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Waites Still Hitting All The Right Notes, Produces Her Third CD

Published: December 18, 2012

Althea Waites has been playing the piano as long as she can remember, saying she really had no choice in the matter.

“I think music chose me,” she said.

Always drawn to the piano, even as a young child, she would wake up in the middle of the night, go down to the living room and just mess around on the piano.

“I didn’t know what I was playing and then my grandmother would come in and tell me to go to bed,” said Waites, currently in her 18th year at CSULB as a member of the keyboard faculty, “but they never had to tell me when to practice, I just kind of did it. As I progressed through the ranks, there was never enough time to do everything, but I always loved it.”

Waites has played throughout the United States, Europe and Asia as a soloist and chamber musician playing classical music, though she admits that sometimes the audience expects something different.

“Sometimes they figure if you’re black that you’ve got to play jazz or you sing,” she said. “It’s a stereotype and it happens all the time. You do what you do and hopefully your talent wins them over.

“I think what has always disturbed me, even now, some people are not willing to go beyond that stereotype,” she added. “Again, they think because you are black that that’s the only thing you should do and God forbid you do anything else. I refuse to be limited like that and I refuse to limit other people. I’ve never lived my life that way. I don’t stereotype anyone else. You do whatever you’re attracted to or whatever you want to do, and if you love something, it shows.”

Growing up in a family of musicians, it’s easy to see where her musical roots come from. Growing up in the heart of New Orleans, however, it’s difficult to see how she managed to steer her career away from jazz.

“Growing up in a family of musicians was an advantage,” she said. “My mother was a soloist in our church and then I had an aunt who played the cello and another aunt who was a pianist. On my father’s side, I had uncles who played in the brass bands that provided music for the funerals in New Orleans.

“What was so wonderful about all that,” she continued, “was hearing that music as I grew up. Plus being exposed to classical music from the time I was 4, I grew up with a wonderful background. I could hear the opera on the radio on Saturday morning and then we had a piano teacher who came to our home to give me lessons in classical music and my mother, who was a trained musician, could supervise my practice and she could always tell when there were wrong notes and when the teacher left she was right there checking everything out.”

Her love for classical music was family-driven beginning when she was a child because her household was filled with classical music.

“When I was growing up there were radio programs like the ‘Bell Telephone Hour’ and you could hear all these great artists,” said Waites. “When I was a kid, my grandfather used to turn the radio on and we would listen to those shows and then there was the Metropolitan Opera on Saturday morning. So my exposure to classical music came quite early and then, with my teacher coming on Saturday morning, I did all of those little classical pieces.

“I enjoyed it,” she added. “It was really like having the best of both worlds. I listened to those programs and my mother took us to ballet, took us to dance concerts and took us to the New Orleans Opera House, so I saw opera performances from the time I was 8.”

Waites’ first foray into higher education was at Xavier University in New Orleans where she received her bachelor’s degree in music. She then earned a full tuition scholarship to Yale University and its School of Music where she studied for two years and received a master’s degree in piano. While at each institution, she was able to travel all over Europe with each schools respective touring ensembles.

“And I continued to travel after that, doing concerts in London and Paris,” said Waites. “What is so great about that is I think everyone agrees that travel broadens you. You get to see the world from a whole different perspective and you get to experience how other people live.”

The student Waites turned to teaching fairly soon out of college.

“I did peace work, protested against the war in Vietnam, worked in the south in Alabama and Virginia, and moved to the East Coast and taught at Smith College which is in Northampton in Massachusetts before heading to California,” she said. “I’ve been out here now since 1975, so this is home.”

Her job at CSULB came about in 1994 while doing freelance work and is a perfect example of preparation and opportunity meeting at the right moment.

Althea Waites
Althea Waites

“I had a colleague at USC, a very fine pianist, and I was watching her do a recital at UCLA and one of her friends introduced me to someone on the faculty here and that’s how it started,” said Waites. “I love it here very much. Actually, at this university, the arts are given high priority. That’s one of the things I was really looking for, a place to teach where I could really feel not only comfortable, but where the arts were respected in such a way that not only would they be honored but there would be programs that support students who are coming in to study music, art, design, the whole kit and caboodle. In spite of all the challenges that we have I think things are starting to happen. I’ve been through a lot here, but it’s all been good.”

Waites credits her successful career as a performing artist to making her a better instructor simply because she has more to share with students.

“Being in the arena like that gives you a broader understanding of how things are done and then you can speak from a whole other context of how music should be taught as well as performed,” she said. “It keeps you active and it also gives you’re a different perspective on everything.

“It’s good to perform because the other component with any school besides just doing classes is that you are expected to do some creative work,” she added. “It’s hard to find time to do all these things. I mean, if you’re going to practice, you don’t practice for just 20 minutes a day. If you are preparing for a program, then it’s several hours a day. I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve been able to do both. When I need to prepare for concerts I just set aside time. You have to; otherwise why bother.”

Waites said she does an average of 25 or 30 concerts a year, get calls for orchestra dates, does solo recitals and chamber music with other groups, and when she has extended breaks can often take time off from to do residencies at other schools where she’ll stay for a week and do a special topic or master classes.

Most recently Waites completed her third CD titled “Celebration: Music of American Composers,” a work she is extremely proud of. Her previous CD credits include music by African-American composers titled “Black Diamonds,” and “Along the Western Shore,” a recording of works by California composers.

“This newest CD has been such an important project for me,” she said. “It has been three years in the making and it represents at this point, some of the best work I’ve done on American music so far.”

And, according to Waites, the latest CD was a true CSULB collaboration.

“I had a great team right here,” said Waites. “Matt Pogue who does graphics and web design (Music Department Technology) did the CD cover and Dave Goyette, who graduated from here, was the recording engineer, so I had a lot of people here who really put this together. I couldn’t have done this without them.”

The recordings were done in one of the recital halls during the summers of 2010-12.

“I began in 2009 just trying to decide what music I wanted to record and prepare. I had to learn the music and get the composers’ permission to record,” said Waites. “I did the first sessions in 2010 and this past August I finally finished everything. It was a lot of work, but I am very pleased with the results.”