What can I say about someone I never knew? Tony Cantu, President of Fresno City College, an influential figure in Fresno just passed away this last Easter Sunday. I didn't know him, but I might have shook his hand a year ago, not realizing who's hand it was.
Why I am writing about someone I don't know? Because without my knowledge, he played in instrumental role in my success. Because of him, I can proudly call myself a full-time musician.
A few days ago, I was asked by Fresno City College to submit my current photo, a bio of what I've been doing, and a letter of how much receiving the Outstanding Musician Award meant to me. For the life of me, I couldn't remember receiving this award.
At my high school graduation, I wasn't the student who got the baccalaureate recognition. I wasn't the student who earned any academic sashes or pins. Nor was I the student who got any kind of scholarships to any UC schools. In fact, I didn't get into any prestigious schools like all my friends did. I was that student who got left behind. Therefore, I went to Fresno City College.
I still remember my first day of piano class. As we went around the room to introduce ourselves and shared our hopes and dreams, I said to the whole room, "I'm going to be a Psychology Major. Because my parents didn't want me to a Music Major. But I want to work in the performance arts. I want to play, sing, dance, act, and do...everything!!!" I also remember the reaction from the other students. There were eye-rolls, there were head-tilts, there were "wows", and glances of skepticism.
In the three years I was there, I fully immersed myself into the music program. I joined the Concert Choir, and City Singers. I even got paid to accompany both groups. I took all the required music classes to transfer, not knowing exactly where I was suppose to go. I also performed in every monthly recital I could. If I was lucky (worked hard), I got selected to perform at the Honors Recital at the end of each semester. I even got to participate in a master class with the former conductor of Fresno Philharmonic.
All the professors had a "plan" for me. I didn't know this at the time. I learned hard lessons in not turning my work in on time. I also learned hard lessons in not practicing. I honestly can't count how many times all my music professors at some point said, "Get your act together. Stop partying. Stop hanging out with your friends outside the quad. Do your work. Practice. Go to class."
At the end of my three years, it was time for me to make those college decisions. I had lingered around a community college long enough. I had to transfer somewhere. My options were limited. I didn't make grades to transfer to a UC school like my Chinese parents wanted me to. My next option was Fresno State. In my parents eyes, why not stay in Fresno if you got into Cal State Fullerton or Long Beach? All Cal States were the same, right? I knew for sure I wanted out of Fresno. I discovered a small college in Riverside. I would get a partial scholarship for being a pastor's kid. I also found out if I got into as many performance groups there, I would get partial scholarships for every group I was in. I had a ticket out of Fresno and I took it.
My last year at Fresno City College, under my piano professor Olga Quercia's tutelage, I performed the Mendelssohn Piano Concerto No. 1 in G Minor, Opus 25 with the Concert Band. The performance was a success, and one I will remember for the rest of my life. With that concerto, I auditioned for several scholarships that would help send me off to college. This was 16 years ago. I don't remember which awards and scholarships I received and which ones I didn't get.
Fast forward to a few days ago when I was added to a group to help remember Tony Cantu. It was a group specifically for former students who had received the FCC Outstanding Musician Award. I voiced my concern that I don't remember getting such an award. Come to find out, I was the very first recipient. What does this have to do with Tony Cantu? He was the anonymous person who established this scholarship. In that moment, I took a pause from my day to think about the significance of this discovery. It left me speechless.
Here I am, sitting in the Plaza Square of The Music Center in beautiful Los Angeles, after playing for company classes with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater for the week. I had just told the company teacher about what an honor it is to be the first recipient of an award from someone who chose to remain anonymous. I started to tear up. I was crying for someone I didn't know. I was overwhelmed with sadness that I didn't get a chance to thank him in person. Then he said to me, "This here, what you just told me, is exactly what you should write about."
President Cantu, I never knew you. If I knew just last year, I would have thanked you in person. But, thank you for believing in me. I am living my dream working with the "crème de la crème" of the dance world. I have played, sung, danced, acted, and have done...everything I have ever dreamed of doing.
With much gratitude,
Rebecca Wong Burdett
Never Forget the People Who Helped You Get to Where You Are