By David France
What will be your legacy? It is hard to know that one thing or those few things that will leave a lasting positive impact on our world. For instance, few would ever guess that a woman making Johnny cakes for her neighbors in the middle of the 20th century on the West Indian island of Nevis would later spark and inspire a world-class youth orchestra in Roxbury. This modest woman’s selfless act would have a powerful domino effect showing me the potent fruit of living generously.
Alexander Hamilton wasn’t the only American from Nevis
My parents believed and risked everything to move to this country from a small island in the West Indies called Nevis. They had a firm belief that their born and unborn children could have a better life in a bigger country with more opportunities. My father grew up with his mother in a poor village called Barnes Ghaut. Every morning his mother would make delicious baked goods like Johnny cakes so that he could go through the village and give them to their neighbors. The generous spirit that moved through my grandmother who made Johnny cakes for her neighbors also moved through my father who housed more people than could fit in a small house, and would later lead me to want to give away everything I had learned to an inner city community.
Armed with a supportive family network I started the violin at aged 7 and faced a society that told me that the violin was not an instrument for African Americans. Overcoming this bias I added over 10,000 hours of practice on the violin.
You can leave the Bermuda Triangle!
Three years ago I thought I had it all. I lived in Bermuda, I worked with amazing families teaching their children to play the violin. Yet another unbelievable chain of events would change the course of my life. The spark would be kindled by one simple yet powerful YouTube video. A sea of Venezuelan youth from some of the poorest neighborhoods in the country filled my computer screen and my jaw dropped as they performed at the highest levels imaginable. I stumbled upon a noble idea that resonated with my own personal beliefs. Music could be used not only as a mode for artistic expression but as a powerful vehicle for social transformation.
The videos of the Venezuelan youth orchestra led me to the TED Prize video of Dr. Jose Antonio Abreu founder of El Sistema. Dr. Abreu was awarded the prize in 2009 and wished to start a training program selecting 10 people from around the world each year to train them in Boston and Venezuela to bring El Sistema to the United States. I was shocked to win in 2011 and began the journey to following my dream to see El Sistema for myself and use that vision to start my own orchestra.
During my last week in Venezuela we pulled up to small village in the city of Coro called Las Panelas. We were told that if we were going to volunteer teach there that we would have to leave before the sun went down because it was a dangerous neighborhood. The project in Las Panelas was started by Isandra Campos. A year before we arrived Isandra, a mother of 5, moved out of her home and in with her own mother so that the neighborhood children could use her home as a daily haven to make music. Seven days a week from morning until sundown neighborhood kids flood in and out of her home singing in a choir and playing various instruments. The music flooding out of the house is the curiosity of the neighbors as they sit on their porches and listen or while young children peak through the open windows to watch rehearsals.
Isandra’s spirit of generosity stopped me in my tracks. In the backyard she raised chickens and sold their eggs for one Bolivar each and with the money she earned bought the music for the kids. What Isandra receives daily is far more than she has given up. The life trajectory of the kids on this street will be forever changed because of Isandra’s joyful sacrifice. Returning to Boston I wondered for what community’s joy would I move out of my house and sell eggs.
A Youth Orchestra is Born in Roxbury
After a few months in Venezuela I returned to Boston where I fell in love with the community of Roxbury. Growing up many would say to me, I’ve never met a black person that played the violin. I’d usually respond “Me neither.” I was excited to develop a world-class youth orchestra in what has been dubbed the most important black community in New England. After graduating from the New England Conservatory I subleased my apartment and spent the next half year sleeping on couches and concrete while spending my afternoons forming strategic relationships to build the Roxbury Youth Orchestra (watch our first concert!). In February the Roxbury Youth Orchestra launched from its new home in the auditorium at the Dearborn Middle School after school. Six weeks after our launch NBC Nightly News sent Chelsea Clinton to cover the story.
I call my umbrella organization Revolution of Hope. A revolution is a cathartic social movement that changes the face of institutions and can bring a liberating freedom to pursue dreams that were before not possible. We strive to create a lasting community upon a tradition of equity, opportunity, and confidence from music. Our academic goals come alongside our social goals believing that an excellent, joy-filled music program can affect executive function skills and teach 21st century work force skills.
Wherever you go, give your life away
This past summer I arrived in Chicago with just enough money to take the subway into the city. While there I proceeded to busk in the subway system. While playing “Somewhere over the Rainbow” in the distance I heard a very low voice singing. When the man was near I noticed it was a blind man with a cane who sang. He stood directly in front of me and we continued our quite soulful version of the song. It was so incredibly moving I had goose bumps. Standing next to us was a random guy with his jaw dropped. After we finished he reached for some change and threw it in. He then reached for more change then a few dollars then threw all of his money in the case he was so moved. The blind man said he had nothing but I disagreed. The experience of performing with him was priceless. I sincerely believe that it is only when we give our lives away that we truly begin to live.
David France is a Speaker, international writer, violinist, string pedagogy clinician, and Founder and Executive Director of Revolution of Hope, a music for social change initiative transforming inner city lives through the arts. You can tweet at him or follow this project on facebook.