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Central Washington University

CWU Bidding Farewell to Concertmaster and McNair Scholar Luis Perez Canabal

Monday, May 17, 2021

After three years of intense study in the Central Washington University Department of Music, Luis Perez Canabal will be graduating next month with a degree in Music Performance and countless other achievements under his belt. 

The Venezuelan-born musician and CWU McNair Scholar is preparing for the next chapter of his education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he will begin pursuing his master’s degree this fall.

Canabal, whose eventual goal is to earn a doctorate and teach music, was awarded an Advanced Opportunity Fellowship and a teaching assistantship at the Mead Witter School of Music. He’s quick to point out how much Central helped him reach such an elite stature.

“Sometimes, you just feel it when something is right,” Canabal said. “When I auditioned for Central, I felt that the staff wanted me there, and genuinely wanted what was best for me in the long term. That alone was enough for me to want to go here.”

CWU was an excellent fit for Canabal, who introduced himself to the Music Department by winning the annual concerto competition — going up against graduate-level performers — after only two years of private lessons. He also was accepted into the McNair Scholars program, which seeks out students from underrepresented communities with the drive and commitment to succeed, and supports them in their pursuit of post-graduate degrees.

Since that time, he has earned the title of Concertmaster, a prestigious seat in the orchestra who is responsible for leading the group in tuning prior to performances, among other duties.

“Honestly, when I started this, I didn’t know what I was doing,” Canabal said. “I didn’t come to Central thinking I would win competitions and shoot for the stars. I think once you really get into what you’re doing, that’s when you start learning and growing.”

Canabal began his music career in Venezuela’s popular public music education program, El Sistema. The group-learning program offers students a chance to learn music for free — if they put in the time. 

The program is intensive, requiring students to perform a concert every three weeks and practice 12 hours a day on weekends. El Sistema’s pedigree is difficult to overlook, counting Los Angeles Philharmonic conductor Gustavo Dudamel and many other prominent figures among its graduates.

“It’s different than any other program in the world because of its emphasis on providing free musical instruction to kids,” Canabal said. “They facilitate instruments for you and provide free lessons. That’s how I got started in music.”

Many programs around the world have sought to replicate that kind of success, but few have been able to match El Sistema’s track record. But that hasn’t stopped one of the Northwest’s finest ensembles, the Spokane Symphony, from trying.

Before Canabal came to CWU in 2019, the symphony brought him from Kansas to Washington to help design and facilitate its youth education effort. After two years at Spokane Falls Community College, Canabal transferred to CWU to earn his bachelor’s degree in Music Education, seeing teaching as a way to give back to the community that afforded him the opportunity to pursue a musical career.

While at CWU, he worked extensively with Professor of Violin Carrie Michel, who was impressed with Canabal’s command of musical communication.

“They say that 95 percent of your time in practice is spent on learning specific techniques, but that’s not the important part,” Michel said. “The important part is communicating with the audience, and that’s what Luis does so well. He’s so immediate in his playing.”

Outside of his studies, Canabal has produced a series of violin lesson videos in Spanish that are designed to meet future music students where they live and show them they belong in the musical field as much as anyone else.

“When you see someone from the same background as you explaining things in a familiar way, you can relate to it,” he said. “It makes the learning experience easier.”

In that same spirit, Canabal and other CWU Music Education students have spent time working with Yakima Music en Acción (YAMA), a nonprofit that strives to teach music to children in underserved and underrepresented Spanish-speaking communities in the Yakima Valley. The program’s goal is to brighten students’ futures and grant them opportunities in life they might not otherwise have had.

“You can give a kid an instrument instead of a gun,” Canabal said. “That can make a huge difference.”

Michel sees music as something that can be pursued in many ways, echoing the CWU music program’s emphasis on exploratory education and real-world experience. She hopes those considering a career in music aren’t intimated by the pressure that comes with performing.

“There’s a lot of people wanting to teach music in public schools who don’t have time to practice the hardest repertoires and most advanced techniques,” she said. “It’s OK to focus on being able to express simple things in an effective way.”

Luis Perez Canabal is one of those individuals, and his impact on the CWU Music department will be felt for years to come. As Michel noted, Canabal reminds us that music is within reach for anyone who dreams of speaking its universal language.

“Some people can just break your heart with the simplest of pieces,” she said.

Media contact: Rune Torgersen, Department of Public Affairs, rune.torgersen@cwu.edu.

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