By Adam Martinez
As the days get shorter and the leaves start falling, students’ schedules have already become a solid routine. It's a Thursday night, and basketball intramurals are in full effect from 9-11:30 in the athletics building. These late-night games have become a staple in many students’ schedules, especially for senior Luis Montesdeoca, who assists in organizing the weekly event. After hours of playing basketball, Montesdeoca closes the gym around midnight. But despite the late hour, his night doesn’t end there; his next stop is the music building.
Montesdeoca is a senior at Purchase College who plays the French horn; he's one of only three in the performance program. He is also one of the least experienced musicians in the conservatory. He started playing his instrument in the later years of high school, barely notching five years of experience overall, putting Montesdeoca in a position behind most of his peers. However, he incorporates rehearsal into his everyday routine, seven days a week. He can only compensate for the lost time by practicing outside of his schoolwork.
Montesdeoca's schedule also includes keeping his body active and his mind at peace, squeezing in the gym at least five days a week, on top of classes and rehearsing independently. This schedule isn't practiced just to feel good but acts as a testament to the discipline he has displayed since arriving at Purchase in the spring of 2019.
“At my heaviest, I was over 260 pounds at five foot seven; I did not feel healthy, I didn't look healthy, and it took a toll on my mental well-being.”
Luis grew up in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, where he still lives when he's not dorming in the Olde. The neighborhood is filled with an array of cultures from all over the world. Columbian, Dominican, Mexican, Puerto Rican, and Chinese influences are woven throughout Sunset Park. Coming to Purchase was a kind of culture shock for Montesdoca, as the fast-paced city hustle and bustle is nowhere to be found in Harrison, New York.
“I don't want to say it's the most dangerous part of the city, but every place it feels like at some point had its fair share of violence and crime as gang affiliation is still very strong where I’m from. More specifically, my block in Sunset is extremely affiliated as it's something I’ve seen my whole life.”
Montesdeoca’s ability to adapt to any environment has helped him wherever he goes. His street smarts and determination have put him in a position to succeed after he graduates in the upcoming spring semester.
“It kind of reflects my personality, especially up here where a lot of people have no idea what it’s like in an urban environment. I tell people I’m from Brooklyn, and it's like you either get it or you don't.”
Montesdeoca was not necessarily drawn to his instrument, which came to him on a whim. With no musical background associated with his family and friends from Brooklyn, he wasn’t particularly interested in learning an instrument, especially a classical one like the French horn. It wasn't until his freshman year at Fort Hamilton High School that he had to take an arts credit and was given a class in music appreciation. Montesdeoca’s recalls the class’s teacher, an active trombone player who often performed in the city, playing a large role in his introduction to classical music.
“A group of students were invited to go listen to him play outside of school, which was one of the first steps toward my love for classical music as a whole. He was pretty rebellious, as he strayed from the course curriculum and gave us instruments to play. At first, I did it just did to get good grades, but slowly I started to fall in love with the French horn and wanted to keep getting better at it.”
For the remainder of high school, Montesdeoca took a majority of the music classes offered to him and was eventually selected to be in the school's concert band. He went on to play for programs such as All City, an ensemble comprised of public-school students from all five boroughs, where he was performing in midtown every Saturday morning for almost an entire year.
Senior year rolled around in April of 2019, and Montesdeoca still had no idea what was in store for him after graduation. He wasn’t even sure if he was going to college. At the very last minute, he decided to audition for the Purchase Conservatory of Music. After driving to Purchase from Sunset Park and auditioning for Professor Peter Reit, he was almost immediately accepted into the conservatory. The French horn was beginning to evolve from a hobby he loved to a career path for the future.
With all the joy Montesdeoca should have felt from being accepted into a prestigious music conservatory, there was still an overshadowing burden plaguing him: his mental and physical health.
“I was always the big kid growing up, getting picked on because of how I looked on the outside,” he said. “It’s not anyone's fault really, but in Ecuadorean culture, rice, bread, and baked goods are a huge part of the culture in general. My parents wanted to give me everything they didn't have when they were growing up, which included never going to bed hungry.”
Montesdeoca knew that something had to change - his lack of exercise and poor diet could eventually lead to extreme health complications. It could also impair his ability to play his instrument, which requires a large amount of lung capacity and stamina. However, the real turning point in his weight loss journey was a trip he took to Ecuador the summer before starting college. He was staying in Duran, where his family is from, and was immersed in the way of life in a developing nation. Duran may have lacked the material advantages of the United States, but the culture ultimately gave Montesdeoca a different view of things.
“My Uncle is a doctor over there, so when we stayed with him, he gave me freshly squeezed juices and vegetables for two weeks straight. When I returned to Brooklyn, I was getting compliments from people, saying how it looked like I had lost weight, even though I felt like I looked the same.”
These comments helped to boost Montesdeoca's confidence. If this was the reaction to his eating healthy for a few weeks, he couldn’t imagine what would happen when he added exercise to the equation.
“Before my physical health, it was a mental health thing first and foremost. Always being the last kid picked for sports and getting bullied in general was a feeling I absolutely hated.”
Montesdeoca has lost over 75 pounds in three years and is in the best shape of his life. Going to the gym five times a week and rehearsing daily means that his life revolves around these two commitments.
“Losing a lot of weight also helped me out with music. My lungs don't feel like they are being blocked when I have to play pieces ranging from 45 minutes to an hour. I feel like I’m a better person overall. What I used to feel 24/7 is now becoming a part of my past.”
Montesdeoca’s roommate, DeAnna Santiago, who plays the bassoon in the conservatory, acknowledges Montesdeoca’s drive and work ethic in everything he does as something that causes him to stand out amongst his peers.
“What makes him special is his dedication to everything he does,” says Santiago. “Whether that's music, fitness, or sports, he is going to give it his all and most likely succeed. It shows even at home, whether he's cooking something or simply cleaning his room. When he wants something done, his mind is 100% locked in.”
Taj Graves-Parker, a senior who plays trombone alongside Montesdeoca in the conservatory, has also recognized her peer’s dedication. Due to his strong will, she’s witnessed a significant improvement in his technical skill over the years.
“Seeing him excel at the French horn has been a truly inspiring thing, especially with him being so behind most of his peers,” says Graves-Parker. “In time, he has closed the gap drastically with the endless hours he puts into his instrument.”
His classmates aren’t the only ones who have noticed his drastic improvement. Montesdeoca has also been recognized by those who have helped him hone his craft through his time at Purchase. Peter Reit, the professor who oversaw Montesdeoca’s first audition, has also taken note of his student’s musical evolution. Reit has been Montesdeoca’s chamber music coach and private teacher since his first year at the conservatory and has gotten to follow his growth intimately.
“When he first came to school, he was struggling, says Reit. “Rhythm, overall sound, and sight reading were rough. Now he has a gorgeous sound, good rhythm, and sight reads well. His progress has been phenomenal, and I am sure the horn will be part of his life moving forward. He has leadership and confidence, can learn efficiently in the practice room, and most importantly, plays well with others. I am a happy teacher!”
After Purchase, Montesdeoca wants to work on getting his master’s degree and booking gigs in the city. However, another plan for the future has crossed his mind more than once. Montesdeoca often daydreams of combining two of his greatest passions: music and his Ecuadorian heritage. To find a way to increase the accessibility of classical music for the youth in Ecuador would be yet another chapter in his journey. While much of the future is still unclear, with his ceaseless dedication to getting what he wants, finding both peace and fulfillment in his future is well within Montesdeoca’s reach.