Richard White is a man of many accomplishments with a life story full of determination and dedication. Even after becoming the first Black person in the world to achieve a doctorate of music in tuba performance, White said his greatest accomplishment was coming to the University of New Mexico, where he has the ability to make a difference in others’ lives.
The journey he took to get where he is today was no smooth path. As a boy, White found himself unhoused on the streets of Baltimore, fending for himself. White had to imagine luxuries like a warm blanket and full stomach just to get through the night until he was eventually taken in by a local family. This may have saved his life, but the tuba is what shaped his legacy.
“We have to acknowledge that excellence is void of color,” White said. “Wherever there’s an injustice or discrepancy, I always strive for excellence.”
White’s story became the inspiration for a 2019 documentary centered on his journey from homelessness to receiving a doctorate of music in tuba performance from Indiana University. The film has been screened at thousands of schools and communities across the nation, and White says he takes every chance he can to speak at schools for free in hopes of giving students the encouragement they need to succeed.
“Whether you have a good day or a bad day, the best part of every day is that you’re not done yet,” White said. “I think it’s important to acknowledge that for any of us to be successful, it takes a village, and there’s no denying that no person on this earth is successful by themselves.”
White said he can’t attribute his success to just one person or event — he had help from grade school teachers, professors, colleagues and friends that all contributed to his story.
White said he has a philosophy that if you stop at the point of exhaustion, you’ll never grow. It’s when you push past that point of exhaustion to expand your horizons where you learn and improve in anything you do. That’s what his mentors did for him and what he wants to do for the students he works with now.
Eric Lau, the chair of the music department at UNM who used to work in the office right next to White, said that White is incredibly engaged with his students.
“He is just such a dynamic and creative person — he’s always bringing new ideas to the department about better ways we can meet the needs of our students,” Lau said. “He has a unlimited amount of energy for thinking about ways that we can grow and improve as a department.”
Lau said many students come to UNM specifically to work with White as their tuba or euphonium instructor. One of those students is Tanner Stegnik, who was formally rejected from the graduate schools he applied to in 2018. When a UNM music alumni recommended he check out the work White was doing, Stegnik said he was instantly sold. Despite Stegnik missing the application deadline, White still gave him an opportunity to study with him.
Stegnik is now a second year graduate student in the music department and the studio assistant for White. He said White is overwhelmingly humble about the extent of his accomplishments and the documentary only covers about a quarter of his life story.
“The realm of classical music is not limited by skin color or circumstances of birth,” Stegnik said. “I think that’s a very important message for today and for this time that we live in, so I am very grateful to be able to study with a man like him and to see what that talent and humility can look like as a person.”
Since his arrival in New Mexico, White has done everything he can to improve the quality of UNM students’ experience. Associate director of UNM bands Chad Simons said White is outstanding at recruiting students to the Spirit Marching Band, ensuring that the group has about 12-15 tuba players at all times.
Stegnik said White is the first full-time tuba faculty member in the history of UNM and is always enthusiastic with his students, leaving them with a refreshing sense of encouragement and motivation.
White said his biggest goal is to become a monumental figure in the world and leave a legacy behind that will pay it forward for generations to come. If White could change anything about the world, he would want to bless everyone with the ability to be kind.
White has a book set to release in October entitled “I'm Possible: A Story of Survival, a Tuba and the Small Miracle of a Big Dream” that will delve further into his life story. He hopes the book will sell enough copies for him to be able to open a new food and music venue called the R.A.W. Tuba Ranch by the end of 2021.
Daniel Ward is a senior reporter at the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @wordsofward34