Music creates common ground

schandler@newsobserver.comJune 9, 2013 

When John Eveleigh’s church took local Burmese refugee families under its wing, he heard the stories of the oppression they’d fled and wanted to help them start a new, better life.

The church, University Baptist in Chapel Hill, raised money and gathered household goods for the families.

“I couldn’t really contribute in that way, but I still felt like I wanted to help them,” said John, a rising senior at the Trinity School of Durham and Chapel Hill. “I was thinking, ‘what can I do, what kind of gifts can I give to them?’ And I thought, ‘well, what about my talent to play the violin?’”

So every Sunday evening, John teaches violin to a handful of wiggly elementary-aged students who are eager to learn and can play “Mary Had A Little Lamb” and a scale or two after just a few months of instruction.

When the classes started last fall, the students were issued violins they take home with them – along with kindly admonitions to practice. Some of the violins were from John’s own collection, and he was able to buy more with his savings and donations from people at his church and Duke String School, where John takes violin lessons and plays in an orchestra.

On a recent Sunday, the students were practicing their A scales. John pointed out that the note A is played twice in that scale, and he paused to ask his pupils whether they understood.

Mae Ria Paw nodded. “Sometimes it sounds higher,” she said, “and sometimes it sounds lower.”

After class, the students gathered for ice cream and talked about why they like learning the violin.

“I like that you can make different sounds,” said Hau Deih Tung. His classmate Coverlight Paw chimed in: “You can make funny sounds.”

John said his students have surprised him with how quickly they’ve learned music theory, instrument fundamentals and how to play songs.

“These kids are really talented,” he said, “they just haven’t had the resources made available to them. And now that they are having the resources made available to them, it allows them to use their talents and really show what they’re made of.”

John said he’s glad the students get a chance to shine, and maybe some respite from the hardships of life in a new country that might not always be easy. But he gets something out of the deal, too.

“Teaching them is such a joy. It brings something to you,” he said just before heading into a class. “Seeing them get the satisfaction of learning to play the violin really brings a new component to your life. We’re always encouraged to go around and do things for ourselves and advance ourselves in life, but to do things for others just is so much better. It just enhances the quality of your life in ways that selfish actions really just can’t.”

Even as he teaches others, John is still learning about violin and music in general himself. In addition to his lessons and ensemble work at Duke String School, he sings with a school group and in the church choir. He said he doesn’t intend to major in music in college (he plans to study finance instead), but that doesn’t mean his violin will be gathering dust in a closet anytime soon.

“I definitely plan to … continue my involvement in the arts throughout college and hopefully throughout the rest of my life,” he said. “It’s definitely not something I want to just let go, because it’s really important.”

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