A hum emanated from somewhere in the distance, and though faint, the sound was enough to reach the trained ears of Alejandro Romero in the nearby park, calling out to him much like a familiar voice he’s heard before. A voice that led him to this very place: New York City.
It was hushed, but the 17-year-old senior at Edinburg Vela High School, who was in the Big Apple this summer to attend a music camp at the Juilliard School, would know the sound from anywhere.
The bass that moaned ever so delicately. The breathy but elegant sigh vibrating from the stroke of the bow. The lyrical throb that pulsated, then trilled effortlessly.
“It was a cello,” he recalled.
Alejandro, who goes by Alex, was overjoyed to find a busker in Central Park performing Johann Sebastian Bach’s classic, “Cello Suite No. 1, Prélude” — a piece many are familiar with because of its common use in mainstream film and music; but for any bowed-string musician, it’s as ordinary as birds chirping.
“To me and my friend, it’s the joke of all classical music, because it’s what everyone who doesn’t listen to classical music knows,” Alex said about the street cellist’s music of choice. “But when she started playing it and everyone surrounded her, I realized that they didn’t see it the way I did. It was honestly very moving, and it was no longer a joke to me. It was music that connects people.”
The revelation is a single moment from an ever-growing notebook of experiences that have inspired Alex, a violist with aspirations of becoming a classical musician and composer, to continue embarking on a career in orchestra.
He’s already on the right track, having earned the opportunity to attend Juilliard for nearly two weeks in July and August as part of the Sphinx Performance Academy’s summer chamber music and solo performance program.
The academy, according to Sphinx, specifically recruits young string musicians from culturally diverse backgrounds who are underrepresented in their field. Alex was one of two such teens from the Rio Grande Valley selected to participate. The other, cellist Ashton Gonzalez, a junior also of Edinburg Vela, spent his summer at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.
For Alex, who feels as though he and his friend Ashton are viewed differently than their peers in a region ruled by Tejano, conjunto and contemporary music, Sphinx couldn’t find teenage musicians more underrepresented in the Valley than this pair.
Emotional after listening to Alex practice, a photojournalist from The Monitor couldn’t resist praising the young man to his family after photographing him in his home Thursday afternoon.
“Tears… I have tears right now,” Delcia Lopez, who has more than 30 years of experience in photojournalism, said of Alex’s playing. “It’s beautiful.”
“This is all we hear … all day long,” Alex’s father, Jesse Romero, an employee of The Monitor, responded. “It’s all he does.”
There’s a precision in Alex’s performances that has proven universally appealing to those who’ve listened, one that evokes imagery and achieves a cinematic experience. But mastering such scene-setting sound doesn’t come from a lack of effort.
He spends most days practicing four to five hours and studies each composition’s theme, and when he’s not rehearsing, he’s trying his hand at composing. Alex is also a member of his high school orchestra and the mariachi band.
This is a perpetual state of learning that never really satiates his desire to better his craft. It’s a passion, after all, that has no equal and knows no end, he said. For Alex, orchestra is life.
“It’s weird,” he said. “Music has always presented itself to me in different ways in life. My mom likes country; my dad likes rock; my friends like pop or Tejano. And then I was at a weird stage once when I did like to dance a lot. But once I started playing instruments and learned classical music, that became one of my dreams: to learn to play.”
Alex’s devotion to music can be traced back six years. That’s when, at the age of 11, he first picked up the viola out of curiosity. In sixth grade at the time, he joined orchestra while attending Austin Middle School in San Juan.
Such was his enthusiasm to learn that he would rush home from orchestra and play what he learned in class on a guitar. He later chose the viola because it was the one from an assortment of other stringed instruments that he knew the least about.
“I know what the violin is, and the cello and bass are very obvious, but what is this mysterious instrument in the middle,” Alex remembered pondering. “So I chose the viola to learn about it, and the more I played it and learned, the more I fell in love with it.”
Having already played the guitar and upon picking up the viola, his practice habits were such that he developed painful calluses on his fingers. But it was a small price to pay for what the grueling practice regimen accomplished.
His playing grows more refined by the day and often earns a symphony of praise, including kudos from his peers at Juilliard.
Believing he was solely being considered for the Sphinx camp at Curtis, Alex learned in May that he was instead selected to attend the program at Juilliard between July 24 and Aug. 3.
