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 tubist Juan Valdez! This is Juan's first year as an MMI Fellow, and we're thrilled to have him on the team. He is currently pursuing his master's degree at the University of Memphis, and working with band students at Hickory Ridge Middle School and Germantown Middle School. Juan recently chatted with MMI about his earliest music memories, discovering Memphis culture, and why being a good musician is about remaining open and childlike.
I discovered my love of classical music at Walmart, of all places. And I don't know if you remember, but back then, they had these music samplers with maybe six touch buttons, and you would get a sample of a 30-second track.
And I clicked on one, and it was Für Elise. Of course, I didn’t know that piece at that time, but I figured it out later. From then on, instead of going to the toy section, I would go and listen to that track. It was there for a long time.
Once, when I was maybe in third or fourth grade, I tried to convince my mom to buy it for me. We were at the checkout line, and I remember my mom saying, "You're not going to listen to it.” My family are all first-generation Mexicans and they didn’t really know much about classical music. But I, for some reason, just liked it. It was cool. It was different. I didn't know what it was.
The gentleman that was behind me and my mom in the checkout line was an older guy, and he overheard my mom say, "You're not going to listen to it. It's kind of a waste of money." He said to her, "You should be really happy that your son is listening to this kind of music." My mom was like, "Really?" He goes, "Yeah, yeah. You should really buy it for him. If not, I'll buy it for him." And so my mom wound up buying it for me.
That was my earliest classical music memory.
On Going Where the Music Takes You
I'm Latino, and a lot of in Latino culture, you go to a lot of dance parties, dance concerts. I was exposed to a lot of Latin music—a lot of Banda, mariachi, all that kind of stuff. We went to this one party where they had trumpets and a sousaphone. That’s when I decided I wanted to play trumpet, to be in that environment. It was funny because after Für Elise I wanted to play the cello. I started on the cello, really, in fourth grade.
So I would see different instruments at these concerts that I would go to with my parents. I was like, "Wow, I want to play that." So then I went on to trumpet, and that was super fun. I did that for a year or two.
But in middle school, I had some reading comprehension issues, so they had to adjust my school schedule. That took me out of the band class I was in, and the only class that they could offer after my schedule was adjusted was beginning band again but in middle school.
I was devastated. But my teacher, I owe him a lot. He was like, "Well, listen. Next year, I'm out three tuba players. And if I have no tuba, I have no band. If you play tuba for a year, by the time your year is up, I can evaluate you and put you in the top group." And I agreed.
He gave me a mouthpiece and a tuba, and off to the practice room I went. Now, years later, here I am. I really believe that I didn't choose tuba. I mean, the tuba really chose me. As a kid, I just wanted to play, and I wanted to make some sort of sound or music.
There’s this famous conductor, the former conductor of the Chicago Symphony. His name is Daniel Barenboim. He would say, "When you’re in music you have to be childlike. Not childish, but childlike." And it reminds me of how I felt about music when I was a kid—as a young person, you're just so playful, and when you're in the moment and you’re playing, it's you and the music, and you really do feel like a kid.
On Discovering Memphis
This is my first year at MMI. I started at the beginning of the 2021-22 school year, and I work with band students.
I’m actually from Oregon, though I was born in California. I came to Memphis in 2019, literally just before the start of the pandemic, to start on my master’s degree at the University of Memphis. It was a weird time to arrive, for sure. When I moved, it was a "Wow, new city, new me"-type thing. And then…
When I got to Memphis, I was fresh out of undergrad. I really wanted to take on the world, see what the world had to offer. And I learned it's a journey, and it's a beautiful one. It's a rewarding one.
And so, when I moved here, it was really cool. It was really cool learning the city of Memphis and its history. And I knew that one of the first things that I had to do coming from the West Coast was understand the city. I had to understand the people. So before school started, I went to the museums around here, like the National Civil Rights Museum. I went to Beale Street just to see and listen and talk to people. Honestly, Memphis has its own culture.
One of the beautiful things that I love about Memphis is that there are so many good people here. And so many good things happening. Obviously, there's a really great music culture, too. And the musicians that are still playing, even from the 70s, 80s, and 90s, are the same genuine people. They’re still all about making music, and full of incredible Memphis stories.
Right now I’m finishing up my master’s degree, and I'm actually enrolled in a Memphis music history class right now, a graduate course class. I’m always trying to learn more about where I am.
On Becoming an MMI Teaching Artist
I have this little quote that I live by. It's something like, "I can only take my students as far as I've gone." So I never want to stop learning. And even though I'm a teacher, I'm a student of life, plus, right now, a student of actual school. I think that the bigger message for any of my students is never stop learning. Always be curious. Always be driven, motivated. I mean, all the things that also apply to music.
I'm a graduate teacher assistant here in Memphis, so I've gotten to teach at the college level. I’ve also taught private lessons here and there. But being an MMI Fellow is one of the first times where I am in the public schools, teaching. And that's what I've been trying to do since I even moved to Memphis.
It's going really well. I enjoy working with the students, really. I think one of the best things about being a teacher and learning about myself is that you really have to personalize. You can’t teach everyone the same way. Even from the very first class we work together, I try to talk to them and get to know everyone a little bit, so I can figure out how they think or what their interests are.
For example, I work with one student who loves soccer. And when I talk to him about breathing, I relate it to his experience playing soccer. I’ll say something like, "Imagine when you kick the ball. Does the ball stop in the middle of the air?"
"When does it stop? It stops in the goal. Right?"
"Yeah, when something hits it."
"Well, can you pretend that your air is the ball while it's in the air? Does the ball ever stop? No."
You meet them where they are. I think I've learned to be really kind and really passionate. And when you get a little older, especially, you start thinking about professional stuff, things can get more serious, and competitive. But when you're working with young people, yeah, you want to aim for excellence, but you also really have to keep it fun for them, or they won’t want to continue. And it should be fun. You've got to be happy while you're doing it because it's your voice.
And as long as you stay curious, your limit is unreachable.
Ultimately, I would love to perform classically, maybe in a brass quintet setting. I’d also love to provide that musical outreach to schools, on the classical music side of things. I would love to become a college professor. My longer-term goal, and why I’m really enjoying learning to work in a nonprofit setting, is that I would love to open my own nonprofit down in Mexico.