Jailhouse Bach

                             Why did I ever agree to play the cello for a bunch of teenage prisoners?

                                                                  By Mark Salzman

    An oversized cello case looks exactly like a coffin, so as I pushed mine through L.A.'s Central Juvenile Hall, I attracted plenty of attention. I was on my way to the chapel, after getting roped into performing for the young inmates by Sister Janet Harris, who coordinated volunteer activities. The project closet to her heart was a writing program that she helped create, and in which I had recently started teaching. My students were HROs, or high-risk offenders, who had been charged with murder or armed robbery and were waiting for their cases to be tried.

    Somehow  Sister Janet had learned that I played the cello as a hobby, and asked me to perform, I tried to reason with her, recalling the last time I played the cello for a group of kids. It was at a birthday party where the birthday boy kicked the end pin of my instrument and declared the cello was stupid. Only the accordion is more uncool.

    "Sister Janet," I said, "have you ever been to a school assembly where classical music is on the program? It can get ugly".

    "Ah," she had a replied, smiling, "but that was school. The kids here would never behave like that."

    After passing through a maze of chain-link fencing, I reached a building with a cross on its roof. Over the roar of amplified music coming from inside, I introduced myself to someone with a clipboard and a walkie-talkie, and he leafed through a schedule until he found my name. "You're up next."

    He lead me to the chaplain's office, where I could unpack my cello and warm up. "When we call you, go through that door and you'll be right on the stage," he explained.

     After he left, I decided to open the door just enough to see what kind of act I would be following. It was a hip-hop group; their music was heavily amplified and the audience of prisoners was swaying and clapping along.  One of the performers was an attractive young woman wearing tight jeans and a shirt that revealed her bellybutton.  Although she did no sing and her use of the tambourine suggested a minimum of training, a glance at the all-male prisoner audience confirmed that she was the star of the show.

    I closed the door and slumped into the chaplain's chair.  "Am I disturbing you" a voice asked from behind me.  It was Sister Janet.

    I don't think having me play was such a good idea," I told her.

    "Why not"

    "Listen to what's going on in there! They're stomping their feet and working up a sweat, and that's just from watching the girl in the bikini, never mind the music.  Can you imagine the letdown when I go out there?"

    "They've got a girl in a bikini?" Sister Janet asked.

    "It might as well be a bikini.  This isn't going to work."

    "Have a little faith," she urged.

    At precisely two o'clock, the amplification was unceremoniously turned off and the group left.  Unlike most concerts, where people cheer and yell for encores at the end of a performance, this audience had to sit quietly.  But no one looked happy.

    A man with an ill-fitting toupee shuffled down the aisle between the pews, turned to face the audience, and then read aloud from a clipboard: "An now, Mr. Salsman will play the violin."  He shuffled back up the aisle and out of the chapel.

    The silence in the room so unnerved me that I failed to see the raised platform on the stage.  I walked right into it, stubbing my big toe and careering forward.  I narrowly avoided a fall by using the cello as a ski pole, planting the endpin into the dais and pivoting toward the audience.  I hadn't intended to enter like Buster Keaton, but that's how it came across, and the inmates rewarded me with laughter and a round of applause.

    I stalled for time, explaining to my audience that almost everything they saw on the cello except for the metal strings and end pin, had once been part of a living thing:  the spruce top, the maple back with its tiger-stripe grain, the ebony fingerboard, the snakewood bow with hair from a horse's  tail, and the pieces of ivory from the tusks of a mammoth preserved in frozen tundra for tens of thousands of years.  When we play the instrument, I said, we bring these pieces to life again.

    About then I ran out of little-known facts about the cello, so I told the boys that the first piece I was going to play, "The Swan" by Camille Saint-Saens, always made me think of my mother.  Then I started playing.  With its high ceiling, bare walls and hard floor, the chapel was as resonant as a giant shower stall.  The cello sounded divine in that room, which excited me, but then a rustling from the audience brought me back to reality.  The kids were bored, as I had feared.

    The rustling grew in intensity.  It wasn't quite the sound of fidgeting and wasn't quite the sound of whispering either.  I glanced at the audience and saw a roomful of boys with tears running down their faces.  What I had heard was the sound of sniffling and note-wiping - music to any musician's ears.

    I played the rest of the piece better than I had ever played it in my life, and when I finished the applause was deafening.  It was a mediocre cellist's dream come true.  For my next piece, I chose a saraband from one of the Bach suites.  The boys rewarded me with another round of applause.  Then someone shouted, "Play the one about mothers again."  A cheer rose up from the crowd.  I realized than that it was the invocation of motherhood that had moved them so deeply.

    I played "The Swan" again, some more Bach, and "The Swan" a third time.  When the man with the toupee signaled that my time was up, the inmates booed him.  Then they gave me a final ovation.


Readers Digest   May 2004

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