoir to show that such resilience is never enough. Many things need to come together to find, nurture, and elevate young people daring to dream big. "I'm a full professor now," White says at the start of a follow-up interview in August, after returning from playing the Music in the Mountains festival in Durango, Colorado. He adds that he's not sure whether he's the first African American man to become a full professor of tuba, but he is currently the only African American male full professor of tuba in the country. "I seem to have this first thing going on," he adds, and quickly clarifies that he's not humblebragging, more recalling instances when somebody's downplayed the significance of him being the first African American to earn a DM in tuba. "I feel like they don't understand that I'm not saying I want recognition as the first. I'm saying this because of what I went through to get there. I didn't have an older peer saying, 'Hey man, look out for that, look out for this.' That's why I think it's important to acknowledge anything that's a first, because of what they had to go through is pretty extraordinary in just about every case."

I'm Possible captures White's journey thus far, but he wants to impact the lives of young musicians who aren't only in his studio. He already has an idea for his second book, which will be about teaching, and he's on sabbatical this academic year to promote the book. He thinks his story should be a movie—and why not? America loves gritty stories of athletes and writers and singers; why not a tuba player?

White also thinks his future probably lies somewhere in administration because he feels he could make a bigger impact—for tuba students and music students in general—in a role where he's able to help shape policy decisions as well. "For me, the world has no idea what the tuba can do," White says. "And the beautiful thing is that because the tuba is so young, we all get to be the first something because that history doesn't exist."

He smiles, knowing he's about to turn to a tuba cliché. "Sometimes I really do believe that it represents my life," White says. "It's big. It's clumsy. It's overlooked—but boy, look at all the power it can make if we give it a little attention."

Bret McCabe is a senior writer for the magazine.