Walking down the hallway at Bronx Prep, 8th grade scholar Richard J. overheard orchestra teacher and Arts Director Mr. Alvarado, playing a piece that captured his attention. It was at that moment Richard knew he wanted to play the violin. The following week, Richard began playing the instrument that would become his passion and lead him to college – the cello.
“Mr. Alvarado said, ‘Richard sit over there,’ and it was the cello section. I said, ‘what’s that?’ But the more I started to play it, the more I started falling in love with it and taking it seriously.”
While Richard is now a BP graduate and a soon to be freshman at the College of Saint Rose, growing up in the South Bronx led him to believe he didn’t have many opportunities to “get out of there.”
“If you can’t be extremely book smart or play sports, there’s not really much else you can do. I have a lot of friends who believe that.”
After a year of giving the cello a try, Richard noticed he was making progress. At home, the constant loud noise from his cello no longer drew ire from his parents and sister – now, Richard received praise. As his skills developed, he knew he had found his career path, and developed a drive to improve further.
“Music was my answer. Music was my way of getting out of here. It kept me away from all of the bad things happening around me.”
He Gave Me The Gift
At the Bronx Prep Spring showcase, Richard, now a junior, was slated to play his first solo. As the time came closer to his performance, Richard’s nerves were getting to him so he went up to Mr. Alvarado for advice.
“I remember going up to Mr. Alvarado saying I need tips on how to break the nervousness I had. He said, ‘just play’ and walked away. That was probably the best advice I ever got.”
That performance would serve as a sign of things to come. As a senior, Richard not only continued to improve but also realized the potential he had.
His practices at home went on until the early morning. At school, instead of using his study hall period to do homework, he would visit Mr. Alvarado and practice almost daily with him.
The respect and admiration is mutual between Mr. Alvarado and Richard. Mr. Alvarado, who said he’s not known for effusively praising scholars while they’re still at Bronx Prep, said he was immensely proud of Richard’s work and his story is one he’d share for years with other scholars.
“It’s unheard of for anyone to begin playing string instruments at the age of 14 and be at the level he’s at. All of that has to do with his motivation and passion for music. Moments like that, I stop to think, ‘this validates my life’s work.’”
With a large number of scholars of minority backgrounds looking to enter a field with few minorities, Alvarado says Richard is a great person to look up to.
“He was consistent, devoted, passionate, and just wants to know more and grow. I feel that’s something our younger scholars need to see to succeed: To see a success story from Bronx Prep; to see our own scholars being successful.”
Fortunately for Mr. Alvarado, Richard is already thinking along the same lines.
“The same thing that Mr. Alvarado did for me, I want to do the same and continue that path. Giving back to where you came from is important to me. I’m very lucky to have had someone teach me cello in the Bronx.”
Four Strings and My Bow
After a few long trips cramped in a Greyhound bus seat with his cello, Richard decided on the College of Saint Rose after impressing the music professor so much during auditions that the professor offered Richard an impromptu music lesson.
For now, Richard is looking forward to attending the College of Saint Rose in the fall and despite his success thus far, he knows there’s a long road ahead of him but continues to set his sights high.
“There’s still so much more that I have to learn. So much practice before I reach the level I want to become. It’s only the beginning.”
But when asked what level he wants to reach, Richard took a few seconds to think and assertively said, “The greatest I can become – that’s the level I want to reach.
“I believe it’s a mission to spread the beauty of music to others. I know what it did for me and what it can do for others. Carrying that message through my four strings and bow means everything to me.”