By Douglas Moser
METHUEN — Reynaldo Santana is driven.
The 23-year-old Methuen native found himself consumed from a young age by a passion for music, an irrepressible talent that took him through his teenage years and high school to Middlesex Community College with an eye toward the New England Conservatory. But at Middlesex, an idea as practical as it was undeniable struck him: "The job market is tight for music right now," Santana said, and the conservatory is very expensive.
Now, a day away from graduating from the University of Massachusetts-Lowell with a bachelor's degree in business administration, Santana has built a record as impressive in leadership and management. Tonight, UMass Lowell is honoring him, along with six other students, with the University Medal for Community Service.
The love of music is a family affair. His father plays the tuba, his mother the tenor saxophone and his brother the drums. When Santana was 6, his father started teaching him music during breaks from work. Santana spent hours rehearsing, he said, and would run back to get another 10 minutes of lessons.
"I skipped lunch (in school) to rehearse," Santana said. "I rehearsed after school and I rehearsed before school."
He enrolled in the UMass Lowell Mary Jo Leahy Symphonic Band Camp at age 13 and soon earned a scholarship for the program. After spending six years in the camp, he stayed with the group as a counselor.
Debra-Nicole Huber, a music professor and one of Santana's mentors, said it was unusual to bring someone so young into the camp. "But he was a kid I could see the raw potential in him as a musician," she said.
His work with the trumpet earned him spots playing Taps at police and firefighter events around the state, a coveted seat in the trumpet section of the All-State band competition, and as band and youth leader for the local church of the Congregacion Mita.
Initially that effort did not translate into top grades, though. "I was a hard worker in high school, but my mentality was 'All I need was a C to pass,'" he said. The rest went into the trumpet.
Santana said he auditioned at the New England Conservatory, and while they told him he had a lot of promise, they also pulled him back to Earth a little. His high school grades were too low, so he enrolled at Middlesex Community College to earn credits and eventually transfer to the conservatory.
But shortly after he started, he said he realized the difficulty that a career in music may hold. Jobs were hard to come by; a degree from the conservatory would likely mean a lot of student debt and his mother was dying to see him in a job where he wore a jacket and tie. So after some thought, and some input from friends and mentors, he chose business.
"I'm a friendly person and people told me I'd be good at business," Santana said.
With that in mind, he found a connection program at Middlesex that helped get students into UMass Lowell. And once he decided on business, he jumped at it with the same fervor he put into the trumpet. "From there, it was like a firecracker," he said.
After he enrolled at UMass Lowell, his second home since he started playing trumpet in the symphonic band there, he dove into different leadership and community groups, including the Omnicron Delta Kappa national leadership society and DECA business competitions. He and two fellow students won first place for an advertising campaign at DECA's annual international competition in Salt Lake City last month.
He also worked as an assistant teacher for third and fifth grades at Lowell Community Charter School, as a translator who helped the CEO of BCE International give presentations to clients in Latin America, and at an Apple Store, a job that led to his decision to include a concentration in international business.
"Working at Apple has changed me a lot because that's a culture that's totally different (from other business environments)," he said.
Through all that, Santana never let go of music. He minored in music and keeps his trumpet handy at all times. "A lot of the feedback I get (from teachers) is, 'You need to sleep,'" he said.
The music still leads him into unique opportunities. In 2007, Santana wandered into an auditorium on the UMass campus and heard a composer conducting his orchestra. Santana sat in the empty room and listened to the rehearsal, impressed with the music.
Afterward, the conductor asked him what he thought, and they struck up a quick friendship. The man asked Santana if he wanted to see a performance the next day at Boardinghouse Park. The next day, the composer spontaneously called Santana up on the stage to play a version of one of Santana's favorite songs, trumpet great Dizzy Gillespie's "A Night in Tunisia."
"It was in a different key than I was used to playing it," Santana said. But he did well. And the composer? Longtime jazz and classical composer David Amram, who worked with Lowell native Jack Kerouac in the 1950s and with a host of music legends.
This fall, Santana, the first in his family to go to college, plans to pursue a masters of science in leadership at Northeastern University.