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Achieving the Possible

Richard Antoine White grew up on the streets of Baltimore, scavenging for food with his mother. At age 4, he was adopted by his grandparents and his life changed virtually overnight. He soon became interested in music, learned to play the tuba by listening to cassette tapes, and, ultimately, attended some of the most prestigious music schools in the U.S. Now a professor of music and principal tubist in two orchestras, he plays in concert halls around the world. Throughout his life he has tried—and often succeeded—at making the impossible possible. Image courtesy of Kwasi Amankwah.

At 6 feet, 5 inches and 300 pounds, Richard Antoine White, MM’99, DM’12, cuts an imposing figure, resembling an NFL offensive lineman more than a member of a world-class orchestra.

Though he did dream of playing professional football as a teen, White is a classically trained musician, university professor, motivational speaker, author, and the first African American in the U.S. to earn a doctorate in the tuba, which he earned from the IU Jacobs School of Music.

White—who goes by his initials R.A.W.—surmounted overwhelming odds to reach the pinnacle of a career in music. His mother suffered from alcoholism; his father was incarcerated. As a young child, he lived on the streets of West Baltimore, navigating a dangerous terrain, as he and his mother sought to find food and shelter. He often slept on cardboard boxes under trees or in abandoned buildings.

After being adopted and overcoming early challenges at school, White went on to study music at the Baltimore School for the Arts and the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University, before earning master and doctor of music degrees in tuba from IU.

White is now principal tubist for the New Mexico Philharmonic and the Santa Fe Symphony orchestras. He also teaches at the University of New Mexico, where he is a professor of tuba and euphonium.

Since the release of the award-winning documentary film, R.A.W. Tuba: From Sandtown to Symphony (2019), and his autobiography, I’m Possible: A Story of Survival, a Tuba, and the Small Miracle of a Big Dream (2021), White has been in great demand as a motivational speaker, and he has shared his inspirational story on late night television in the U.S. and with audiences around the world.

You grew up homeless on the streets of Baltimore. Can you reflect on that difficult part of your life?
Richard Antoine White
: Life was an adventure back then. I didn’t know any better. I didn’t know I was supposed to have a bed. I just knew something was different. It’s only painful in the sense that I’m now discovering things that I probably should unpack that I haven’t unpacked, that have molded me into the person that I am. I think the way I approach telling my story is this: It’s my story. I wouldn’t trade it. It’s the hand I was dealt, and I played it to the best of my ability.

I am fortunate in that I was blessed with an extraordinary imagination. I had to imagine having a full stomach when I was hungry or imagine having a warm blanket at night. It saved my life. I believe you just have to wait your turn [in life]. We’re all going to be sucker punched, but we also have received a ticket to what I consider to be the greatest show on earth — and that’s life.

If it was up to me, I would sit on my couch, eat potato chips and donuts, and play with my Nintendo Switch all day. But I don’t because I don’t want to deprive the universe of the best version of me. I think our collective efforts have to equal something magnificent. So that’s why I share my story — [so] that it will encourage someone else to tell their story. I think it’s fascinating how sometimes the universe works in your favor. For example, we scheduled this particular interview on International Tuba Day.

Oh really?
: Yes. Today [May 6] is International Tuba Day. I also feel a spiritual connection because T-U-B-A, the Tuba Universal Brotherhood Association, was also started at Indiana University in 1973, the year I was born. So, this interview, it was meant to be. [Laughs]

People will say to me, “Man, you’re always so positive. How do you be so optimistic?” And I’m like, “Whether it’s a good day or bad day, the best part about every day to me is that I’m not done yet. So long as I have a shot, I’m going to keep swinging and it’s okay if I fall short, I’ll be back.” I don’t know where I get that from. Maybe being told, “No” so many times has also given me unbelievable determination.

White in the desert outside Albuquerque, N.M. “I have been [in New Mexico] since 2004. I plan to build my ranch, retire. Just last semester, I became full professor … My place is here,” he says. Photo courtesy of David Larson/Early Light Media.

That comes across clearly in interviews with the media — your determination to succeed, to overcome obstacles, and defy the odds.
: Yeah. I really try to praise the village that helped me. I would be a fool if I didn’t give IU credit, if I didn’t give the Peabody Institute credit, because the support of the village I had was absolutely incredible. And I think part of my individual determination is enhanced by this sense of togetherness. All we really want in life is a chance to make the right choices so we can see the kind of change that’s for the betterment of all. I call it the 3 Cs — chance, choice, change — and I live by it. So, I could be having a really, really crappy day, but I say to myself, “Well, I’ve got a chance to make a choice to change it.”

