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Immigration for the Love of Music: Leonor Falcon’s Musical Journey to New York

Leonor Falcon plays jazz violin with Maelo and the Latino Experimental Project; Amazonas Strings; and Chama. She also teaches violin and performs freelance with other ensembles.

 

I was born in Caracas, Venezuela. For me, growing up in Venezuela was great. I had a good family that put me in a good school. I had a music program at school and I was registered to learn violin at age 4. My father is a musician, he plays guitar. He was born in the States and lived here until he was about 10, then he came back to Venezuela. His musical influences are American, because he grew up here. He’s a blues, rock, funk guitarist, so when I was with him I got to hear all this music that was not from my country.

 In the beginning, music was just something that I had to do because I was registered. Then, I grew this love for it, I was good at it, and I really liked it. Because of my dad, I had a non-classical influence, so I was curious about how to do that with my instrument. I had a Beatles cover band when I was 16. I arranged the music for strings and a rhythm section!

 I went to the one music college in Caracas - Instituto Universitario de Estudios Musicales, now known as UNEARTE. I studied violin performance, and I had a really good teacher from France, Virginie Robilliard. The political and social situation wasn’t as bad as it is now, so I was able to enjoy my youth in a normal way - I would go out, I had concerts, I could drive around the city by myself. The government denies that there is insecurity or violence, but we know the truth.  Many people are victims of criminal activity. Kidnapping for ransom is extremely common. Everyone I know who is Venezuelan has been through a situation like being robbed at gunpoint. The last time I went there, three years, ago, after eight p.m. there was not a soul out on the street.

 I left when I was 21, not because of the violence, but because I wanted to study. I got accepted into a conservatory, Conservatoire de Musique de Genève, in Geneva, Switzerland. I studied my Masters in Classical Violin Performance for three years. Then I wanted to get into jazz, and I got into Queens College and came to New York.

It was an extreme change from Switzerland to the Bronx! I didn’t imagine what I was going to find. It was rough. But I always had that feeling that I didn’t want to leave, because i wanted to see what would happen. I really wanted to do get into the jazz music scene. My first job was as a violin teacher at the Mind Builders Creative Arts Center in the Bronx. I would take one or two classes at a time, find a few teaching gigs, and that’s how I paid my way through school. It was very difficult. I was studying something that was very different from what I was doing before, and I didn’t know anyone to play with, so for the first year I didn’t play any gigs. I would take the subway for hours to teach in Brooklyn. I had to take three buses from the Bronx to get to Queens college. I didn’t know how to improvise, and I was in jazz school, so it was embarrassing. But I figured it out!

Eventually I started to know more people and began playing more gigs. I went to jazz jam sessions across the city, where you can play with other musicians. I moved to Queens, and for a long time I went every Sunday to a jam session at Terrazza 7, in Jackson Heights.

I’ve had great experiences as a musician in New York. I played a concert last year with Akua Dixon, a cellist. It was in Brooklyn at Sista’s Place.You could feel something in the vibe of the place, it was amazing. They taught me about the history of the Black Panthers, and they were very interested in what was happening in Venezuela. That concert was recorded by NPR.

 

In January 2017, I got to play with Camila Meza, who is a jazz guitarist and singer from Chile. We played at the Jazz Standard, which is a really top jazz venue in the city. I was so excited because that’s where I go to see famous musicians perform, and it went really well!

I also played with Willie Colon a few times, which was incredible. We played at Fordham University in the Bronx, and at Citi Field in Queens! All these songs that I heard growing up, and he was right there! The musicians were amazing - the band was awesome. Salsa was born in New York, so it was the experience of real salsa.

My advice to musicians who want to move to New York and play professionally? If you choose to take an artistic path, you have to live and die for it. There’s no other reason. It’s not for the money. I don’t think that focusing on money helps you to get money. Put your art first, and if you put enough love and care into it, the other things will come. If you go into it thinking you’ll be rich and famous, that’s not a good reason. In a craft like this, you have to really love what you’re doing, enough to go through what you go through as an artist. You might go through some rough patches not eating exactly what you want, not buying stuff, because you want to dedicate yourself to your art. But if it’s what you really want to do it’s worth it, spiritually speaking, because it’s what you love to do! I meet so many people who say, “I wish I had taken that path but I was too scared,” or “My parents didn’t let me,” and that’s a shame, to have that regret your whole life. You also have to be patient, because it takes time. You need to meet people and create relationships. Keep going, and going, and going. I’m a happy person, because I really like what I’m doing.  

written by Katherine White, NYIC Communications VISTA 

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