Fearing that his video audition to Sphinx had yielded no results, given that months had passed since he submitted it in February with little word, other than being notified that he was a finalist, the news came as a shock to Alex.
“I was just overwhelmed with joy, because for one, I had been waiting,” Alex said. “I was on the waiting list for a while, and then my friend got accepted before I did. I started to lose hope. It was very sad and I was very disappointed.”
Although Alex is still uncertain how he was considered, let alone accepted to the camp at Juilliard when he and Ashton had originally auditioned for Curtis, he didn’t want to ask too many questions.
Alex instead seized the opportunity and attended the camp, which through Sphinx offers a solo repertoire focus at Juilliard. And while he couldn’t really rate the experience in comparison to other camps, since he hasn’t attended any other, the chance to meet other like-minded teens alone proved beneficial.
“This one was specifically for African-American or Latinx musicians around the nation,” Alex said of the Sphinx program. “It was really cool because it was people like me, my age or younger with this passion. Because there really are not that many people who have that same passion here, meeting and speaking with other people like me was one of the biggest things I was excited for.
“I learned just how normal it is to be different.”
Of course, Alex observed immediate improvement in his playing after attending the camp, which also covered performance anxiety classes that came in handy when it was time to perform at a recital.
Still, the experience itself — performing at Juilliard, meeting other teenage musicians with similarly diverse backgrounds and cultures, and proving to himself that he can reach such destinations — proved the most rewarding aspect of the camp.
“Besides just getting better at my instrument, I also learned that no matter where you are from, and no matter what anyone tells you because of where you are from, you can go anywhere you want as long as you have that passion,” he said.
My Sons Juilliard Recital this evening in New York. The Passion this boy has for music is incredible.
Posted by Jesse Romero on Friday, August 2, 2019
When he was about 12 years old, Alex saw David Aaron Carpenter performing Bach’s “Suite No. 3” on YouTube. This was especially intriguing given the viola in the video was made by renowned luthier Antonio Stradivari, and it proved to be yet another moment in Alex’s development from which he often derives inspiration.
In fact, that piece of music is what Alex performed during his recital at Juilliard earlier this month.
“To be honest with you, the piece that really hooked me into the viola was what I performed at Juilliard recently, and I heard it played by David Aaron Carpenter on a $45 million Stradivari viola,” Alex said. “Ever since I heard that, I wanted to become that good. … The climax of the piece, which is my favorite part, is the hardest part I had to do. I could see he wasn’t just passionate about the viola but the piece itself. I could tell he had a strong connection with it.”
A student of the viola for six years, Alex has for much of his life prepared himself for the moment he stepped on stage at Juilliard on Aug. 2.
That preparation came after three stages of progression in his fledgling career, Alex said.
The introduction to the instrument and initial excitement to learn came first. The second came in the form of friendly competition once he reached Edinburg schools. This is where, according to Alex, he was pushed to be better and constantly competed with another musician to be first chair.
During this time, Alex also acknowledged that he had to relax his practice schedule to avoid fatigue.
“Sometimes people will try so hard, but once pushed to a certain point they don’t enjoy it anymore,” he warned. “I did not practice as much as I do now, but I did love it as much as I do now. That never stopped — that passion.”
His high school teachers and instructors represent the third phase in Alex’s development, as he attributed much to their tutelage.
“They are the ones who pushed me to do great things. I first made region in high school my sophomore year, and got to play with the best musicians in the Valley. It felt really good. Not as great as Juilliard,” Alex said with a chuckle. “But it was really good. It definitely felt like I could be at the top someday.”
To describe his feelings the day of the recital as nerve-wracking would be a gross understatement. However, the breathing exercises taught in the performance anxiety class really helped Alex control his heart rate.
“It was my first solo performance, it was going to be at Juilliard, and it was going to be live-streamed, so it was a lot of pressure,” Alex said with a laugh. “I personally am never satisfied with my performance, especially in the moment … But my friends said I did great and I didn’t believe it until I saw it for myself, and it wasn’t bad.”
Back home from New York City, Alex now feels more confident enrolling at universities with renowned music programs.
Excited for what the future may bring, Alex continues consuming all things classical music and is showing no signs of slowing down.
“When people go into music, you go in not knowing what could happen,” he said. “You could want to perform and end up teaching; you could end up performing but not want to do that after all. I do want to perform, and I eventually want to teach, and I definitely want to start composing. I’m getting better at it; I’m getting smarter. Yeah, I want to do everything.”