Dominique Valenzuela will never forget where he’s come from.
The Odessa native violinist, who is currently finishing up his master’s in orchestral performance over at the Tianjin Juilliard School in China, will soon be moving back to the United States to start his second master’s, this time in orchestral performance, at the Juilliard School in New York City.
This week, Valenzuela returned home to help out high school orchestra students at both Permian and Odessa High as part of this week’s Cassatt in the Basin.
Cassatt in the Basin is a music educational program that brings the Cassatt String Quartet to West Texas bi-annually to inspire and work intensively with students (from elementary to college) and help expand their horizons as well as develop people through music.
He arrived back in Odessa on Monday this week and on Tuesday got a chance to work with students over at the same high school he was briefly apart of before going to the University of North Carolina School of Arts.
“Odessa, Midland, this is my home,” Valenzuela said. “It’s really nice. I just flew in from China so I haven’t had much of a chance to explore. But driving through University (Ave.) and seeing all the places that I grew up recognizing, it’s been really surreal and to speak with these kids has been interesting. It’s like looking in a mirror of my past. I used to sit in these same chairs. It’s a very surreal experience and it’s exciting to come back home and see where I’ve come from.”
Growing up, Valenzuela had a rough life, as his family grew up in different places around Odessa and Midland with food and money being scarce.
“I would say that in general, everybody faces hardship in their life,” Valenzuela said. “I grew up with bouts of homelessness. I grew up in a very impoverished family. There were times where we were living in cars or didn’t have enough food to eat. I always saw my mom working hard and my family working hard as best as they could.”
It was when he was attending school at Crockett Middle School when Valenzuela discovered the violin and soon his love of music began.
Cassatt in the Basin helped fuel his passion for playing the violin when he was at Crockett Middle School and Odessa High.
It was the summer of 2012 when Valenzuela was accepted into the University of North Carolina School of Arts where he eventually finished his high schooling through the preparatory school.
Valenzuela would study in North Carolina for eight years before getting accepted into the Juilliard School in Tianjen, China.
Valenzuela shared his life story with students at Odessa High on Tuesday and took questions.
“When I found music, I found my passion,” Valenzuela said. “At first, I didn’t know I could make a career out of music. I just loved music. The students were asking about how I got into Juilliard and my answer was simply put: work hard and it’s so important that you find your passion and focus on that, whatever it is. It could be math or music or science. You just find that one thing you love and you get really good at it. Then you’ll find that you’re good at other things too.”
Another question that a student asked Valenzuela was about how to deal with failure.
“I think that the advice I gave to him was whenever you have failure, you have to take that as a win,” Valenzuela said. “It may not feel as good as a win but to experience failure is to experience an opportunity to learn from your mistakes and learn from the experience and keep going.”
He brought up his favorite athlete the late Kobe Bryant as one of the people who have been a source of inspiration.
“I talked about athletes who mentally have put in more work than they have physically,” Valenzuela said. “Of course, physically, they’ve put in a lot of work. Kobe Bryant and Michael Phelps always talked about how they think about what they do. They have similar philosophies that musicians and athletes are beginning to embody now.”
Members of his family, including his mom Amanda Valenzuela and his aunt Crystal Rodriguez, have also been sources of inspiration for him.
“Of course, my mom and my aunt because these are two women who worked so hard and dedicated their lives to their children,” Valenzuela said. “Because they were immigrants, their struggles were very different from what I had.”
When talking about where he came from when growing up and where he is now with getting his master’s at Juilliard, Valenzuela said he’s been humbled by the experience.
“I look back on my life and there’s nothing I would have done that I could not do without the team of people who have helped me overcome all the challenges life has thrown at me,” Valenzuela said. “There’s a great sense of accomplishment in me. I just graduated from the Juilliard School in china and now I’m going to the Juilliard School in New York. It’s a school that has a premier feel to it. Just the name is something I am very grateful that I can attach to my name. I feel accomplished and yet I feel there’s more work to be done.”
Cassatt in the Basin founder and violinist for the Cassatt String Quartet in New York Jennifer Leshnower talked about having Valenzuela return to Odessa for this week.
Like Valenzuela, Leshnower is a native Odessan.
“Dominique is an example of a student from Odessa, just like me who found a passion for music as a young age and with the help of Cassatt in the Basin and his teachers and community at large, he has been able to have a series of training at different schools,” Leshnower said. “It’s important to Cassatt in the Basin to give opportunities to students wherever they want to go. Through music, one’s life can be improved. The discipline can be applicable to anybody’s life. Having the knowledge of music enriches one’s life. It advances the mind and feeds the soul.”