Tony White Teaches Students How to Succeed Musically and in Life.
Tony White, 46, always knew music would be his life. But the path to making it his career wasn’t always so clear.
Being the eldest of 10 children and the first to go to college, reality was a heavy load on his shoulders.
“I had to try to become a major that would make money,” he says. “I was a business major, music minor, when one day in class I realized I was hearing all these sounds of great artists—John Coltrane, Michael Brecker. I wanted to play like them. I wanted to play.”
White, a Los Angeles-born, bred, and based musician, began playing clarinet as a young child, and ever the bass-lover, was later drawn to the deep notes of the tenor saxophone. His playing gradually expanded to alto and soprano sax and electronic wind instrument (EWI), and he also came to realize his incredible love of teaching.
“The reason I do it,” he says, “is there’s no greater fulfillment than working with young people. Even if it’s just showing them how to put an instrument together. To inspire them, especially if they come to you and want to learn the language of music—nothing makes you feel better, emotionally, socially.”
White returned to teach at his former high school, John C. Fremont, where he launched that school’s first music program. He’s since worked with other programs and projects, including the Beyond the Bell Arts Program, the Henry Mancini Institute, Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, Inside Out Community Arts, The PEP Tournament, The Harmony Project, Latino Art Beat, Little Kids Rock, and more.
The saxophonist also keeps his chops honed, performing regularly and releasing his own material, including The Tony White Project (2003), but his first passion is for teaching. The lessons he’s learned from the greats that have inspired him ring true in his own life.
“That’s the great thing about music,” he says. “It keeps you vibrant. You meet other musicians and they inspire you. You look at the traits they have and figure out which you want to take and adapt to what you’re doing. It’s a journey, not a destination. How do you reinvent yourself? There are so many possibilities. You work for the cause and not the applause. If you’re working for the applause, you’re not working for the right reasons. Work to be inspirational and stand for something and people will know it.”
He encourages his students to follow his example, and play with musicians of all genres and learn how to best use their musicality, no matter the style of music.
“I like any genre where I’m able to improvise,” the sax player says. “Music has no boundaries. I think being able to listen to any type of music and use your voice in those settings is very important. It’s something I teach and express to my students: don’t be afraid to play in a rock band, with a singer songwriter—use your musical sense. You have to be a risk-taker to make great music.”
Today, White continues to work with the Los Angeles Unified School District All City Marching Band, a group he first joined when he was 18 years old. He leads his students at numerous festivals and events, including performing at the Playboy Jazz Festival, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, and the Pantages Theatre, among others.
“I tell people all the time, the litmus test is that I love my job,” he says of balancing his own family with educating and performing. “There is no magical formula. I practice the skills I’ll need for the day I’ll be encountering.
It helps me stay focused and committed. You need to be spontaneous or you’ll get into a rut.”
“Every day is a move in a forward direction. How can I impact my students’ music? What’s the global picture? How is my microcosm impacting the macro?” he asks himself. “And being in music—you can set your own goals. Rather than waiting for the phone to ring, you can start planning your next gig and make it come to fruition.”
As White continues to bring these lessons to his students, hoping they too will make the most of their talent, he also hopes to encourage others to support the arts. “Everybody says they want to support music and want to
help, but if everyone gave a dollar toward music education, we could create better places,” he says. “I’m about building community, spirit, and camaraderie. I want to make the world a better place.”