Roque (pronounced Rocky) Diaz talks a mile a minute and exudes optimism. A trumpeter, educator and scholar with two master’s degrees, ABD for his Ph.D. (ABD means “all but dissertation,” and he’s working on that now), he wants to change how music is taught.
His plan: “Dismantling and decolonizing the American music education system, which is very traditional: band, orchestra, choir, jazz. There are other ways to reach students. Especially if we’re talking about diversity in terms of racial diversity. How do we get more students to come in? Are we putting a cap on their creativity because we’re not being creative?”
Earlier this week, Diaz’s vision and passion earned a stamp of approval from the Bush Foundation, which awarded him one of 24 Bush Fellowships for 2020. Nearly 750 people applied. The two dozen selected will each receive up to $100,000 over one or two years to become better leaders.
Diaz was born in Puerto Rico. His father was in the military, and when Diaz was a child, the family migrated to eastern North Carolina.
“My dad went through a lot of racial prejudice, being a Puerto Rican in the Army in the 1960s and ’70s,” Diaz said. He and his brother were the only two Puerto Rican students in Morehead City, a small port town. Both joined the band program, where Roque played trumpet.
“Growing up, I heard salsa music, Latin music and traditional music from my dad’s village. I had a passion to play that. My music teacher in high school said, ‘I don’t know that style. You can focus on that in college.’
“In my senior year in high school, we got a jazz band. Finally! But it was very traditional. A lot of Earth, Wind & Fire charts, which were great, but I wanted to play some Tito Puente, some really hard salsa!
“When I got to college, it was very black or white. You chose the classical route or the jazz route. The jazz route was the basics, swing – you went from Ellington to Basie. If you wanted to advance in jazz, you had to go into hard bop. It was fine, but I wanted to get into my culture.”
Today Diaz is the director of school partnerships at MacPhail Center for Music. He is pursuing a Ph.D. in music education and creative studies and media at the University of Minnesota. And he wants to make music education more inclusive, culturally diverse and relevant to students.
His path to Minnesota was circuitous and, well, rocky. He spent two and a half years at East Carolina University in Greenville before he was bitten by the performance bug. His trumpet teacher suggested he get some experience on the road. “School will always be there,” he said. Diaz left without graduating and played professional trumpet for the next 10 years.
He had an extensive marching arts background and was hired for the touring show “Blast!,” which “basically takes drum corps and puts it into a Broadway show.” Diaz toured with “Blast!” for three years, spent summers in Japan and lived in London. He got his union card and traveled the world with Josh Groban and hit shows including “Jersey Boys,” “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” and “Chicago.”
“Blast!” had a diverse cast. But “when I started getting into Broadway pits and subbing at orchestras, I lost a lot of my voice.”
Diaz developed performance anxiety and took time off. Then he went back to school, finished his undergraduate degree online and earned his first master’s degree at the University of Las Vegas. “I kicked it into high gear,” he said.
In Las Vegas, he taught at a Title I school where most of the students were African-American and Latinx. He saw Latinx students who weren’t being taught because teachers didn’t speak Spanish. When he asked, “They just sit there?” he was told, “Well, yeah, and we get more money. The more students, the more funding.”
He took a teaching job at a for-profit school in Singapore. “Anytime I asked for something, the answer was ‘Sure!’ I saw the dichotomy between those who have and those who have not.”
By then, Diaz was married, and his wife was expecting their son. They moved to Canada, where Diaz completed his second master’s degree in Winnipeg. The next step was a doctoral program. But what kind? “If I got a doctorate in music performance, I wouldn’t have a full-time job. And I had a lot of student debt.” He wasn’t interested in a traditional music education Ph.D., where “you teach music teachers to teach band, orchestra or choir.”
An adviser pointed him toward a paper written by University of Minnesota music professor David E. Myers. “He wrote about redesigning the undergraduate music degree to include diversity, a business background, and all these tools that will make students come out employable and sustainable,” Diaz said. “I reached out to him and it was a great connection. And that’s how I came to Minneapolis to study.
“I knew I had to work very hard. But I knew I could do it, so I was motivated.” He completed his coursework in two years and turned to his dissertation. In 2018, a position opened up at MacPhail that “correlated directly with my research.”
Meanwhile, in May 2016, Diaz learned about a meeting in Washington, D.C., that cemented his passion to advance diversity, equity and inclusion in the American music education system. Convened by the NEA, the focus of the meeting was on diversity, equity and inclusion in the arts. Michael Butera, then head of the National Association for Music Education (NAfME), told participants that his board was white and his organization wasn’t diverse because “blacks and Latinos lack the keyboard skills needed for this field.”
Butera’s comments were reported in the national press. Diaz recalled, “I was like – oh, man. They tried to keep it low, but it went viral, and everyone was outraged. So was I. Why was this person of power saying this? That really set me off.
“Once I understood the research, I realized this goes back hundreds of years. You see this in orchestras all the time: putting diversity teams together, funding for this, putting statements out, spending millions of dollars. My question is, why hasn’t any of this changed? Part of my dissertation research is doing a timeline of decades after decades of saying the same thing. The needle has barely moved.”
For his dissertation, Diaz is studying two organizations that are working toward diversity, equity and inclusion: Augsburg College and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. He plans to amplify his research by looking closely at statements being made by arts organizations in the wake of George Floyd’s death, studying the follow-through and holding people accountable. He’ll share his discoveries with other higher education and music institutions.
He’ll also return to the trumpet. “When I first moved here, I got into the trumpet scene fast, performing and subbing. Then I realized the work I had to do with my research and put the horn down. My trumpet is what got me out of east North Carolina and took me all over the world. I’ll get it back and I’ll be stronger than ever. It’s just part of the journey.”
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Correction: An earlier version misstated Diaz’s connection to the 2016 NEA meeting in Washington, D.C.