Music Academy Spotlight: Hector Noriega

Music Academy clarinetist Hector Noriega

Hector Noriega, 19, studies clarinet with Yehuda Gilad. He started playing music when he was three years old in his hometown of Hermosillo, Mexico, and began playing clarinet at the age of 11. This is Hector’s second year in the Music Academy.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and style.

How did you find Colburn?
I found Colburn through Yehuda. Ever since I met him in 2012 at a clarinet festival in Mexico, it was my goal to study with him in high school. It took me three years, because two years before coming here I applied to another school that I was accepted to, but I couldn’t attend. I really, really wanted to study with him there, but it was kind of impossible because of money. Then, I came to Pasadena for a competition, and I won that competition. The prize was just money, but the judges were former students of Yehuda so they asked me, ‘What do you want to do? What are your plans?’ I told them, ‘I just want to study with Yehuda.’ And they called him and I got a surprise. Besides money, they gave me a lesson with him in his house and he told me, ‘You need to apply to Colburn. I know you, you have been accepted by me. You need to apply to the Academy.’ This was three years ago. So that’s how I found out about the Academy.

What was it like moving from home?
At first I felt a little sad because I was alone and didn’t know a single person here. I only knew Víctor, another clarinetist, because I met him at a competition in Europe. But I remember the first time I got here, I was really, really scared. This is the first music school that I’ve been to. When I got accepted, I was talking to my mom and I said, ‘Mom, I don’t know what I’m going to do besides having lessons. I have no idea how things work here.’ But Colburn is great, and you’re surrounded by great musicians. Listening to them motivates you to do more, like during Performance Forums every Thursday. I love to go every week to listen. It’s very inspiring. And Los Angeles has everything that I never thought I could have, like these great concert halls, the opera; you just have everything. It’s a really amazing experience being here.

What’s your favorite thing about Colburn?
Well, everything’s great, but I think the best part is the great faculty and the level of students. Every single student, no matter if they’re getting a Bachelor’s or an Artist Diploma, plays great and has something really special about them. You can get help from anyone, from a teacher or from your chamber coach. You can even play for your classmates, like, ‘Hey I have an audition, can you listen to my excerpts?’ So you can get thoughts from everyone. You don’t have a competitive environment where people are like, ‘Oh I don’t want to help you because I want to win this.’ Everyone lives here, including me, so it’s very exciting to have that kind of support. It’s like a big family.

Chamber music here is something so exciting that I have learned. I played a little bit before coming here, but it’s exciting to have the opportunity to play every single week for your coach. He has helped me a lot and has taught me how to work in a group. It’s very hard for me, since I don’t have a lot experience working in groups, so I’m learning a lot.

Why did you pick the clarinet?
I wanted to play both saxophone and clarinet when I was young. I still play saxophone, but not with a good quality of sound because I’m not taking saxophone lessons. I started because I wanted to imitate my cousins. They’re in a group that plays music that we play in Mexico, like cumbia and banda, and they play both saxophone and clarinet. When I was a little kid, I used to go to parties where that group was playing, and I could be there for five hours just watching them play. I always wanted to play both, but I couldn’t play the clarinet back then because I couldn’t even hold it. My fingers and arms were too small at that age.

My cousin was my first saxophone teacher, and I started clarinet lessons when I was 10. But he told me, ‘You need to go to the orchestra.’ I wasn’t born in the classical world, I didn’t know anything about classical music. But he told me, ‘You need to start playing with people your own age and play with a youth orchestra because you need to be in your own environment.’ I was just starting to play clarinet and I wasn’t that good, and I didn’t know how to play it that well, which is why I started with the saxophone in orchestra. But since there isn’t a lot of repertoire for the saxophone, I was playing repertoire for the second horn. One day, the conductor told me, ‘You have studied clarinet for one year now and we don’t have a clarinet, so can you please play the clarinet?’ And that’s when I started playing the clarinet in orchestra. Now that I’m focused on classical music, I don’t play saxophone that much.

Why did you decide to pursue classical music?
I didn’t know anything about classical music when I started playing. I didn’t even know Mozart, or Beethoven—I mean, I knew Beethoven because of the movie, but not as a composer. When I first got to the orchestra, I searched for clarinet music and I remember listening to a famous piece from a Mexican composer, Danzón No. 2 by Arturo Márquez. The beginning is a clarinet solo, and when I listened to it, I was like, ‘Wow I need to play this solo.’ After that, I listened to a Mozart concerto that I fell in love with. I remember starting to practice that concerto, but I didn’t know that an A-flat clarinet existed, so I was playing it with a B-flat clarinet. And like that, I started to search more and more and play different pieces, so now I love classical music.

Why do you love music?
I was born with music. My mom told me, ‘Since you were 9 months old, you were always holding your baby bottle with your fingers like you were playing a trumpet.’ Everyone in my family, almost all my cousins and uncles, is a musician—but not a classical musician. I’m the first one. All my family was always listening to music. I was born with it, so that’s why I love it. I can’t just leave music, it’s inside me.

What are your plans for the next few years?
I’m a senior, so I need to audition, but I want to stay here and start my Bachelor’s. But in the future, I would love to be in a major orchestra in the US or Europe. That’s my goal.

What are some of your hobbies outside music?
I like baseball. My dad was a baseball player when he was young, never professional, but just for fun. I love to watch baseball. I follow the Dodgers all year, and in the winter, we have the Winter League in Mexico where I follow my team. I also love horses. My family is from a small town where the main industry is ranching. I’ve been riding horses since I was 2 or 3 years old, and I love horses. It’s something that I love to do when I go back because I don’t have that here. I think I love more horses than baseball. I also like to do sports and run.