Rats gnawed at Richard Antoine White’s tiny body when he was a baby.
He still bears the scars to prove it.
As an infant, his alcoholic mother abandoned him in a house.
Today, he is currently the only African American / Black male full professor of tuba
White teaches at the University of New Mexico, juggles concerts as principal tubist with both the New Mexico Philharmonic and the Santa Fe Symphony, recently penned the memoir “I’m Possible,” travels the motivational speaker circuit and dreams of building his own “RAW Tuba” ranch in Los Ranchos de Albuquerque as a place of fellowship. The abbreviation of his initials, “RAW” can also be found emblazoned across his New Mexico license plate.
He’s the only musician in the orchestra sporting cornrows.
“Richard is amazing,” New Mexico Philharmonic music director Roberto Minczuk said. “Richard is such a great musician. He’s got such a wonderful story, growing up in Baltimore and coming from an underprivileged family and pursuing his dream of becoming a professional musician. We are happy to have him as part of our family, our orchestra.
“He’s a very down-to-earth guy,” Minczuk continued. “I know the students love to work with him.”
White rapped with his classmate Tupac Shakur and made friends with Jada Pinkett Smith at the Baltimore School for the Arts.
Born premature, he weighed just over a pound. The man who raised him said he could close him in his hand.
“It was horrific,” White said of his early childhood. “I had 4½ years of a rough life. I was blessed with an extra imagination. I had to imagine a full stomach. I had to imagine a warm blanket.
“I didn’t feel shame digging through the trash (for food) because I didn’t know any better,” he added.
When his grandparents took him in, he slept on the floor in his dirty pajamas because it was all he knew. They gave him love, rules and routines.
“I was angry at them for taking me away from my Mom,” he said. “I was lucky that no one gave up on me.”
At an imposing 6-foot-5-inches tall and 250 pounds, White talks like the motivational speaker he’s become, answering with quick, prepared phrases showcasing his personal philosophy.
He tells his most insecure students: “I can guarantee that you can be the best at being you. Let’s figure out how we can do it so it can best serve you.”
At first, he wanted to be a football player. Then he broke his hip. He joined the band, looking for something to do.
When a teacher brought in a selection of instruments, he spotted the trumpet.
“I said, ‘Let’s take the trumpet. It’s only got three valves; it should be easy.’ ”
At 11 or 12, he saw a sousaphone, a type of tuba, shaped with the bell above the player’s head.
“It was in a Frankenstein chair; I wasn’t big enough to hold it,” White said. “And there was only one.”
That singularity drew him in; it would make him stand out.
“The tuba is the butt of jokes,” he acknowledged. “I feel like I’m in the ‘Tubby the Tuba’ story. It represents going from being the underdog to victorious.”
After graduating with honors, White was accepted into the Peabody Conservatory of Music and completed both his masters and doctoral degrees at Indiana University.
White auditioned for the now-folded New Mexico Symphony three times before he was accepted. He played with the orchestra from 2004 until its demise in 2011.
The musicians put together the paperwork that would create the New Mexico Philharmonic on his kitchen table.
He is in his tenth season with the Phil.
“I chose here because it was a pit stop,” he said of New Mexico. “The New Mexico Symphony was known for people moving up. I absolutely had no intentions of staying here.”
He would later realize he had never seen a place with so much potential. He could touch his students, telling one, “You don’t have bad rhythm, you were just never taught to count.”
“Making that kind of difference changed the whole trajectory of my life,” he said.
The words of Tupac Shakur still resonate inside him. Until he met Shakur, White had never read much; he knew nothing about the Civil Rights Movement or the Black Panthers.
“He was a nerd,” White said of the man considered one of the most influential rappers ever. “He did Shakespeare. He taught me the importance of reading. He knew what he wanted to be in life. He had a medical book of raps. I don’t know where the thug life came from. He was charismatic; he was meant to be a star.
“And I carry the same fear he has: I think I will die before my time.”
Shakur was shot and killed in 1996.
White says that fear fuels his workaholism and his determination to start his RAW Tuba Ranch. He also dreams of launching a foundation to help kids obtain quality instruments.
“I definitely have a relentless drive and determination,” he said. “I definitely think the only thing that can stop me is death.”