As a son of Colombia and a family that filled hours and air with the tones of bandola and piano and guitar, Rubén Darío Gómez learned syncopation and improvisation from an early age.
Don’t overlook the offbeats, the music told him. Examine them. Emphasize them. There’s value and opportunity there.
“That’s the beauty of our music,” Gómez said. “The weak moments of the meter are the most interesting.”
A lifetime of listening to those beats, along with playing, composing and conducting them, has Gómez just days from earning a doctorate as part of the University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s record-setting class of more than 3,500 graduates.
Gómez already held a bachelor’s in music — having taught, arranged and composed award-winning music at Colombia’s Universidad Autónoma de Bucaramanga for 12 years — when several prominent American conductors visited Colombia.
“I liked their philosophy,” he said. “I liked how they approached music and conducting, so I became interested in coming to the U.S.”
Unfortunately, Gómez spoke almost no English. Years past the ideal window for learning another language, he learned it anyway. And after contacting five American master’s programs recommended by a friend, he chose Middle Tennessee State. By 2017, master’s in hand, he was ready to resume teaching in Colombia.
Yet his adviser urged Gómez to consider pursuing a doctorate. Where? Gómez wasn’t sure. His adviser received an email from Nebraska, where Carolyn Barber, director of bands for the Glenn Korff School of Music, had an opening for a doctoral student. Again, though: Where? Gómez had barely heard of Nebraska, knowing basically nothing of it beyond what he’d read in the email.
Then came the syncopation, that stress on the offbeat.
“It was such a cool coincidence,” he said. “The director of the marching band at Middle Tennessee State was the former director of the marching band here at Nebraska. So I talked to him. ‘Hey, I don’t know anything about this place. Please give me some thoughts.’
“He was the one who really convinced me to come here. He knew almost everybody here. He had really nice memories about his time at Nebraska.”
Gómez did his own research, of course. He liked what he found. Lincoln was in the Goldilocks zone for a family, like his, with young children: not too big, not too small, highly rated public schools. Within months of arriving, Gómez found that the experience matched the expectation, and then some.
“I didn’t have a clear idea of what the Big Ten was,” he said. “I knew that there are many conferences, some of them bigger, some of them not as big. But I was not aware of how important it is to be part of the Big Ten Conference until we played the very first football game. Then I knew, ‘OK, this is a big deal.’ My expectations about the city were confirmed. My expectations of the university were reinforced. There were also many things that I was not aware of, but that was actually a good thing. I was expecting something, and I got more than that.”
Gómez helped conduct pregame performances and occasionally the halftime show, eventually growing accustomed to the scores of musicians on the field and the tens of thousands of fans in the stands. Off the field, he was likewise adapting to standards he had never known — especially when it came to composing pieces under the ear of Greg Simon, assistant professor of composition.
“That was really life-changing,” Gómez said. “There were a couple of times that I went to my composition lesson, played my piece and was totally convinced that it was the best piece in the world. And he would say, ‘Well, explain this. Why did you put this in? Why this color? Why that? Why don’t you try this?’ I was like,” he said, mimicking the sound of an explosion, ‘Wow. Right. Why didn’t I think about that?’
“But I also felt that I had room to present my voice, to present what I have to say.”
That meant lots of syncopation, of emphasizing those offbeats — the musical equivalent of stressing the “-mic” and “-sic” in “rhythMIC muSIC.” It meant layering in multiple lines of percussion: one rhythm for cymbals, another for congas, others for the snare drums and tambora. And it meant at least some straying from the composition.
“There is certain room for improvisation,” he said. “Our percussionists in Latin America (often) don’t know how to read music — or if they do, they don’t use it. They just go; they just play; they improvise. They know that the rhythm of this style is like that, and they go.”
Gómez admitted that he worried about whether the musicians at Nebraska would be willing to embrace those Latin hallmarks.
“I was a little scared when I had to recruit my first ensemble for my first recital,” he said. “I wasn’t sure if people would say yes to me. And they did. That enthusiasm and that willingness to play and to collaborate with others — that was one of the main surprises.”
Getting to conduct the handful of ensembles that played premieres of his pieces, Gómez said, will rank among his most enduring memories as a Cornhusker. Documenting those performances and having an archive of them also goes a long way toward establishing bona fides as a composer and conductor, he said.
“One of the most difficult things for a composer to do is to get their music played,” he said. “So even though it was quite local … that was another very, very important musical moment for me.”
Last fall, Gómez began applying for jobs, including the director of bands at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. It looked like a good fit for him, he thought, and he for it. He sent the application in early December.
Two weeks later, Gómez and Barber traveled to Chicago for the annual Midwest Clinic, a gathering of concert band and orchestral musicians from around the world. There came an opportunity to improvise.
“Someone came up to us, and it was the composition teacher at Southern Illinois University,” Gómez said. “I saw her, and I go, ‘Oh, my gosh.’ Dr. Barber connected me with her, and I told her I was applying for that position at the university. She said, ‘I’m on the committee.’ So we started to talk, and she got to know me a little bit.”
The following day, Gómez attended a concert featuring one of the faculty member’s pieces. After congratulating her and returning to Lincoln, Gómez felt good about his chances of securing an interview, which he did. Some preparation with Barber, Simon and Sergio Ruiz, director of the Korff School, had him feeling equally confident walking into the interview itself.
“As the director, he has been in so many situations auditioning new faculty,” Gómez said of Ruiz. “And the conversation with him was terrific, because he said, ‘As the boss, I look for this, this, this and this.’ For me, that was illuminating.”
That combination of improvisation and rehearsal helped Gómez land the job, which he starts in the fall. When he does leave Lincoln, he said he’ll take with him the uncommon commitment to work and passion for place that he saw modeled at Nebraska.
“People here love the university; they love the city; they love the state,” Gómez said. “Whatever they have to do to make the university and Nebraska a great institution and a great place, they do that.
“You don’t see that everywhere. And you don’t have to look hard to see it here.”