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My Story

Mike Lawson • America's MusiciansOctober 2022 • October 13, 2022

How did I, a person of Colombian peasant heritage, end up in the U.S Air Force Band of the West? To answer that, I must first tell you about my parents; about their hard work and sacrifice that allowed me to do my hard work and sacrifice. My parents grew up in peasant families: mud houses, dirt floors, and palms for the roof. My dad has worked in the fields since he was a child, and my mom had to cook and do the laundry for her parents and six brothers. 

Laundry! I hate laundry! But hers was more challenging. She had to carry all the dirty clothes down a mountain, hand wash them at a creek, and then bring them back. All those wet clothes up the mountain. Quite the workout! My dad didn’t have it easier; he had to work for a year in the fields to be able to afford to go to high school the following year. He ended up graduating from high school in his mid-twenties. One year of work for one year of learning. With ups and downs, they were both able to achieve a better life. Not a luxurious life without difficulties, but a life where the basic needs were covered. My mom became a secretary, and my dad an elementary school teacher. 

I like to tell their story for two reasons. First, because that is where my story begins, but more importantly, because they represent the qualities of Latin-Americans: passionate and hard-working people that always keep la frente en alto (the head held high), and they never give up their dreams.

I was born in a small village in the Colombian Andes. A place without much to do. No malls, shops, theater, library, supermarkets, stadiums, internet, or cable. During the weekdays, I went to school from 7 am to 1 pm. After lunch, we either played futbol, volleyball, or basketball, in a small concrete field. If you were bad at sports, you could join one of the artistic groups. One of them was the Banda Municipal. I am not gifted at sports, so I was part of the band. I showed up the first day, and the music director, named Pilos (who was also one of the town butchers), said to me, “Es tu día de suerte! We have one clarinet available.” So, I did not pick the clarinet, the clarinet picked me; that is what I like to tell people.

During my time in the band, I didn’t own my instrument; it was provided by a government program. It was a cheap plastic clarinet made in China. But that instrument made me dream that maybe one day I could become a professional clarinetist. Not the greatest news for my mom, and not a very smart dream on my side. I knew nothing about music: I didn’t know how to read music or how to sing. For me, La Mayor was my sister and not a scale (if you speak Spanish, you will get the joke). I didn’t know if Beethoven was before or after Bach, or even if Beethoven was before or after the dinosaurs! Clearly, I had everything against me to achieve my dream, but I am a Latin American, we always keep our heads up, we fight for our dreams. 

I played folk music for many years, and after high school I was accepted at Universidad Central in Bogota. For the audition, I played one of my folk tunes. They asked for a minor scale. I said, “I am sorry, I do not know what that means,” and there was sight reading! What an uncomfortable moment! Somehow, I was accepted, and I studied with Ivan Petruzziello (who, by the way, was not a butcher). 

For many reasons, I didn’t finish my undergraduate in Colombia, but it gave me the opportunity to complete my Bachelor’s in Music at the University of Denver with Jeremy Reynolds and a Master’s Degree at Carnegie Mellon University with Michael Rusinek. I have always worked hard, and the work in the United States was no exception: very long days, mornings of classes, afternoons of rehearsals, and nights or weekends for work. I worked washing dishes, cooking, cleaning bathrooms, carrying boxes, folding clothes, scheduling, and so on. There are so many stories I’d like to share with you, but I may run out of pages. However, if one day I see you in San Antonio, you can bring the coffee and I’ll bring the stories. 

With ups and downs, I finished school in 2019. I really thought things would get easier – but COVID-19 hit, and it made everything more complicated. I used the down time to keep my playing in shape while working different jobs. I cried a lot, wondering about the future. As life returned to normal, I auditioned for the U.S. Air Force Bands – not once, but four times! On my fourth try, I was accepted. Since May 2022, I have been living my dream. I salute officers, I play in the concert band, and I play in a fabulous clarinet quartet. Every morning, I wake up ready to learn how to be a better leader. Every day, I have the chance to improve myself and the community around me. That is my story.

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