Welcome to MMI’s Fellow Spotlight series featuring our amazing teaching artists. Not only do MMI Fellows lend their talents to supporting and engaging Memphis youth all over the city, but they also help build and sustain our arts ecosystem through their independent projects.
Today, meet violist Amaro Dubois! Amaro came to Memphis is 2019 as one of the Iris Orchestra fellows, and joined the MMI family that same year. His forthcoming album, "Adoration: Music of the Americas," featuring compositions by underrepresented composers, is due to be released on October 20. This year, Amaro is working with MMI youth at Kingsbury Middle School and Middle College High School. Amaro recently chatted with MMI about falling in love with the viola, making the move from Brazil to the United States, and why discipline and courage are the keys to making it in music.
When I was a kid, there was a cartoon I watched all the time. The cartoon was about a woodpecker, and during the show he'd play a little violin. I saw that, and knew I wanted to play that kind of music. It was a jazzy kind of thing. It was the best moment of the morning.
I have a two-year-old boy, and we put cartoons on for him now, too. We teach him through cartoons. We put on shows about sports or music, for example—things we want him to pick up. Every time he sees me playing or practicing in the room, he goes and gets his little violin, or guitar, or keyboard, and tries to make some noise. He knows that's music time.
I grew up in a city called Campos dos Goytacazes, which is in Rio de Janeiro state, but a little outside of the center of the city. Pursuing classical music there was not easy, but I always had the support of my family. They supported my choice to be a musician.
In school, when I was maybe six or so, I picked up the violin. I started taking lessons, and playing on my own, and then playing in the church. My father was a pastor. I’d just go up there and perform whatever. We prayed, and we performed. I grew up doing this. I was already in performance mode.
My parents are not musicians, but my father's sister, and her entire family, are. One of my father's sisters was a professor at the school of music there. She was a really good professor, so we got together and I took my first violin lessons. It was not an easy thing for me as a kid. I could not keep calm, and I was very agitated. Music was a way to calm me down.
I started orchestra in school as well, for kids my age. And I was first violin. After a couple years, I upgraded to another orchestra with older kids. Classical music has always been a part of my life. Even though I played at church on Sundays, in school and in orchestra my focus was classical music.
Five or so years later, I was playing chamber music, and I won the first prize at this school competition for kids. This was a competition that they hosted every year, and it was a big deal. And that was the time that I decided I really wanted to pursue a career in music.
My father would always say to my siblings and I, "Whatever you do in life, make sure that you like that, that you're going to put all your time toward it."
For example, my sister's a musician, but she loves to write and research. So she is in anthropology, in Paris. I chose music. It’s something I make sure to convey to my students and my son as well. You want to give them all the opportunities to explore their interests—whether sports, music, dance, or something else. Exploring different activities is great, but there comes a time when you have to sort of pick something and hone it. Growing up, we didn't have a lot of money to experiment with different hobbies. But my parents told me that if I picked one thing and got good at it, they would invest in it. And they did.
I kept playing, and entering competitions, and getting better. Then, I moved to the center of the city for my first degree.
Everyone who learns I’m a professional musician says, "Oh, you’re a musician. Cool, but what do you actually do? How do you make money?” It’s hard for them to understand. Even my extended family says things like, "Wow. You live in another country but you still do music? How did you get there?"
The truth is, it’s hard. I had to make that decision when I was doing my bachelors degree. I was feeling a lot of pressure to do whatever it takes to do music as a career, and nothing else. Of course I had to support myself with other work from time to time, but I’m fortunate today that I'm able today just to do music. But it's not easy at all—especially in Brazil, where classical music is not the most widely appreciated genre.
Ultimately, I think it takes courage. Growing up, I was taught not to look back, but always toward. To take the first step—because the second step is always going to be easier than the first, and so forth. So that's basically what I do in my life.
I came to the United States in 2015 to pursue my doctorate. That was also really difficult, because I didn't have any English. I learned the first word in English when I came here, so it was very tough. When I came here, they told me, "Okay Amaro, you’re here now, so you have until October to really know English well." And I was like, "What? What are you guys talking about?" I was totally lost. So I practiced a lot, and organized my time, and passed the test. But other challenges came my way—money, my visa, all of it. I decided to not go for my doctorate degree because there were so many setbacks.
At the same time, I had this professor who introduced me to the viola. As I said, I’d never been able to really experiment with other instruments. So I played it a little and realized that I loved the sound. And I played a little for that professor, and she said, "Okay well, you have an audition in two months. Prepare yourself."
