By Alyssa Pry
Think of the first time you picked up your instrument. Try to remember the sound (or noise?) it made when you first managed to play a note. Now fast forward two years. You sound...better? You’re learning, you’re making progress. But are you performing a solo in front of a packed house at Carnegie Hall? Are you zipping through cadenzas and 16th-note runs while a 100-piece band accompanies you?
Unless you’re Isaiah Figueroa.
Figueroa is a senior at Grand Street High School and began playing the euphonium just two years ago. On Tuesday, June 13th, he’ll be making his Carnegie Hall debut when he performs Pantomime with Grand Street Community Band.
“Originally I was supposed to play [the piece] for Memorial Day, but Mr. Worsdale brought up the idea for me to play it at Carnegie Hall with GSCB, and I decided that would be a much better idea,” Figueroa said with a laugh.
Figueroa grew up in a musical family - many of his family members sing and play piano - but he had never seen himself as a musician until his choir teacher, Laurel Stinson, encouraged him to try.
“I wasn’t really thinking too much about music in general, even though it’s always been around me,” he said. “Sophomore year came and one of my friends was in the select choir run by Ms. Stinson, and she thought I had a lot of talent and she seemed to see a lot in me,” he said.
Stinson says she could tell right away Figueroa belonged in the band room.
“I could hear from the way he sang that he probably had musical family members, grew up around music; [he has] natural musical talent,” Stinson said. “I asked if he was interested in learning an instrument and he said "sure". So he came up to the band room the next day during lunch.”
From there, his talent and his desire to learn seemed to spiral quickly.
“He was always the first in my beginning band class to get settled and start warming up,” Stinson said. “It was during those first few minutes I heard his musical prowess emerge.”
Over the last two years, Figueroa has performed in several Grand Street ensembles, and with the ISO Symphonic Band and All-City programs; he was a finalist in the Leonard Falcone International Euphonium and Tuba Festival; and will be attending the prestigious Tanglewood Institute this summer for the second time.
Listing his accomplishments and hearing him perform at such a high level after so few years of experience may shock and surprise people, but Figueroa sees his success from the vantage of what he’s put into it.
“I just started playing and then throughout the hours, I thought this is something I really wanted to do. So I started working harder and harder and progressing,” he said. “I wasn’t necessarily surprised, but I was happy, because I knew I was putting the work in.”
"I didn’t see too much of the value and I never wanted to do [music]. But after a while I started to see the change in myself and my view of the world."
When he graduates in June, he’ll head to SUNY Purchase to study performance and education, but this is just a scratch on the surface of his ambitions.
“I want to record, I want to play with major symphonies, whether it’s with them or in front of them,” he said. “I want to do everything I can, everywhere.”
It’s only been two years since Figueroa dove into music, but the change it’s made in his life has been apparent to everyone around him.
“It seems like yesterday he was the quiet, poised Sophomore-in-a-Freshman-class who barely said a full sentence,” Stinson said. “The past few years have been like experiencing a time lapse video in real life!”
Figueroa has seen himself change, too.
“I go to school at Grand Street and you see the people who teach there and the students who play; then you go to the 3rd or 4th floor, they don’t really care too much or see how valuable it is,” he said. “But I was just like them at one point; I didn’t see too much of the value and I never wanted to do it.
“But after a while I started to see the change in myself and my view of the world. Music is one of the things that bring people together in a sense,” he said. “It’s a way to express without words. It’s one of those things that will help anyone change.”
For Figueroa, the opportunity to play the euphonium and where it will lead him feels like fate.
"Every challenging thing I have learned has made me feel almost naturally one with the instrument, as though me playing it was meant to happen."