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Veronica Lopez, violist & music educator (1/2)

Recently, I spoke with Veronica Lopez about her passion for supporting low-income communities in the arts, being a musician & teacher, being Hispanic/Latinx in Pittsburgh, and her background as a first-generation college student. 


Veronica and I met in 2016, her sophomore year and my freshman year at Carnegie Mellon University.

2019. Photo from Veronica Lopez. Credit, Alexander Chen

TA: How did you become a musician and decide to continue in college?


VL: A lot of my friends and colleagues know, I started playing music in 6th grade at Henry T. Gage Middle School in Huntington Park, CA, 20 minutes down from Downtown LA. 


In 5th grade I reached out to a middle school teacher, Margaret Asato, and was like, “I want to play an instrument, how can I do that?” 


The only reason I started playing is because at the time I was like, “Oh a lot of people in my city don’t play an instrument, I want to be that person.” At the time I didn’t know being a classical musician was such a worldwide thing.


The only time I truly wanted to quit was in 8th grade, when I got rejected from The Los Angeles High School for the Arts. I was in such a bad mental state. “Well, maybe this isn’t for me, maybe I shouldn’t do it anymore.” And my teacher was like, “Shut up and practice.” 


I got into the high school the year after. That was a sign for me that I can do this, and there weren’t really any questions for me after that. The next logical step after high school was college. 


As musicians know, music is something you can rely on. Music is there for you. Yes there are other things I’m good at, but everytime I try to imagine my life without music or viola, there’s not really anything there. My mind and soul are blank. Performance is always there and I feel whole knowing that I am meant to be a performer and an educator. I always get empty and sad when I imagine my life without performance.


Before going to college, I had to ask myself that question, “Could you see your life without performance?” and well, clearly I couldn’t. 


From 2015. LACHSA graduation at Walt Disney Concert Hall.

You have always been super passionate about helping low-income communities and families in the arts. Where does this passion come from? 


All of the passion really comes from the fact that I personally grew up in a low-income community. Throughout my middle-high school years, I realized that music was not accessible for everyone, particularly those from low-income or minority backgrounds.


The reason I’ve done music for the past 13 years of my life is because I want to be an example for people from minority backgrounds to look up to and be inspired from. It’s a way that I can help those students that aren’t able to get access. 


I was luckily able to get access because my teacher was passionate about helping us out with funding and opportunities outside of the city. I want to be that person who was able to break out of the cycle of a low-income community and be an example for people that aren’t raised to know opportunity.


It just felt right to be an educator and a performer. It’s the whole package.

One thing we have in common is that we weren’t only focused on music performance in our undergraduate. What led you to study teaching as well?


I didn’t come into CMU wanting to study music education. But after a presentation on the music education department, I really thought about it. “Well, if I want to teach and be there for communities and organizations, it will probably help if I’m certified in teaching.”


You don’t need certification to teach privately and stuff, but it’ll help to be certified. I knew that going through the program would help with many skills I didn’t know about yet because, yes, you can help kids, yes you can mentor kids. But there’s so much more that goes into helping kids, whether it’s psychological or all the policies that are not taught on the regular unless you study them.


I’m so glad I went through with it. It just felt right to be an educator and a performer. It’s the whole package.


Carnegie Mellon University School of Music, undergraduate instrumental class of 2019. Photo from Veronica Lopez (far right).

How did music ed affect your life as a viola performance student?


I didn’t know that being a music ed student would take so much time away from performance. It’s not something that’s described to you, how much time being a music ed certificate or major takes from everything else.


So I wasn’t prepared for all the consequences that would come from that. Yes, I learned to become a music educator but my performance still lacked. And it hurt and still hurts, because I went to CMU wanting to be a performance major. I wasn’t able to fully balance both. I loved being both but I always wish I had more time, more willpower, more time to dedicate to the viola than I intended. 


Thankfully, I am proud of my undergraduate accomplishments in performance and will be returning to Carnegie Mellon for an Advanced Music Studies in Viola Performance in Fall 2020!


Congratulations!! This is such a thrill to hear! You’re also continuing to work as a music teacher, both privately and in schools. In your opinion, what are the most important qualities or insights a music teacher should have? 


Being compassionate and understanding towards the students’ personal situations is a quality teachers should have.


I agree that in the studio it’s about the music, but if a student comes into a lesson and they’re completely destroyed about something going on in their personal life, it’s helpful to know what’s happening, or if a teacher just says, “Hi, I know something’s bothering you, I’m willing to talk if you need.” 


Something like that will make the student so much more willing to progress in a lesson or classroom environment, or any environment really.


Also, just being incredibly organized. As a music teacher, you’re not only teaching one subject, you’re teaching many different areas within music to various ages. Being organized will make your life so much easier. Really good educators have a system that works for them. 


From 2019. Veronica during her student teaching semester. Pictured, Allegheny Traditional Academy.

How can music teachers do a better job of supporting low-income communities and families in the arts?


The thing with low-income students & families is that we don’t always know what’s happening. As music teachers, we just need to be there for our students and put ourselves in their shoes for once.


We also need to constantly remind ourselves that different learning styles exist. Sometimes, students need more time to process in the lesson or classroom environment instead of just going home to practice.


At the college level, it would definitely help if universities have, or if it was more known, more financial support funds. There’s a lot of merit, a lot of talent-based, but a lot of aids given fall under specific categories & require certain things.


Sometimes all a student needs is, “Hey I need more money and support because I’m poor but want to succeed” funds. More funds like that, that students can reach out to, that would be really helpful. 


As music teachers, we just need to be there for our students and put ourselves in their shoes for once. We also need to constantly remind ourselves that different learning styles exist.

Something else we have in common is working counter staff at the same local bakery. What do you think of the stereotype of musicians having to work part-time jobs in order to make ends meet? Our staff is a perfect example; most of us are classical musicians. 


I feel like the people who see us working those jobs assume that this will be our only job or that a retail job is all we are qualified for.


It’s frustrating because customers don’t know our stories unless they ask. Retail and counter staff jobs are some of the most difficult jobs out there. So many types of skills are required and learned through them. 


I see these jobs more as, “This is what I need to do now to get to where I want to be.” Yes, musicians and artists have it hard, but if this is what we have to do to get through and survive, it shouldn’t be frowned upon. 


Now that restaurants and small shops everywhere are shutting down and people can’t get what they want, people are starting to realize how essential we are. Again, it just goes to show how much musicians & artists are employed in our world.


Retail and counter staff help the world keep going, and I can only hope that people continue to be generous and empathetic after all of this is over. 



Click here for the second half of our conversation (on being a minority in classical music, Hispanic/Latinx in Pittsburgh, & a 1st-generation college student)


~


Veronica Lopez is a Pittsburgh-based violist & educator who offers lessons in violin, viola, and Spanish to all ages. You can reach her at vlopezviola@gmail.com or Instagram @veronicavviola

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