From the Military to Masterful Music

On Veterans Day, we honor Victor Rivera ’16MAT, a gifted conductor whose violin has served him equally well in combat and the classroom.

Photo by Scott Cook Photo by Scott Cook

John Sinclair remembers the first time he saw Victor Rivera ’16MAT play the violin, the giant hands of a giant man caressing such a small instrument.

“I have to admit, the visual hit me immediately,” says Sinclair, the John M. Tiedtke professor of music. “Here was this war hero who had served his country for a number of years, and did so valiantly—so to think that the last instrument he held in his hands was probably a gun, it was a striking dichotomy.”

That fateful audition with Sinclair took place in 2011, six years after Rivera received a medical discharge from the U.S. Army. It proved to be a red-letter day in Rivera’s ongoing transition from longtime soldier to accomplished civilian musician, giving him the perfect environment to once again pursue his childhood passion.

Next month, a handful of students will make history as the first to graduate from Rollins’ Master of Arts in Teaching: Music program. When Rivera walks across the stage, a wealth of memories—some beautiful, some too difficult to bear—will no doubt flood his mind.

From Childhood to Combat

Born in Puerto Rico in 1977, Rivera moved with his parents to Deltona at the age of 7. In sixth grade, diving head-first into learning the violin provided a constructive outlet to channel his seemingly boundless energy. “I just consumed music,” he says. “I was probably the only kid who told his parents, ‘I don’t want to go to Disney. I’d rather practice.’ ”

Under the tutelage of renowned violinists Routa Kroumovitch and her husband, former Rollins music professor Alvaro Gomez, Rivera’s mastery of the violin earned him a scholarship to attend Stetson University. Musically, things couldn’t have been better. But when it came to academics and personal responsibility, Rivera was floundering. With his laser-focused brand of all-or-nothing intensity, he solved that problem by dropping out of college and enrolling in the military.

“The Army became a new obsession,” says Rivera, a fourth-degree black belt who served from 1996 to 2005, fought tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, and led eight men as a staff sergeant. “I don’t regret anything I did, but I saw some terrible things. I don’t tell stories about it because war is never pretty.”

During the campaign to liberate Iraq in 2003, Rivera was medically evacuated with kidney failure. The final two years of his service were spent assigned to a medical battalion. Today, he is on 100 percent disability, having suffered physical and psychological wounds he would rather not discuss.

Turn the subject to music, however, and Rivera’s eyes widen, his fervor growing by the second. The violin of his youth is quite literally the instrument that bridges his past, present, and future. He carried it into battle, and it in turn kept him sane.

“After boot camp, I took my violin with me everywhere, and I mean everywhere,” Rivera says. “My violin was my grounding. Whenever I started playing, everyone pretty much left me alone.”
 
This Time, He Was Ready

After the Army—the immaturity of his first college experience a distant memory—Rivera got his associate’s degree at Daytona State College and began holding recitals. Earning his bachelor’s became the next step, and the moment Rivera set foot on Rollins’ campus—his self-described “Field of Dreams”—there was no looking back. At the audition, Sinclair heard one song and knew he had discovered a “hugely unique” talent, a gifted musician forged by relentless drive.

Never content to master just one skill, it didn’t take long for Rivera to hit warp speed. Working toward his bachelor’s in music at the Hamilton Holt School with a focus on orchestral conducting, Rivera took private voice lessons, sang in the choir, and studied under Sinclair to learn every instrument in the orchestra—percussion, brass, woodwinds, and strings. Before long, he was conducting the Rollins orchestra, string ensemble, and concert choir.

In addition, Rivera was a mainstay with several organizations throughout Central Florida, including the Bach Festival Orchestra, Daytona Beach Community College Orchestra, and Sabbath Strings, a group he co-founded to provide uplifting worship and ceremonial music at church-related events. At Bethune-Cookman University, he’s already an adjunct professor teaching string methods and private studio. Sinclair calls his pupil an “in-demand” teacher whose impressive credentials will allow him to “pick and choose” among job opportunities.

Giving Back Through Mentoring, Teaching

For all his musical mastery, perhaps Rivera’s biggest contribution lies in how he mentors and inspires fellow students half his age. Alex Pardesi ’18, a voice major with a conducting concentration, is Rivera’s little brother in the Phi Mu Alpha music fraternity. They meet every Monday to talk about school, music, life—whatever needs to be discussed.

“Victor brings a hard-working, passionate, problem-solving attitude and attention to detail into everything he does, but especially in the music he crafts,” Pardesi says. “There’s never a day you don’t see him dedicated to the music he’s studying—for himself and other people. He’s someone who is truly meant to teach. The best teachers I’ve met are the ones who gather knowledge and give it back, not keep it for themselves.”

Sinclair agrees. Rivera, he explains, has overcome unimaginable pain to arrive at this point in life. Now, he’s in a wonderful position to help others on their journeys.

“I don’t know what it’s like to be off at war,” Sinclair says, “and I can only imagine the things he’s seen in combat. Then, to come back to school and completely immerse himself into the life of a student … he’s been such an asset to the department. It’s quite remarkable to make the transition he made, and he did it so gracefully, accomplishing so much in such a short time.

“This is a brave person. He faces health issues every day because of his service to his country. But he almost always has a smile on his face and has all the qualities you love to see in a student. I’m really glad he’s been in my life. It’s been a joy to work with him.”