Veronica Lopez, violist & music educator (2/2)
Continuing from the first half, Veronica and I talk about being a minority in classical music, her experience as Hispanic/Latinx in Pittsburgh, being multilingual, and her advice for aspiring artists, particularly from low-income or minority backgrounds.
When you walk into a room and you’re the only person who looks like you, it’s hard not to feel like you’re alone.
TA: You’re one of the only Latinx musicians I know in the School of Music. Do you think your ethnic identity has had a role in your experience as a classical musician?
VL: Yes. I’ve always been vocal about who I am, and about advocating for minority communities and anyone who needs advice and mentoring.
Part of the reason I’m so vocal is because I am Hispanic and given how minorities have always been ignored, seen as unintelligent and unable to succeed, I’ve always made it priority to be who I am, but also to show, “Hey we’re here, we’re educated, we have a voice.”
As far as my experience as a classical musician, I actually don’t think it’s impacted me as much as my other colleagues. I feel like I’ve always been treated as a musician despite my ethnicity. I've always been Veronica the violist. Which is different from a lot of other music places and I appreciate it.
It’s also the difference between a feeling versus knowing you got a gig because of your race. You get there, look around, and you start thinking, “Am I here because of my race and not my talent?” I don’t know, what’s your experience?
For me, the School of Music was a huge leap from the kind of diversity my high school had, so I felt really out of place. But like you said, it’s more of a feeling and not actually being treated differently.
For minorities and people who aren’t financially well-off, it’s always gonna be that feeling. When you walk into a room and you’re the only person who looks like you, it’s hard not to feel like you’re alone, or everyone is staring, when most of the time they’re probably not. Most of the time people don’t care.
But it’s hard to remind ourselves that people don’t care, we deserve to be there as much as others. We don’t do this specifically to ourselves all the time, but it’s going on in our heads, and we have to remind ourselves to break out of it. It’s all a feeling, and a feeling that a lot of people don’t ever have to experience.
I totally agree, and it means a lot to share this experience with others. To step back into music, what are some of the things you love most about being a musician?
The biggest thing is opportunity. One of the reasons I stuck with music for so long is that I realized at an early age, mostly because my middle school teacher told me, music can take you anywhere you wanna go, both physically, spiritually, everything — all of it stuck with me. That’s my favorite thing — knowing you’re never gonna be grounded in one place your whole life.
What do you love most about being a music educator?
Knowing I’m helping to make a difference and a change in someone’s life. With my current students, I love watching their expression when something finally clicks. In a lesson, if something’s not working, I tell them, “Just explore, try a few different things,” and I let them do that in the lesson.
I like watching how everything works in their mind. They’re trying it in a different way. It’s not only for them but also for me, it helps me realize how they interpret what I tell them, so that’s how I explain to them in the future. And then it clicks, and those few minutes are so incredibly valuable. I can see their progress and help them make that progress in the future in ways that work for them.
As far as how I approach it, I don’t say, “Just figure it out,” I’ll say, “I’m gonna write some notes for you. In the meantime, just explore for a little bit.” That’s how I play it off, but I’m actually just trying to see how the wheels turn in their heads.
If something's not working, I tell them, "Just explore, try a few different things," and I let them do that in the lesson.
In the classroom, similar to teaching private lessons, I love watching my students’ faces brighten up when a new concept clicks or when something does work for them. I just love sharing, especially sharing stories of musicians.
Any time a student says “I can’t do it,” or “A bass player doesn’t do that,” or “A violinist is never male,” I’m just like, “No that isn’t correct, just because you’re a bass player that doesn’t mean anything. You can do anything you want, play anything you want,” and I will give them different links to different artists they can be inspired from. I love creating inspiration.
Taking a step away from music, one thing I love is how you have developed relationships with our Spanish-speaking customers at the bakery and regularly speak to them in Spanish. Do you mind explaining why you do this?
I do it because the Hispanic population in Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania in general isn’t huge, so when I see or hear someone that is Hispanic, I usually ask if they speak Spanish.
They’re always excited and it’s like, “Oh my god where are you from, how long have you been in Pittsburgh, what are you doing here?”
I do it because it helps me feel like I belong more. I’d like to believe that it helps them feel more at home, and it helps me feel like I’m not alone here in terms of people who are Hispanic and from Latinx backgrounds. Every time one of our regular Spanish-speaking customers comes, I know I can speak my language and it feels so good.
Music itself is a language and no one really frowns upon musicians, even though it's a different language.
What's your take on language and how it affects who we are?
My family has always looked out for each other in terms of being bilingual because we know it’s important, especially because in the United States of America you need to know English.
For me Spanish and English have always been who I am. It actually gets kind of difficult because people will ask, “What’s your first language?” I guess you could say Spanish, but I learned them at the same time, and all my education has been in English.
I’m fluent in English but some people always see me as Spanish so it’s not always believable to some. Some people say, “I can hear an accent though,” which is fine, I don’t mind. I never really noticed that I had an accent until someone pointed it out and it became a huge thing for me.
My accent is who I am. I pride myself on being bilingual and a little bit trilingual. It makes you more accessible to everyone, you can relate to more people, you can help educate a lot of people too.
Outside of America, as far as I know, being bilingual or trilingual is inspiring. It’s all about communication and being able to relate to others in as many ways possible. Music itself is a language and no one really frowns upon musicians, even though it's a different language.
¿Tienes algún consejo para jóvenes a quienes les interesa estudiar música o las artes?
El consejo más grande que tengo, no importa tanto dinero que tengas o no tengas, si quieres estudiar música o cualquiera arte, hazlo.
Ese es el consejo más grande que me dio una consejera en la escuela secundaria porque cuando yo quería estudiar a CMU, le dije que no tenía dinero. Pero ella me dijo que eso no importaba, que siguiera mis sueños y el dinero después vendrá.
El dinero siempre va a dar miedo pero no tiene que ser obstáculo, nomas sigue ser fiel a ti mismo y realiza tus sueños.
Regardless of your financial situation, always be true to yourself and follow your dreams. If art is something you want to do, regardless of what people think, do your thing.
This is especially important for low-income communities who are told that the way they will live is forever, they will go to high school and get a job at some store and rise through the ranks of that store, and provide for their kids through that store. That’s the way I was raised and it doesn’t need to be that way.
There isn’t anything wrong with working in retail for the majority of your life, but my point is that a lot of kids that grow up in low-income communities are raised with that mentality and only that mentality. Things are changing now though, and teachers are becoming more inspiring than ever. Kids need inspiration, they need to know opportunity.
Two of the most important sayings in my family are “Si se puede” and “Todo pasa por una cosa y razón.”
I’m a first-generation college student that graduated from Carnegie Mellon with a BFA in Viola Performance and a certificate in Music Education (and minor in Conducting.)
There are so many people who are just as knowledgeable and talented if not more than I am, but I’m one of those people who was able to break out of the cycle in my community.
If a small-town Latinx person from Huntington Park, CA, can do it, you can too. I’ve always had support from my mom thankfully, but a majority of your success has to come from yourself. You can have all the support in the world, but if you don’t have that willpower to succeed and want/need to do better, then nothing is going to happen for you.
Stay strong, believe and work hard. Most important of all... believe in yourself and complete your dreams.
Veronica Lopez is a Pittsburgh-based violist & educator who offers lessons in violin, viola, and Spanish to all ages. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or Instagram @veronicavviola