This week, 17-year-old Colby Parker will pack his tuba and travel to Washington, D.C., where he and 19 other Presidential Scholars in the Arts will perform for President Obama and a crowd at the Kennedy Center on June 20.
While 16 of the artists were selected from other disciplines and 121 other Presidential Scholars are being honored for overall academic success, Parker is one of just four instrumentalists chosen from the entire country.
As if that were not enough, on July 3, he will arrive at the ultra-prestigious Tanglewood Music Center in Massachusetts for six weeks of study and performance, further polishing his musical expression at the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. To attend Tanglewood, Parker passed up a third summer, and nearly unheard of second year's full Emerson Scholarship, to the only slightly less eminent Interlochen Center for the Arts in Michigan.
In early September, he will cap an amazing summer with his entry at the New England Conservatory of Music, also in Boston. A scholarship will cover most of his tuition as he continues his climb to the top of the serious music world.
His is the kind potential that creates once in a lifetime opportunities for teachers such as Dr. Richard Mason of Georgia Southern University and Holly Lloyd of Langston Chapel Middle School. Mason, who has been seeing Parker for private lessons for six years and for the last two as a jointly enrolled university student, will accompany him to Washington as a Presidential Scholar Teacher.
Parker honored Lloyd, who introduced him to tuba in the sixth grade, as Bulloch County STAR Teacher earlier this year. She will also have a seat at the Kennedy Center to see one of her students perform there for the first time in her 22-year career.
But Parker is not the sort of prodigy who astounds his tutors with a magical grasp of music that comes out of nowhere. He didn't, as Bartok supposedly did, play piano before he could speak, or, like Mozart, compose at the age of 4. Nor is he some idiot savant who knows only one obsessive thing. You don't, after all, become Statesboro High School's valedictorian by playing a horn.
"Talent is somewhat misunderstood," Mason said. "When we hear of talent we think, well, he has a predisposition to be able to play well, or sometimes it's interpreted as, he can already play well the first time he picks up a horn. Talent doesn't do that. Talent is basically the height of a ceiling, how far you can go with it."
During a decade as a studio trombonist in Los Angeles, and 18 years teaching in colleges, Mason has refined his ear for talent. Now assistant professor of trombone and low brass at GSU, he identifies three elements needed for success: talent, intelligence and hard work.
Talent & Intellect
His teachers assert that even people without their trained ears can hear something special in the way Colby Parker plays.
"The first thing you would say is, it doesn't sound like a tuba," said Lloyd.
In other words, no "Boomp oomp oomp!" Parker avoided the sousaphone after spending freshman year with one in the SHS Marching Band. Nor did he settle for a safe, middling B tuba. What he plays is a C tuba, favored by professionals, and with it he has mastered pieces that would be easier on a smaller F or E-flat horn.
"He makes a beautiful sound and his range, his upper register, is incredible," said Mason.
But most obvious is the speed at which Parker can "get over the horn," as Mason says, with
physical gymnastics of fingers, lungs and lips.
Asked to name a favorite piece, Parker cites Ralph Vaughan Williams' intentionally difficult Tuba Concerto, which he mastered last year. He has used parts of it in audition tapes such as the one that won him a spot in the national Young Arts program in Miami in January. There he was selected as one of 60 finalists for further consideration by the Commission on Presidential Scholars and received a $3,000 cash prize.
His path has arced upward since he first made first chair in the District Honor Band in seventh grade, a feat he repeated while making All State Band for the first time in eighth. He continued in marching band through junior year, playing pit percussion instruments to avoid the sousaphone, and made a foray into steel drums with Statesboro Steel.
While officially still a junior and senior in high school, Parker's student status at the university allowed him to perform with both the GSU Brass Quintet, which Mason coaches, and the Georgia Southern Wind Ensemble. Parker has twice played concertos with the Georgia Southern Symphony.
Native musical ability, like general intelligence, can take a student who doesn't work very hard only so far, and Mason observes that hard work often compensates, to a certain extent, for a shortage in those departments.
"But Colby is one of those rare individuals who possess at an extremely high level all three of those things," Mason said.
His intellect hardly needs a witness. Parker won the county-wide STAR Student honor on the strength of his ninth-grade SAT scores, while most of his classmates were taking and retaking the test in 11th grade.
"But the thing that has impressed me most about Colby is his unbelievable work ethic," Mason said. "Where it's hard to get a student to practice two hours a day, Colby usually averages anywhere from six to eight hours a day. If he's not eating or sleeping, he's practicing."
The professor does not exaggerate. Parker's mother gave an independent estimate of 8-10 hours. Pressed to clarify, Parker said he now limits himself to six-and-a-half hours a day, six days a week, with only a couple of hours on the seventh.
That does not include the study of piano he initiated last fall with Dr. Michael Braz, or voice and ear training, all intended to deliver a complete musical package to the conservatory and every potential audience.
"I've had a lot of really talented kids that, at a certain point, they get tired," Lloyd said. "But he just keeps that drive, and a lot of that comes from the love of music."
There's a fourth factor. Parker has by all accounts a winning personality. Even though he practices like a sweatshop worker and delayed getting a driver's license until the week he graduated high school because driving took away from tuba time, he hasn't shut out his friends. They include other local teenagers, older students at GSU reportedly in awe of his accomplishments, and now, increasingly, other young musicians from the world over.
The thing that pained him about choosing Tanglewood is that he will miss friends who are returning to Interlochen.
"It's surprising, but almost all of the brass players in the orchestra that I was really, really good friends with last year are going back," Parker said. "They were all juniors, so they are almost all going back. But Tanglewood was a big opportunity for me, and I know some people who are going there too."
Last year, he made first chair of the World Youth Symphony Orchestra, meaning he was top tuba player of the top orchestra at Interlochen. So he has been there and done that, while the road through Tanglewood leads upward.
Lloyd also went to Tanglewood, but says she never had the talent for Tanglewood, a place
associated with names like Leonard Bernstein and Seiji Ozawa. It will be enough, she adds, just to have a student there.
"This is a once in a lifetime student," said Lloyd, "and like I told his mom when he was younger, I'm really glad that he walked into my band room, and did everything I could to keep him challenged."
Add a fifth element: the opportunities provided by Colby's parents and teachers. His mother, Georgia Southern Botanical Garden director Carolyn Altman, paid for his first summer at Tanglewood and drove him to years of lessons with Mason. Having played clarinet as a student, she became a professional dancer and choreographer, operating her own dance company for years in the Pacific Northwest.
"You know, I think a creative person who is able to take whatever it is that they love and apply that passion to whatever challenges intrigue them will be able to do well in this world, and we certainly need those people," Altman said.
When Parker would spend summers at the home of his father, Mark Parker, in Portland, Ore., he was provided lessons, beginning prior to seventh grade, first with Dr. John Keil Richards, retired tubist of 52 years with the Oregon Symphony, and more recently with that orchestra's current principal tuba player, JaT'tik Clark. Since graduation, he has been to Portland and had lessons with both.
For Parker, all of this points toward a career playing with a symphony, or teaching at a university or conservatory, or both. Chairs in major symphony orchestras are at least as rare as slots in the NFL or NBA, and the competition is international.
But he is seeking something other than fortune, as he hinted when asked the difference between merely playing the notes correctly and expressing himself as a musician.
"It's one of those things that you can't really define," Colby said. "As a performer it's just kind of something that you feel ... and as a listener it's just so much more interesting to listen to."