Your mother — who suffered from alcoholism — instilled in you the need for a strong sense of self at a very early age. That seems to be a driving force behind your life.
: When I was a child, whenever I introduced myself, I always said my entire name. I never said, “I’m Richard White.” It was always, “I am Richard Antoine White.” So somehow my mom instilled in me a sense of being, a sense of identity, even if I didn’t have anything. And I let the world know every time by saying my entire name.

You were adopted and raised by your mother’s adoptive parents, Richard and Vivian McClain. As a result, your living conditions changed virtually overnight. That must have been quite a significant shift for you?
: Absolutely. I was born in 1973. I moved to my adopted family in ’78. So, that transition happened between the ages of 4 and 5, and there were some really awkward things. I didn’t know that people ate three meals a day. You ate when you found food and that was it, right? So, I literally stuck sandwiches in my pocket. The way I interpreted all the rules, initially, is that these people are just mean. They took me away from my mom. And they’re mean because they’re making me do all these things. I wasn’t trying to be ungrateful, but the life I lived, I was like, “I’m not hungry. I ate at eight o’clock. I’m good.”

And then there was this sense of, they’re just doing it this one time. Like there’s not going to be another sandwich, come dinner. So, I’m just going to eat half of this and save it for later.

After you were adopted, you no longer struggled for survival on a day-to-day basis. So, your outlook, your worldview, must have changed quite rapidly?
: Oh yeah. Not only did my worldview change. I was oblivious to what most people call basic necessities, which in my case, would’ve been luxuries. I didn’t care. When you gave me a bath, put me in pajamas, and put me in a bed, I took the pajamas off, put my dirty clothes on, and slept on the floor. Because that was what was familiar to me. Someone said, “Whoa, why are you sleeping on the floor?” Well, to me, that’s just where I sleep. And, conceptually, it’s not the floor. It’s just — this is where I sleep. Not on the bed. And I definitely don’t sleep in these clothes that smell funny, right? Because the normal smell to me was my dirty clothes.

Your adoptive parents limited contact with your mother after they adopted you. Do you feel a sense of loss at not being able to pursue that relationship with your mother?
: Ultimately [contact with my mom] was ended because I kept being let down. “Oh, I’m going to see you on Easter. I’ll bring you an Easter basket,” then nobody would show. “Oh, I’ll bring you something for your birthday. I got you a truck.” No truck, no mom.

Vivian, my adoptive mom said, “We can’t keep doing this to him. She’s breaking the boy’s heart.” So, Vivian stepped in and put a stop to it. I guess it was some kind of intervention to make sure that I wouldn’t continue to endure broken promises. Not being able to see my mom, I think, was actually a gift because it forced me to connect with her from memory.

I don’t feel like I missed out on anything. I don’t feel that there was a void in not connecting with her. If anything, the universe provided a wall to prevent interference in whatever I was supposed to do and become, and I’m actually OK with that. I’m not going to devalue family. I believe in family a lot, but I also believe there is a balance between family and independence, because the reality of it, and what that lesson really taught me, is that one day I’m going to wake up and none of my parents are going to be around. And it helped me deal with that notion.

When did you start getting interested in music? And how did you find your instrument?
: It was random. A music educator came to my school with all the instruments and said, “What do you want to play?” I looked at my best friend Dontae and said, “Hey man, we got to pick the trumpet. It’s only got three valves. It’s got to be easy.” Boy, was I wrong — the trumpet’s hard!

I had some transitioning issues [in school], reading, whatever the academic curriculum was. It was challenging for me. So, I failed. And my parents took the trumpet away and said, “If you want the trumpet back, you have to do better.” I’ve never failed a grade since. I wanted the trumpet because band was probably the first time outside of family that I felt a sense of belonging. And that’s how music started for me.

And then, when I got to sixth grade, I was No. 18 out of 32 trumpets. I was like, “This isn’t working.” I looked up and saw the sousaphone. There was only one of them. “I don’t know what that is in that Frankenstein chair [a chair specially designed to hold the sousaphone], but I want to play that.” And I never looked back.

For the production of the documentary of his life, R.A.W. Tuba, White returned to the Baltimore neighborhood in which he grew up. Photo courtesy of John Waire/Early Light Media.

You’ve called the tuba the “underdog instrument.” And you said that you picked up the tuba because there was only one of them in an orchestra. Those statements seem to align with your sense of self and independence. How old were you when you first started playing the tuba?
RAW: I started somewhere around seventh grade. I do think the tuba is the butt of all jokes. And I think there are a lot of myths surrounding the tuba, of what it can do and can’t do. So, rather than just talk about it, I’m just going to show you that I can actually play Tchaikovsky’s “Violin Concerto,” so much so that a composer wrote it for me, on tuba.

