At 6’5” and 300 lbs., Richard Antoine White, MM’99, DM’12, cuts an imposing figure, one more akin to an NFL offensive lineman than a member of a world-class orchestra. While 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 to earn a doctorate in the tuba—from the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music.
White surmounted overwhelming odds to reach the pinnacle of a career in music. Born to a single mother who struggled with alcoholism (his father was incarcerated), he lived on the streets of Baltimore as a child, navigating an often-dangerous terrain, as he and his mother struggled to find food and shelter. He often slept on cardboard boxes under trees or in abandoned buildings, sometimes waking alone to go in search of food and his mother, who would wander off during the night. During the blizzard of 1978, he was found sleeping in the vestibule of an unheated house and taken in by his mother’s adoptive parents, Richard and Vivian McClain. His biological mother died while he was still quite young.
After overcoming early challenges in his education, White went on to study music at the Baltimore School for the Arts and the Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins University, before earning a master’s and a doctor of music degree in tuba from IU. He’s 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.
White is the subject of a documentary film RawTuba (2019), which received the 2nd Annual Richard and Ellen Sandor Family Black Harvest Film Festival Prize at the 25th Annual Black Harvest Film Festival held at the Gene Siskel Film Center of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in August 2019. He is also the author of a memoir I’m Possible: A Story of Survival, a Tuba, and the Small Miracle of a Big Dream, which was published by Macmillan in 2021.
Since the release of the documentary and his autobiography, White has also become a motivational speaker and has shared his inspirational story with audiences across North and South America, Europe, and Southeast Asia.
Ironically—or perhaps, providentially—the following Q&A was held on International Tuba Day, May 6, 2022.
How did your book, I’m Possible, come about? What motivated you to write a memoir?
RAW: I had no intentions of doing it. Just like the [documentary]. They were going to write a movie about how the arts are underfunded. And someone said, “Hey, you should talk to Richard.” And they said, “Who’s Richard?” They got in contact with me and after about a 45-minute conversation, they said, “We’re no longer writing about the arts. We’re going to write a story about you.” And that story got around. Someone at Macmillan Publishers saw the movie and then they called me and said, “We want to talk to your literary agent.” I said, “My what? My who?” They said, “Well, no worries. We’ll just draw the contract, and we’ll go through your entertainment lawyer then.” I said, “My what?” [Laughs]. So, I said, “I’m going to have to call you back.” They were so interested in me writing this memoir. They presented my documentary and said, “We want to write this memoir.” And it was a unanimous “Yes.” From top to bottom. And they said, “You don’t know the publishing world, but that never happens.”
It’s an extraordinarily engaging book. It reads like fiction but it’s not fiction. Part of that is the environment that you’re describing, especially about your early childhood. But it’s also the writing. Every word feels meaningful and authentic.
RAW: Well, I would say IU helped with that. I did write a dissertation—“If Bach Had Had a Tuba”—and for every 100 pages I turned in, and they told me five of them were good. So, I think I had some practice. [Laughs]. And not only that, once we got down to the 200, it was like, “Well, we got to cut the fluff. You can say that differently.” Or “Is that meaningful?” It changed the way I write. It changed the way I speak. And I think I was able to have a certain amount of clarity and a certain amount of, I don’t want to say “layman,” but a certain dialogue that can relate to anyone. I had some iterations of the book where I was like, “No, that sounds too academic. I need to make this simple.” And I hope it comes across when you read it that I’m telling it as well as I can.
The early chapters of your book discuss your childhood on the streets of Baltimore. It’s a heartbreaking story. How hard is it to talk about your childhood?
RAW: I was blessed with an extraordinary imagination. I had to imagine having a full stomach when I was hungry or imagine a warm blanket at night. It saved my life. I believe you 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.
Another thing that struck me, reading your book, is the vividness and the detail that you’re able to recall from your childhood experiences.
RAW: When the documentary was made, the producers had serious questions about the validity of what I was saying because I remembered stuff from when I was so young. So, we just simply called people up. Because I was questioning too. I was like, “I wouldn’t make this up, man. And I don’t know why I remember some things and don’t remember other things.” So, we started traveling the neighborhood and I’d say, “Stop right here. I think I recognize this place.” And then randomly, some lady said, “Oh my gosh, baby Rick. I remember the last time I saw you; you didn’t have any shoes on. I asked you if you wanted a sandwich. You said, ‘No.’” And so a lot of people filled in the blanks.
When I first moved in with my adoptive family, I didn’t understand the gift I was given. I was extremely angry at them. So, I talked to my mom a lot and asked, as any 3- or 4-year-old would, an extraordinary amount of questions. I held onto [those conversations] because I didn’t have her. I think that contributes to my memory, that I just kept regurgitating the conversations because it was my way of being connected to her. Now in the present day, I always praise her because I think she did the hardest thing there is to do, which is to give her kid up, and I consider her a hero.
When did you start getting interested in music?
RAW: It was random. A music educator came to 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.
The academic curriculum [in school] was challenging for me. So, I failed. And my [adoptive] 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 number 18 out of 32 trumpets. I was like, this isn’t working. I looked up, saw the sousaphone. It was only one. I don’t know what that is in that Frankenstein chair [a specially designed chair to hold the sousaphone], but I want to play that. And I never looked back.
Rapid Fire with Richard
Where is your favorite writing spot?
RAW: My side of the bed at 4 a.m., in the morning.
Do you have a favorite writing snack?
RAW: Sunflower seeds.
What do you love to do in your spare time?
RAW: You’re not going to believe this, but my two pastimes, aside from playing my Nintendo Switch, is that I am an avid Pokemon Go player. I am level 43 now. And it goes up to 50. The number of hours to get there is extraordinary. And I collect mini brands. Mini brands are just your local grocery store, Walmart, everything that’s in there, but just little miniatures of it.
Can you name a book that you’d like to see turned into a movie?
RAW: Yes. My own book, I’m Possible. [Laughs]
Is there a book that you always recommend to friends?
RAW: A Soprano on Her Head by Eloise Ristad or The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey.
What are you currently working on?
RAW: A picture book explaining diversity through the instruments of the orchestra and The 5 Educative Languages of Education and Administration.
Read an excerpt from I’m Possible.
This story is part of our IU alumni author series, Novel Ideas.