April 3, 2011

Bill Nemitz: Peter Lee aspires to be 'the Johnny Appleseed of instruments'

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.

click image to enlarge

Attorney Peter Lee shows Zahraa Rikan, 15, an Iraqi refugee, how to hold the bow and violin at his office in Yarmouth. Lee collects instruments from donors and loans them to aspiring but cash-strapped kids.

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer


Visit The Instrument Exchange at http://theinstrumentexchange.org.

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.

(Continued on page 2)

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