Jose Leonardo Leon has taught music and been taught music. He’s performed music and he’s seen music performed. He’s even been part of a Latin Grammy-winning recording with one of his musical idols. Now, the Venezuela-born trombonist is about to earn the ultimate degree.
“I want to teach in a university and have my own trombone studio. But the only way to do that is to earn my DMA.”
Indeed, Leon is living his dream. The student of Associate Professor of Trombone William Stanley is a musician in the United States—something he always aspired to as a child in South America. But it’s how he got here that’s truly inspirational.
Growing up in “the crazy house”
When Leon was a boy in Caracas, Venezuela, he was surrounded by music 24 hours a day. His entire family—his siblings, his father, his uncles and cousins—played music in some capacity.
“My household was always very musical. My uncle paid for his medical degree by playing the organ. I have cousins who sing and play percussion and cello. My dad played guitar to get through physical therapy after he was paralyzed in an accident,” Leon explains.
With so many musicians in such close quarters, Leon's family earned a reputation among their community.
“We lived in a three-story house and it felt like a conservatory. Everyone had their assigned room to practice in. The neighbors used to call us the crazy house.”
The craziness didn’t stop at the front door. Leon’s father encouraged him and his brother and sister to join El Sistema, an organization that teaches music to underprivileged children. Though El Sistema now has a strong presence in Colorado and throughout the United States, it was founded in Leon’s hometown. Leon himself joined the program in 1987, when El Sistema was just 12 years old.
“It was the thing I looked forward to. After school, we didn’t make friends in our neighborhood. We made friends in the orchestra. And though it was intense and we worked really hard, we didn’t see it as intense because we loved it.”
During his ten years with El Sistema, Leon got to travel around the region, performing in a highly successful youth salsa band. But as he got older, he wanted more.
“In Venezuela, if you’re from a working-class family you’re seen as a second-class citizen. I knew that the only way to escape that was to get a scholarship to study trombone in the United States.”
So he quit the salsa band, joined a local youth orchestra to build up his knowledge of classical repertoire and started sending applications north. By 1996, he was on his way to Miami.
A new world
Leon had a scholarship to attend Florida International University, studying trombone under Mark Hetzler. But before he could play music in an American school, he had to get better acquainted with American culture.
“Before starting at FIU, I went to New World School of the Arts to take English as a second language,” Leon says. “I was practicing on everyone. Even though I was grateful so many people in Miami spoke Spanish, I purposely tried to make friends with people who didn’t.
“You quickly lose any sense of shyness or embarrassment.”
Miami was a welcome stepping stone for Leon, and he stayed in the city to teach public school and earn a master’s degree from the University of Miami. When the struggling economy prevented him from pursuing a doctorate right away, Leon took advantage of the delay. For the next decade, he made inroads in the south Florida music scene, performing a couple of gigs with Gloria Estefan and regularly with the Miami Symphony Orchestra.
He was even invited to perform on an album with one of his childhood musical heroes.
“I ran into Ed Calle on a few gigs around Miami and we struck up a friendship because we are both from Caracas,” Leon explains. “Then a couple of years ago, he asked me if I wanted to be a part of his new project.”
Calle, a saxophonist and composer, was gathering 100 south Florida artists together to record an album, titled Dr. Ed Calle Presents Mamblue. The goal: to garner recognition for the region and win a Latin Grammy award. He succeeded at both.
“We were so happy. We didn’t get statues but our names are listed on the website. It was exciting even without the award to be able to record with some of my heroes. My name is right underneath Arturo Sandoval’s on the CD cover,” Leon says.
Hometown success story. In-demand musician. And now Grammy-winning artist. Leon was racking up the titles, but there was one more he wanted to claim.
After performing overseas and teaching in a private school for a few more years, Leon again started to consider doctoral studies.
He applied to many of the top music programs in the country. He decided on Boulder. “I came here to study with Dr. Stanley because he had the experience as a performer and an educator to guide me to the DMA.”
Leon says it took some time to adjust to being a full-time student again.
“I had been performing continuously for eight years. So preparing myself mentally for that was a challenge,” Leon explains. “But my experience here has balanced me out. I want to teach, and I feel like I’m accomplishing what I came here to do.”
And he’s kept busy: He’s been a TA and he’s taught master classes and performed as much as his schedule allows. Leon is also a performing artist for Michael Rath Trombones and Facet Mutes. But he’ll always have the words of his first trombone teacher guiding him.
“He told me the world is full of musicians and teachers of all kinds, but there’s no more room for the mediocre ones. You have to be different and you have to be excellent.
“When I think back on my career, I never thought I’d be back in school again after 10 or 15 years. But I want to offer the best I can to my future students and the musicians that I’m playing with. And that’s what inspired me to come here.”
Jose Leonardo Leon is among the 103 students graduating from the College of Music on May 10, 2018.