But all of the extraordinary things that I accomplished on tuba are a result of Indiana University, because I got to be around tuba royalty. Mr. Harvey Phillips, who was influenced by William Bell. This is the root of tuba. So, Indiana is the one place where outside of the basketball and football team, if you play tuba, you’re really cool, right? [Laughs] If you’re in the music school, you’re cool.

I can’t explain the magic that exists at IU. I was like, where else in the United States, can I go, where being a tuba player is really cool? So much so that Bobby Knight’s talking to the tuba professor. Are you kidding me? So, there’s this dream quality. And this dream is of the impossible always being possible because of my time at IU, and because of the musical land that I dwell in, using my imagination.

Before IU and the Peabody Institute, you attended the Baltimore School for the Arts. How did you get into that school?
: I wanted to be a football player. I’m 6’5”, 300 pounds. So, I showed up on crutches [from a football injury], wearing a sousaphone. The instructor was like, “What are you doing here? The auditions were yesterday.” I don’t know where the determination or audacity came from. But I looked him straight in the face and said, “But I’m here now.”

He took me upstairs and gave me an audition. I played a little Mozart thing I had. And then he pointed, I think he pointed to an E flat. And he said, “Do you know what this is?” I said, “Yeah, man, it’s this.” I pushed down the first valve. And he said, “Yeah, but do you know the name of it?” I say, “Yeah, man,” more aggressively. I said, “It’s this!” And he said, “But you don’t know the name. That’s an E flat.” I said, “It’s this, man.” And he said, “Let’s try this another way.”

And then he went and played on the keyboard. He said, “Can you play that back?” I was like, “Sure.” And I played it back. And he said, “I’ll be back.” He went and talked to the brass faculty. And he let me in.

After the Baltimore School for the Arts, you studied at the Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins University. So, you had spent all of your life in Baltimore to this point. How did you get from Baltimore to Indiana University?
: I graduated from Peabody, and we picked schools that had the most tuba players getting jobs. And I think it was Juilliard, Curtis, Northwestern, Indiana, and Michigan. And that was my list. I think I narrowed it down to Northwestern and IU. I actually told Northwestern that I would come there and be their tuba assistant.

And then Daniel Perantoni, the tuba professor at IU, called me and said, “Hey, I can put you on tour with the Canadian Brass.” I was like, “Get out of here, man, the Canadian Brass? And I flipped over on the phone and called Rex Martin from Northwestern and said, “Hey, Rex, I’m going to Indiana.”

Next thing I know I’m at IU playing with the Brass Theater, dressed as the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz, flying 70 feet into air, playing the “Ride of the Valkyries,” and my scholarship was paid for. [Laughs] That’s how I got to Indiana.

Harvey Phillips — Mr. Tuba — had retired by the time you came to IU. Whom did you work with?
: Daniel Perantoni. But I worked closely with Mr. Phillips. I would go to the Tuba Ranch [Harvey Phillips’s farm where the Jacobs tuba faculty and students would play and socialize together] all the time. I came in ’96, so I have been associated with IU almost Mr. Perantoni’s entire tenure there. Mr. Perantoni is like my dad, so much so that when people come to IU to do masterclasses and stuff, they call me and say, “Hey man, I’m staying at Mr. P’s. He said I got to call you and ask you if I could stay in your room.” [Laughs] That’s how close we are.

Was it a major culture shock coming from Baltimore to a small Midwestern town? What memories stay with you from your time at IU?
: Yeah. Two things stick out. The very first week there, I saw a [Ku Klux] Klan rally downtown and I was like, is this OK? Where have I come to school? It scared the jeheebees out of me. I was ready to transfer. But they’re allowed to do that — freedom of speech. That sticks out to me.

And the other thing is my fraternity, which is why I started a scholarship here, and just the community. I don’t want to interchange words that I think are different because I think “family” and “community” are different.

The thing I value most about IU is that music is not a luxury in the town of Bloomington. It’s a necessity. It is a part of the community. And that’s how I view music. That’s how I view the importance of music. And it’s one of the greatest things I think IU have given me, outside of degrees and an education, is a sense of what true community means. And I think that’s the greatest memory I have of IU, that I always felt a sense of belonging there, and a sense of what is possible if we unite our collective efforts.

This article was originally published in the Summer/Fall 2022 issue of the IU Alumni Magazine, a magazine for members of the IU Alumni Association. View current and past issues of the IUAM.

If you enjoyed this article, check out our second Q&A with Richard Antoine White, which focuses on his book I’m Possible.

Written By

Bill Elliott

Bill Elliott, MA’84, PhD’99, is a content specialist at the IU Alumni Association and an associate editor of the IU Alumni Magazine. He enjoys sharing amazing stories about IU alums from all around the world.  

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