A World of Music
By Mary-Love Bigony, University Marketing
Washington García grew up in a home filled with music. His Quito, Ecuador, family sang, danced flamenco, played the violin, the piano, the flute — three generations making music together day by day.
When García was a young child, the home acquired a Yamaha piano imported from Japan, a gift to the matriarch of the family from her children. “She cared for it like another son or another daughter,” García says. Four-year-old Washington was fascinated. “The story goes that whenever my grandmother started to play the piano, whatever part of the house I was in, I would go to her and salute the piano,” he says.
Today García is an acclaimed pianist who has performed all over the world and who, at age 25, became the youngest Latin American to receive a doctorate from the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University. But the thing he finds most rewarding is teaching in Texas State’s School of Music and working with children from across the globe at Texas State’s International Piano Festival, which he created in 2010. To think it all started in Quito, Ecuador, when he was 4 and his grandmother had a new piano.
As children tend to do, young Washington wanted to emulate the adults around him, especially his musical grandmother. “She would get upset because she didn’t want me to damage her piano,” García says. “She finally said, ‘If you’re going to kill my piano, at least you’re going to kill it with a nice tune.’ She taught me to use one finger to play the first few notes of a song.”
When García was 6 his sister, who was 8, started attending the National Conservatory of Music in Quito. “Eight was the minimum age to enter the conservatory,” García says. “My sister and I were very close, and I was upset that I couldn’t go with her.” So distressed was her young son, García’s mother went ahead and let him go with his sister, explaining to the faculty at the conservatory that he was just there to observe and be with his sister; he wouldn’t cause any trouble.
As García recalls, a teacher requested a conference with his mother at the end of the year. “So she went to the conservatory and the teacher said, ‘You have a very talented son. He’s extraordinary.’ And my mother said ‘I don’t have a son here, only a daughter.’”
“Isn’t little Washington your son?” asked the teacher. Then he told her that her son was well above average and did not need to complete the first level, even though Washington was not registered. The conservatory registered him in the second level when he was 7.
From that point on it was full speed ahead for Washington García. Faculty at the conservatory continued to encourage him to skip grade levels. He progressed so rapidly that he received both his high school diploma and his bachelor’s degree from the conservatory when he was 18.
García performed in public for the first time when he was 7. “I remember it clearly because it was a benefit concert for disabled children in a small town in Ecuador,” he says. “It felt quite wonderful to take part in something that I knew was making a difference. And for the first time there was a hint for me of my purpose in life.”
At age 11 he won a prestigious national competition in Quito, and doors started opening for him. “When I was 14 I was invited to play for the president of Chile,” he says. “I traveled to Santiago, performed for President Patricio Aylwin and took part in an international piano seminar.”
A turning point for García came at age 15, when he had his debut with the national symphony of Ecuador. “That was when I knew that I wanted to be a pianist, knew I wanted to come to the U.S., knew I wanted to be a professor,” he says. “Before 15 I liked piano, and my parents always encouraged me to be a musician, but also to be an engineer or a doctor or something else.
“When I was 15 I started to get recognized and invited to play in concerts and competitions. I was accepted at the pre-college school of music at Juilliard. And I gradually realized that this was going to turn into a professional career.”
Performing with the Ecuadorian national symphony orchestra at age 15 brought García invitations from around the world. “I was invited to go to New York, to Spain, to Italy, so little by little it blossomed like a flower,” he says. “Most of the times I traveled by myself because my family could not afford to pay for their own way. Financially speaking, it was very challenging.”
When he was 18, García was one of two students chosen from 33 countries by the Kennedy Center to receive a $25,000 grant from the Fellowship of the Americas Program.
“I was one and the other was a pianist from Peru,” García says. “Which is interesting, because Ecuador and Peru were at war at that time. This grant from the Kennedy Center allowed me to come to the United States and attend the first year of a master’s program at the Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins. After that the Peabody Institute picked up my tuition and gave me a full scholarship until I graduated.”
The Fellowship of the Americas Program led to invitations for García to play at the Kennedy Center, the Organization of American States, the World Bank, the Inter-American Bank, and the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. In the years that followed he performed in prestigious venues in Switzerland, Austria, France, Spain, Hungary, Canada, Israel, Chile, Mexico, Ecuador, Japan, China, Indonesia, Singapore and throughout the United States.
The road to Texas
García completed his master’s degree at age 20 and his doctorate at age 25, both from the Peabody Institute, and taught there for three years following his graduation. While he was still a student, one of the Peabody faculty invited him to attend a piano festival in Plano, Texas.
“That was my first experience with Texas,” he says. “I presented a solo recital in Plano, and I loved it. I really fell in love with what I saw. The people were so cordial. It was the middle of June so it was hot, but it was pleasant. Ever since I left Ecuador I always had a desire to live in a region that was closer to my cultural background.”
When he later had the opportunity to choose between Texas and Arizona, he chose Texas. “I’m so glad I did,” he says.
Texas State is glad he did, too.
“Washington García is an exceptional musical artist,” says Dr. Thomas Clark, director of the School of Music. “His playing is powerful and elegant. He has performed all over the world, and he brings back to Texas State a vital international perspective for our students. He has also shown great enterprise in establishing our highly successful International Piano Festival.”
García finds tremendous satisfaction in teaching. “When a student tells me, ‘You’ve inspired me,’ it really brings tears to my eyes because this is my purpose,” he says. “My purpose in life is to help others and to create opportunities for them.”
International Piano Festival
Having attended numerous piano festivals himself, García wanted to create one for Texas State. The university’s first International Piano Festival debuted in 2010.
“We choose by audition — live audition or DVD — 29 students, age 11 to 19, from all over the world,” García says. “In 2011 we had students from Indonesia, Singapore, China, Ecuador, Canada, Argentina and the United States. They come for a week of master classes, recitals, presentations, private lessons and they also have some extracurricular activities. In addition to that, they perform for the San Marcos community.”
One outstanding feature of the festival is the opportunity for students to interact with faculty from top conservatories in the United States as well as Texas State faculty.
“The festival creates opportunities for some of the most talented students around the world who do not necessarily have the financial means to be able to take lessons from faculty at Juilliard or Peabody or Texas State. For example, a professor from Juilliard charges $400 per hour. And for a student to be able to come here and be with us for the festival opens up doors they have never dreamed of.”
García is looking forward to Texas State’s new performing arts center, scheduled to open in 2014.
“The new performing arts center is a crucial part of the developing art community here,” he says. “Every major city of the world has a cultural signature, and that means a performing arts center or a cultural hall. Our performing arts center will be a gate for us to expand culturally.”