Norfolk High grad to keep making music

August 10, 2018

The email popped up in the middle of the night, but it didn’t rouse Felipe Gardea from his sleep. He already was awake and anxiously waiting.

He clicked on the message, which led to another link — and then another — that ultimately said, “Congratulations, we would like to see you ...”

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Gardea, the son of Gioconda Largaespada of Norfolk, was “just a kid” when he started playing music on a $30 guitar his brother bought him at a local department store.

“I just grabbed it and hit the strings as hard as I could,” said the 2018 Norfolk High School graduate.

He’s been hitting it hard ever since.

When the church where Gardea’s brother, Mahatma Largaespada, was playing music needed a bass player, Gardea volunteered. By picking and practicing and studying, he mastered the instrument.

He played the trumpet in fifth grade, and the desire to play in Norfolk High School’s jazz and concert bands caused him the learn the French horn, all without a lesson.

Gardea refined his skills and his musical knowledge during summer breaks from school when he did little other than “practice and eat,” he said.

And sometimes, he’d forget to eat, he added.

He still plays the trumpet and French horn but prefers strings over brass. And although he’s an accomplished guitar player, he’d rather play the bass, he said.

For the past few years, he’s performed with a couple of local groups, including Baker Explosion and Forgotten Highway. The bands play “any type of music we can,” Gardea said, including reggae, blues, jazz and some punk.

In addition, Gardea has performed at the Norfolk Arts Center’s “First Friday” events for the past few years. Amateur artists are given 15 minutes to do their thing — whatever that may be.

While musicians are especially attracted to the events, poets, theater groups, stand-up comedians and other artists also have showcased their talents, said Denice Hansen, the center’s assistant director.

It’s an opportunity for people to perform in public, often for the first time, Hansen said.

Gardea said he’s played and appreciates most music styles — from hymns done by Johnny Cash to the Motown sounds of Michael Jackson and Marvin Gaye to jazz fusion.

He was 12 years old when he saw his “idol” — Victor Wooten — perform in Omaha. Since then, he’s studied the bass player’s book called “The Music Lesson,” which helped him understand that music can “change people’s perspectives,” he said.

Gardea also likes John Mayer, a guitarist who he calls a “super technical player.”

In addition to performing, Gardea has taught guitar, bass and ukulele lessons at Midwest Music Center in Norfolk.

“I enjoy teaching very much because it not only solidifies my own playing but the students as well,” he said.

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Like most high school students, Gardea has spent a fair amount of time thinking about what he would do once he graduated.

The honor student said he considered studying science or social studies in college, but music kept pulling at him.

So he investigated the possibility of attending the Berklee College of Music in Boston, which bills itself as being the “largest independent college of contemporary music in the world.”

He was drawn to the school partly because many of the musicians he admires attended it at one time or another, Gardea said. Among them are Quincy Jones and Diana Krall.

He also respects many of the instructors, some of whom were once performers.

“Great musicians have come from (the school), and great musicians are teaching there,” Gardea said. “There’s so much experience on the staff.”

After jumping through the appropriate hoops, Gardea was invited to audition. That took place last winter at a high school in Denver, where he was the sole musician on the auditorium stage. There, judges tested his musical skills and knowledge by having him play specific notes, chords, intervals and melodies. They also conducted a personal interview.

During the process, “there were no hints as to whether I was doing good or bad,” Gardea said. But he left the audition feeling confident that he had done OK.

Still, he had to wait for months before he learned if he had made the cut.

Which is why he was lying awake in the middle of the night of April 1 awaiting the email.

When it came, “I didn’t quite believe it,” Gardea said. “I had no idea what to do.”

What he did was accept the offer — and the scholarship — to attend the Berklee College of Music. He now has a dorm room waiting for him.

Soon, he’ll be packing his bags and heading to Boston. While that may sound intimidating to some, Gardea is confident he’ll get along just fine.

Eventually, he would like to work as a studio musician where he’ll have the opportunity to play a lot of musical styles, he said. He’s open to other possibilities, including touring with a musician.

For now, he’s going to focus on his first love.

“Music drives me and continues to drive me,” he said.

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