Now, viola looks similar to the violin, but it’s totally different. The notes are different, the hand placement is different. But I really wanted to do well, so I practiced hard for two months. Now I have my master’s degree in viola from the University of Alabama. I graduated in May of 2019, my son was born in April, and my wife and I moved to Memphis in July, right after my graduation, because I was awarded the Iris Orchestra Fellowship. That’s the year I started with MMI as well. Now I’m at MMI exclusively (although I still play with Iris as a contract musician from time to time).
The first thing I tell students is, "If you really want to do this as a career, you have to have discipline and be organized.” That’s all it takes.
In the beginning, I had to set aside so many hours to get better. Nowadays, I don't have to practice for as many hours because I can accomplish a lot in just two or three hours. During college it was different. So I always tell students that I want to see organization when it comes to honing their craft. I want to see them practicing at the same time each day, or just adhering to some sort of routine. As long as they’re not going forward without a plan. You have to treat it like a job, even as a student when it isn’t your job yet.
In the middle of the pandemic, my family had a big problem. We needed to change our visas. And that involves a lot of time and money, and it's really stressful. We put all our savings toward it. We deliberated for a while about what to do, but we decided that Memphis was going to be the best place for us and for our son.
Around that time I had a calling in my heart to try releasing the music that I’ve been dreaming of but had never thought was actually possible. So I started writing a list. I want to do this this year, and this next year, and so on. I put my ideas down on paper. The first one was just that I wanted to start doing more recordings. So I started recording, and sharing videos on my Instagram.
The second idea I had was to make some professional videos and put them on YouTube. So I decided to record one piece by Florence Price called “Adoration.” We put that on YouTube and it generated some interest. The rest of my forthcoming album “Adoration: Music of the Americas” came from that. I really wanted to do something that no one else was doing. So I wrote this project (“Adoration”), as a way to honor underrepresented composers from Latin America, as well as African American and women composers. I started doing research about pieces for viola. And not just viola, because viola is the only instrument that's close to the human voice—it can interpret the mezzo-soprano, or the soprano, even the tenor, or the contra-alto.
So I found some pieces that were originally written for mezzo-soprano or soprano, and piano, and I rearranged them for viola and piano. It includes pieces by Fanny Mendelssohn, whose brother Felix was a famous composer. But because at that time women were not supposed to pursue music, she was not known. Also featured on the album are pieces by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Rebecca Clarke, Argentinian composer Astor Piazzolla, and two composers from Brazil, César Guerra-Peixe and Heitor Villa-Lobos.
This music is really beautiful, if overlooked, and should be a standard repertoire.
[Editor’s note: “Adoration: Music of the Americas” will be released on October 20. Amaro has performed this repertoire with pianist Tingting Yao, who collaborated on the album. They are currently organizing a recital for the official release. Visit Amaro's website to stay up-t0-date on his current and forthcoming projects.]
I’ve got two other projects I’m currently working on. One of the projects, of which two songs have been released, is a research project about the Bach preludes of the “Cello Suites.” So I started doing this research myself, comparing the differences between the preludes of the “Cello Suites.” The first two pieces in that project, “Preludes by Bach,” are currently available online. I’ll be releasing the next two Preludes at the end of September. The last two will be released between December and January. This is a project that I’ve been working on with other collaborators and researchers—friends of mine. We’re doing the research and interpreting how different the preludes were written, because preludes are meant to be an introduction of the suite itself. So they were all written in different times and in different ways.
The other project is going to be a solo viola album, titled “The Sound of the Viola.” It's going to be released in May 2022. It features compositions exclusively from Latin composers, African-American composers, and women composers. But this time it’s for viola solo, and all the pieces are written by modern composers. They're also all going to be premiered by me on the album, so it’s really exciting.
I was also invited to complete my application for the American Viola Society emerging artist concert next year, so I’ll probably be performing there next year. And ealier this month, I receievd a certificate from an online competition that we (Tingting and I) competed in internationally, called the King’s Peak International Music Competition. We got the second prize in the competition for chamber music, which was also very exciting.
There’s a lot going on for me right now professionally. But at the end of the day, music is really about connection. It goes beyond rhythm, and it’s really all about being able to connect with my audience. Each piece of music is going to touch somebody's heart, and is going to change somebody's mind, so I just try to feel that out before playing. For me, music is a way of expressing myself, and connecting with people.
Photos by Harris Beauchamp