The sound of opportunity

James Valenzuela posing with french horn

James Valenzuela ‘21, had nearly given up on his dreams of playing the french horn professionally – until a scholarship changed everything. Now he’s making classical music his own. 

By Celeste Hamilton Dennis

At one of his performance finals at Portland State, James Valenzuela was feeling a bit self-conscious. He wasn't nervous about his abilities; his performance had been flawless. He was nervous about his choice of shoes – short black suede boots adorned with gold rings and a small heel. 

Afterwards, the panel of prominent brass community members told him they had comments to share. Valenzuela held his breath. Bold fashion choices are typically not accepted in the world of classical music, especially not in more traditionally conservative circles.

“The entire panel was really impressed with how you played – and with your shoes,” they said. He breathed a sigh of relief. It's this open-mindedness that has made Valenzuela feel so at home at Portland State the past two years.

“What I appreciate most about the PSU community is the acceptance of creative thinking and new ideas,” he says. “I am definitely not a traditionalist.”

“What I appreciate most about the PSU community is the acceptance of creative thinking and new ideas,” he says. “I am definitely not a traditionalist.”

Valenzuela is a recent recipient of a College of the Arts scholarship and student leader of the Portland State University orchestra, often the principal horn player at concerts. He’s also played with the university’s wind quintet. Last term, he made Dean’s list. It may seem natural that he’s where he's at today, but his dream didn’t almost happen.

Valenzuela was born to Guatemalan immigrant parents and grew up in an evangelical Christian household in Eugene, Oregon. For a while, Bible studies and baptisms were all he knew.   

PSU symphony orchestra in concertIn middle school, he realized he was gay. When he came out to his mom at age 14, their relationship suffered. He experienced anxiety and depression and turned to music to cope. He liked the way the French Horn felt in his hands, the range of sounds it could make from melancholic to heroic. In his school orchestra they played the “Barber of Seville” overture, made famous by Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd, and Valenzuela fell in love.

High school came around. Disapproving of his identity, and how he’d practice music instead of worshipping, his mom kicked him out.

While the world he had always known was falling down, a new one was forming. One that was full of top tier band clinics, comfortable orchestra chairs, and encouraging teachers and supporters—including a woman named Candy, his mom’s former employer, who had given him his first Mozart CD. 

“That’s when I thought a career in music is something I can do,” he says. “Going to college is something that I can do.”

College was going to be his escape. He was on track to be accepted into the prestigious Julliard. But when it came time to fly to New York for auditions, his parents couldn’t afford the tickets and refused to help. Without support from his family and with life being so complicated, he lost his motivation. He took classes at Lane Community College and occasionally worked at a bagel shop. 

Every now and then he’d still get offers to play his instrument, like at the Northwest Horn Symposium where he learned about Portland State and was eventually offered a partial scholarship after a strong audition. But that, too, became complicated when he realized he couldn’t pay the rest on his own. 

“I had to forfeit my scholarship, and I completely gave up on the french horn,” he says. “I felt like all music had ever brought me was trouble.”

Then, he ran into Candy. She invited him and his boyfriend over for dinner and knowing all that had happened to him, wanted to help. She offered to help pay for whatever his scholarships didn’t cover. She told him, “I just can’t imagine a world without you playing the French horn.”

“We both bawled our eyes out,” he says. “I finally felt like I was home.”

James Valenzuela smiling and sitting with his french horn in Lincoln HallValenzuela called Portland State the next day. His audition was still in good standing; all he needed to do was re-submit an application. It was that simple.

On his first day of fall term, he met other students like him, people who loved to talk about art and history and culture. He recognized one of his teachers as someone he’d played alongside at a concert, and he offered to give Valenzuela lessons so he could be prepared. 

He found his community. “You do you,” they’d say.

And Valenzuela does. He’s constantly experimenting with fashion, art and self-expression, and he isn’t afraid to be vulnerable with the emotions he conveys to the audience through his horn. He hopes that being himself will help break down the unspoken barriers of who classical music is for, and who it isn’t. He wants it to be for everybody.

These days, after proving through hard work and dedication that he’s serious about his career, he’s been able to rekindle his relationship with his father. And thanks to his unwavering supporters and a scholarship at Portland State, he’s now on his way to achieving his goal of becoming a professional musician.

“I can never see myself doing anything but classical music. But I don’t want to do in the traditional way where you feel detached from it and it’s unapproachable,” he says. “I want to be a beacon of light for other young people, and those who are still questioning what’s acceptable. I want to show that I did and they can do it, too.”