Meet Raymundo, Music Director

Raymundo Vizcarra conductingRaymundo Vizcarra has been the Redondo Union High School (RUHS) band director for four-and-a-half years. Before coming to RUHS, he was Band Director at Westchester High and at Fairfax High School. As band director at RUHS, Vizcarra is responsible for two jazz band classes, three concert band classes, the school’s marching band, pit orchestra, drumline and a number of other smaller ensembles. Under his direction, the Redondo Union marching band has performed in their circuit’s Grand Championships for the last three years, the advanced jazz band class has won festival sweepstakes two years in a row, the pit orchestra won Outstanding Youth Orchestra at the 13th Annual National Youth Arts Awards for the school performance of the Gershwin musical “Crazy for You.”

What inspired you to get into music?
I grew up listening to my mother singing. My mother was a pretty good singer in Mexico, she sang at festivals and town parties. She had a really nice voice and still sings in her church choir. My father was not in the picture until I was older.  He gave me a second-hand keyboard when I was about 12 years old. I noticed that I would play music by listening to the radio, I kind of trained myself to play music. The first ever classical piano piece that I learned by ear was Moonlight Sonata. Middle school was when I met one of my best friends who I still talk to, Peter Sanchez. He played saxophone and doodled around on his keyboard as well. We'd play songs together, and most of the time it was improvised. That was more of how I built interest, because I was always with him and we were always playing music.

In 9th grade I was allowed to play in band and I selected the trombone. I had this hunger for wanting to play an instrument. I think I immediately excelled on playing, all they needed to teach me was how to produce a sound. By the time I was a junior, I had been in honor band, participating in the Rose Parade and had performed with a few community jazz bands. I was teaching a group of my peers and it was really fun.  It was then I realized I wanted to be a music teacher.

My mom had to work two jobs, she had to go on public assistance at some point when she didn't have a job. She was supporting kids back home in Mexico as well as four kids in the States.I didn't grow up with video games or any of the latest toys. Which for me was perfect, I think, because by the time I was able to do music I didn't need anything else. That was my entertainment, practicing. Growing up in South L.A., you believed the only way to get out of there is to join a gang, or get into trouble and wind up in jail. Luckily my mother was very vigilant. For example, the only time I was allowed to be out until 2 a.m. was because I joined a band outside of school. It was my job, I was making money. My siblings were always upset because I got to stay up late.

Raymundo Vizcarra in classroomHave you been able to work with students who have faced similar circumstances?
I have. Especially in my first job at Fairfax High School I was able to relate to a lot of the students there, and I think that helped me to be successful and for them to trust me sooner. In my career I only hope that I can have served as a role model to some of them.

What is the application process like to work as a music director, specifically at the school level?
Most school districts require candidates to apply through a website called edjoin. When it’s a large district like LAUSD, you do it through the district directly. What’s similar is that you need to present documents like teaching credentials, proof of bachelor's degree via college transcripts, proof of completion for tests like the CBEST, cover letters, resumes and letters of recommendation.

What kind of skills do you need to develop when going for this kind of job?
We as music directors are required to learn every instrument imaginable that may be taught in a school, in addition to learning more about music history and theory. I had to take voice and join a choir to have the experience in case I ever had to teach both instrument music and/or choral if no instrumental music job was available. As music majors, we often find ourselves studying our principal instrument, piano and any instrument we may teach in the future. We continue to study until we can pass a proficiency exam for every instrument required to graduate.

How beneficial is it for students to have experiences doing things like performing live with “Crazy for You?”
This is as close to a professional musician's life as they can get. I believe it's important to have concert band, jazz band and all those other ensembles, but sometimes you don't think of going out into the real world as being a performer in a concert band. “Crazy for You” really gave students an understanding of what it's like to perform in a pit orchestra, because people make a living off that.

Raymundo Vizcarra selfieYou are currently studying for your Masters Degree at Michigan State University over the school breaks.  How much are you able to overlap your work here and what you need to do for your graduate program?
A project I'm doing with concert band now was based on this article by Lucy Green, who talked about using pop music in the classroom to engage students and build leadership skills. So far it seems really successful. We also implemented something in marching band from my music history class. There's a style of music called Tamboo Bamboo that comes from Trinidad and Tobago. I taught the students the history of it and where it came from.

Have your students been supportive of you going to school?
Yeah I think so. It does show them that continuing education is important. The fact that I'm going back to school, hopefully it inspires some of them to go for even their first degree.

Do you have a plan for where you’ll go once you finish your higher education?
I think I want to eventually teach at a college. At some point I'd like to teach other music teachers. Though I've only taught for 12 years, I've taught at every level, at various socio-economic backgrounds. In West Hollywood, where most of the students coming in were from L.A. Then in Beverly Hills, in Westchester and here in Redondo.  I've learned a lot from it, so I feel like I would have a lot to share upon becoming a college professor.

Have there been any unifying factors amongst the experiences of teaching at all those schools?
The commitment of the students. The want and need to succeed. As long as you encourage them and engage them, keep them interested and excited, students will always want to be better.

Raymundo Vizcarra awardsWhat kind of advice would you give to kids who want to go into the kind of work you do?
Be prepared to commit to long hours both in college and once you begin working, but once you begin working it is the most rewarding job. When students reach a level of performance that far surpasses any expectations, it’s the most wonderful feeling you can have to listen to said performance. There are conferences and workshops which help you in your professional development. For me, the American String Teachers Association was a big help.

Is there anything else you want to add?
What we do as music teachers is really mind-boggling. The most rewarding part of it is watching the students grow as performers and young adults. As they graduate, you remember how they started and what they sounded like, then you're hearing them when they're seniors and they're amazing. At times it doesn't feel like a job because it's so enjoyable. When it comes to them playing music, you just get to sit there and have a live concert every day.