Her name is Zahraa Rikan. She’s a 15-year-old Iraqi refugee who moved to Maine with her family just over a year ago.
Zahraa loves the sound of the violin and decided not too long ago that she’d give anything to learn how to play — if only she could get her hands on one.
His name is Paul Richter. He’s an 80-year-old retired physics professor who lives in the midcoast town of Pemaquid.
Richter has owned a violin for 50-plus years — the vast majority during which it’s sat in its case in his attic because, well, playing takes time and at some point long ago he just got too busy.
Zahraa and Richter have never met. But they’re the bookends to a story that shows how sometimes, if enough people put their minds to it, good things just seem to happen.
It all started last summer when Peter Lee, a lawyer from Yarmouth, picked up his own violin and had a eureka moment.
Lee was born with a deformity in his right arm that, while hampering him through his childhood, was surgically corrected while he was in college some 30 years ago.
Shortly after the operation, Lee went through a “mini-renaissance,” bought a violin and learned the basics of how to play. But then life intervened and, for 25 years, the instrument was silent.
Not too long ago, a burst of nostalgia prompted Lee to dust off his violin and take it to Robert Miller, who operates a stringed-instrument repair business in South Portland. Miller inspected the instrument, told Lee it was still fit as, well, a fiddle, and off Lee went to get lessons.
“It’s been a success,” Lee said last week. “I’m a student and I don’t pretend to be anything I’m not, but I’m able to play.”
Which brings us to Lee’s epiphany: How many other old instruments, he wondered, are silently tucked away in the shadows of Mainers’ lives when they should still be making music?
And what might he do to put those instruments into the hands of needy kids who’d give their eyeteeth to play a violin, a trumpet, a saxophone … or some other music maker they’d otherwise never be able to afford?
Introducing The Instrument Exchange, a nonprofit Lee formed last summer to collect unused instruments on the one hand and, on the other, loan them out for two years at a time to aspiring-if-not-deep-pocketed young musicians.
“It’s very simple,” Lee said with a smile. “I decided I wanted to be the Johnny Appleseed of instruments,”
The plot thickens.
Dorothy Blanchette is a kind-hearted woman from Falmouth who manages a local food pantry and also volunteers her time collecting furniture and other essentials for refugee families throughout Greater Portland.
For the past year, Blanchette has been helping Zahraa’s family — mom, dad and eight kids — settle first in Portland and, as of last week, into a new home in Biddeford.
A while back, Zahraa told Blanchette about a girl in her geometry class at Portland High School who plays the violin. Zahraa, who had never touched a musical instrument, let alone played a violin, dreamed aloud of someday learning for herself how to produce such a pure, melodic sound.
“At first I was going to buy her one, but I couldn’t find one that was inexpensive enough and was decent,” Blanchette recalled. “So I contacted every music teacher I could find, and they would refer me to someone else, and they would refer me to someone else …”
Enter Susanna Adams, a retired violin instructor for the Portland Conservatory of Music who still sits on the organization’s board and occasionally volunteers as an instructor.
Adams recently stopped by Robert Miller’s violin shop to get her bow re-haired.
“By the way,” Miller told her, “did you know there’s this guy who’s going to start giving away instruments?”
Enter Paul Richter, who’s attended many a classical music concert with Adams since they became friends in 2003. At a recent party, Richter wistfully told Adams about that old violin in his attic.
Richter, you see, bought the instrument back in the 1960s while living in Cambridge, Mass. He spent a year or two learning to play, but then set about earning his Ph.D. in physics and, as he noted last week, “if you don’t devote a certain amount of time to it, it’s pointless.”
“So I told Susanna, who has her finger in every pie, it would be a good idea to donate it to some worthy cause,” Richter recalled in a telephone interview last week.
Adams had no sooner collected Richter’s violin, tracked down Lee and donated it on Richter’s behalf to The Instrument Exchange when her telephone rang.
It was Blanchette, whom she’d never met, calling because she’d heard from a mutual acquaintance that Adams perhaps might know where she could find a spare violin for a young Iraqi girl just itching to learn how to play.
“Oh!” said Adams. “I happen to know about a violin that’s all ready!”
And that is how one recent evening, Blanchette and Zahraa came to be in Lee’s small law office on Main Street in Yarmouth.
A smiling Zahraa watched wide-eyed as Lee extracted Richter’s shiny violin — an E.R. Pfretzchner, handmade in Germany way back in 1956 — from its vintage case and gently placed it into her outstretched hands.
“I’m so happy,” Zahraa said as she nervously raised it to her chin. “It’s light!”
Next came the bow. Zahraa drew the taut horsehair across an open string and, voila, her first-ever violin note filled the air.
“Now, the violin is a hard instrument,” Lee cautioned. “So don’t be discouraged — it’s going to take awhile.”
“Yeah,” Zahraa said with a polite nod. “But I like to try hard things.”
That’s music to Adams’ ears. She’s offered to give Zahraa free lessons — the first was on Tuesday — for the time being.
And if all goes well, Zahraa will be in line this fall for one of 20 scholarships awarded each year by the Portland Conservatory of Music.
“She’s very sweet and very smart,” Adams said. “I think she’ll do quite well.”
Zahraa’s not-so-new violin is The Instrument Exchange’s first attic-to-aspiration transfer so far.
But if you go to the organization’s website (http://theinstrumentexchange.org), you’ll see that Lee also has a marching tuba, two cellos, a flute and a soprano saxophone awaiting worthy young recipients. (One or two of the instruments are undergoing repairs, which Lee is covering out of his own pocket.)
Want to add to Lee’s inventory and, in the process, set your own happy-ending story in motion?
Go check your attic.
Nothing up there?
Then perhaps you know someone … who knows someone … who knows someone …
Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: