Washington Garcia’s life has been a bit like a movie.
The pianist admitted that his journey from Ecuador to Omaha — by way of Japan, Italy, Israel, China and elsewhere — is a fascinating tale, but it’s one that led him to his current position, which he hopes will help push music in Omaha in exciting directions.
In January, Garcia, 38, began his position as director of the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s School of Music, which was formed this year after being a department for many years.
Garcia was praised long before he took his current post. “Prodigy” is a word he’s heard a lot.
“I didn’t have a normal life,” Garcia said.
Born in Quito, Ecuador, Garcia began playing music at age 4. He performed at his first national competition at 11 and finished his high school-level studies at 13. He was accepted to Juilliard at 15. His college-level courses were finished at 18, his master’s at 20 and his doctorate by 25.
Everyone in Garcia’s family is a musician. His mother played piano. His siblings, Paulina and Esteban, are both engineers, but they play piano and violin, respectively.
When his older sister began taking lessons at Ecuador’s National Conservatory of Music, Garcia tagged along.
He wasn’t old enough to enroll, but he wanted to be with his sister and around music. The 4-year-old’s skills soon exceeded those of his older classmates.
Garcia formally enrolled at the conservatory the next year and began skipping grades, finishing the high school level at 13.
While attending high school, he received college-level training in piano and also took private lessons. Most of his time was spent playing piano. Outside of school, lessons, practice and performances, Garcia also played a little volleyball.
But piano was his priority.
It paid off.
At age 11, Garcia began winning piano competitions and getting paid for his performances. At 14 he performed with Ecuador’s national symphony and traveled to Chile to perform.
As a teenager, Garcia’s dream was to go to the Juilliard School, and his parents surprised him with a trip to New York. He would be able to visit the prestigious school and meet with the admissions director.
Garcia decided to try to impress the admissions director with his skill and request an audition.
“I do believe in impossibles,” Garcia said. “I don’t believe in nos.”
It worked. Garcia was granted an audition and spent the week holed up in his host family’s home practicing rather than touring the city.
His audition went well, and Garcia was offered a full scholarship.
Though his parents were encouraging, they also tried to be realistic.
“They freaked out,” he said.
Music was not seen as a viable career in Ecuador, Garcia explained.
“They had certain doubts,” he said. “The more time that passed by and the more I kept winning prizes and recognitions, they learned more about the career. They started being more comfortable.”
Garcia’s parents, a neurosurgeon and an accountant, now both retired in Ecuador, became more and more encouraging.
When Garcia at age 17 was offered a chance to perform in Japan, his family couldn’t afford to fly him there. His mother asked the Ecuadorean government and friends, but she couldn’t find the money.
Eventually she requested a meeting with a Continental Airlines executive. She sat down and cried, explaining that her son was capable of so much, but the family’s ability to send him around the world was limiting.
The executive agreed to help, and until he graduated from college, Garcia was given plane tickets to wherever he was invited to perform.
“She and my father showed me the path, but I had to walk it. How? Being the greatest student I could. Practicing. Being the greatest pianist I could,” he said.
Garcia enrolled in college to become a computer engineer, but he quickly decided it wasn’t for him. A grant from the Kennedy Center allowed him to enroll at Johns Hopkins University’s Peabody Institute, where he received both master’s and doctoral degrees.
His performances were praised by his teachers as well as Ecuadorean diplomats.
“He is a wonderful musician and a great cultural ambassador of our country,” a cultural attaché told the school’s Peabody News in 2002.
Graduating at 25, Garcia is the youngest Latin American to receive a doctorate in piano performance from the university.
And though he has performed and lectured all over Europe and South America as well as Israel, Japan, China, Indonesia and Taiwan, Garcia has always been drawn to teaching.
“My purpose in life is to serve,” Garcia said. “It isn’t for fame or glory. God knew I had that talent and (could) create opportunities for others.”
Garcia wanted to become a professor. He became an assistant professor at Texas State University. He became the assistant director of the music school there shortly thereafter. He became an American citizen in 2013.
While at Texas State, Garcia founded the International Piano Festival and worked on a young artists competition and international concert series, drawing musicians from around the world to central Texas. He hopes to bring similar programs to Omaha.
After an international search, Garcia was chosen as the first-ever director of UNO’s School of Music, based on his past as a pianist, professor and administrator.
“Washington has a great track record as a teacher (and) performer,” said Gail Baker, dean of UNO’s College of Communication, Fine Arts and Media. “We’re excited that he’s here. He shared our vision in terms of our students being our priority.”
Garcia moved to Omaha late last year.
The creation of UNO’s School of Music comes at the same time the university’s College of Communication, Fine Art and Media created a School for the Arts, which encompasses theater, art, art history and writing.
That puts three schools — communication, arts and music — under the umbrella of the college.
Students are excited.
Music at UNO is on the rise, said Grace Kolbo, a 21-year-old junior vocal performance major. Students and faculty were already doing exciting things, Kolbo said, but she hopes Garcia’s presence will present even more opportunities for performances.
“I admire and appreciate Dr. Garcia’s willingness to help students in any way he can. He’s made a point to get to know the School of Music’s student body right away, in his first semester at UNO,” Kolbo said. “He is ... ensuring that our voices are heard and our needs are met.”
Garcia is already working on new programs. He’d like to create an opera program, find a way to work with KVNO and incorporate more music technology into classes.
Since moving to Omaha, Garcia has enjoyed the city. His wife, Valeria, works for Omaha Performing Arts.
When he’s not teaching, practicing on the baby grand in his office or planning another international recital date, Garcia enjoys running and playing with gadgets.
Much of his time is spent as a teacher and school administrator, and he’s been working toward his dream of starting the Omaha International Music Festival.
“Everybody who is in the performing arts in the community, we would get together and collaborate to establish Omaha as one of the top cultural and academic destinations in the U.S.,” he said.
Garcia already has met with representatives of Opera Omaha, the Omaha Symphony and Omaha Performing Arts about the idea, and he’s optimistic.
“Omaha is a city that’s open and supportive of collaboration,” he said.