“Studying music made me really curious about everything. I love science and I love history. It gave me a curiosity about everything in the world that I don’t think anything else would have.”
Dwight Rivera doesn’t precisely remember beginning his piano studies as a Special Music School kindergartner back in 1996, the year the school first opened. But he knows this: “It just felt natural. It always felt like home.” He calls his years at SMS, which he attended through fifth grade, “an amazing, amazing experience. There’s no other place like that school on earth.”
“I don’t know anyone else who’s as close with their friends from kindergarten as we are,” says Dwight, who’s still great friends with his piano teacher, Elena Hutchins. The strong sense of community he experienced at SMS – along with the stellar music education – prepared him for success at LaGuardia High School and Berklee College of Music, and as a professional musician and composer. “It really helped me build on a strong foundation in every other step of the way in this career. It just gave me confidence and a work ethic.” The rigor of the music training, and his teachers’ ability to illuminate other subjects and life experiences through the lens of music, built character and give SMS students an advantage, Dwight believes, no matter what career path they chose. “Music really translates into every other academic skill.”
After college Dwight moved to Los Angeles, the obvious place to launch a career in film scoring. “There’s such a great tradition of studio musicians and session players that have come out of Los Angeles, and so there was something about being in that same space and hanging out where those people recorded the great records.” And the gorgeous weather doesn’t hurt. As an intern for composer Fil Eisler, Dwight worked on music for the TV show “Empire,” a gig he calls an amazing learning experience. He also enjoyed working at a company that produces music for commercials. These days Dwight works as a freelance pianist and keyboard player at many different kinds of events, and as music director for musical theater productions and shows at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy. “I do a lot of pop rock stuff and I’ll do a lot of salsa and Latin music,” he explains. “Anytime a jazz opportunity will show up, I’ll jump at it.” He also writes music for dance performances. Dwight’s own music sounds a lot like film scores, he says. He prefers the sound of acoustic instruments to synthetic electronic sounds. “I love writing for strings and woodwinds, and so the music I write tends to sound kind of intimate and orchestral.”
He may be unique among his fellow SMS alums in remembering recital disasters fondly. “The most useful things were the moments when things would go wrong,” says Dwight, who clearly recalls forgetting how a piece ended and improvising a new one during one fateful performance. Afterwards he was upset, but then his teacher explained that this was a great learning experience. “So it was really useful,” he concludes. “Learning how to perform is useful in a job interview, it’s useful every day. And learning how to steer the ship and end things with some dignity when things are not going the way you practiced is useful as well.”
Career-wise, Dwight’s biggest challenge will resonate with many young musicians making their way in the world: “learning how to navigate a career when there’s no script. It’s a challenge knowing there’s no pre-ordained path for you.” He credits his musical training with helping him develop the judgment to chart a successful course through the risks and opportunities he’s encountered. The lack of serious music education in schools nationwide today scares Dwight, who affirms that his family would never have been able to afford the training he received without SMS. “Music and art in general should be common knowledge,” he says. “It should be like math or history or science. There are certain things that everyone should know, and basic music theory should be like knowing that the earth is round.”
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