Young students of stringed instruments in Cayman are getting a boost thanks to the efforts of the Cayman Arts Festival, and support from local residents, among them, violin shop owner Adam Johnson.
“About a year ago, I read an appeal in the Compass from the Cayman Arts Festival’s Glen Inanga for cellos for George Town Primary School,” said Mr. Johnson. The appeal resonated, as he is the owner of Boston-based Johnson String Instrument, a leading stringed instrument retail, rental and repair company in the U.S. He now resides in Cayman with his family after moving here about five years ago.
“Glen, along with other dedicated teachers are working to transform the string program in Cayman and create a musically challenging environment for students to thrive,” said Mr. Johnson.
“The work that is being done is tremendous and there is much more to be done. Since I own a violin shop in Boston, I was thrilled to help.”
He explained that in Boston his company supports local groups that offer after-school programs for kids at risk.
“My company and the nonprofit arm [Johnson String Project] work closely with inner-city programs to help at-risk youth find a safe and musically challenging environment to focus their energy and creativity,” he said. “I was thrilled to find people here in Cayman with a similar mission and it’s been my privilege to be part of it.”
Once a stand-alone annual arts festival, Cayman Arts Festival has evolved into an organization that delivers cultural experiences to the Cayman Islands and educational programs for young people. With music education as its core purpose, offering after-school programs, and bringing artists to Cayman to perform and deliver workshops, the CAF also puts on an annual performing arts festival.
The 2017 festival kicks off Wednesday, Feb. 8, with an invitation-only reception at Government House, followed by public performances by the Dama Trio and the Juilliard Jazz ensemble.
Students in CAF-supported programs will be performing at the opening night as well as opening for the Dama Trio.
Since he became involved with helping out the CAF, Mr. Johnson has donated dozens of instruments and has also offered the services of his company to repair and maintain the many stringed instruments being used in Cayman’s public primary schools.
In November 2016, through Johnson String Instrument’s Johnson String Project, a charitable foundation whose goal is to provide high-quality instruments to children, and with the support of the Department of Education, Mr. Johnson flew in a luthier, a specialist in building and repairing string instruments. The luthier, Paul Bowes, spent five days in Cayman at John Gray High School repairing and adjusting more than 100 instruments, some owned by Cayman Arts Festival and others owned by the schools themselves.
“Playing on a properly adjusted instrument makes the experience so much better and students have a greater chance of advancing as a result,” said Mr. Johnston, who also noted having someone on site to do the repairs and be able to discuss ongoing maintenance and offer tips to teachers makes “a huge difference.”
“The violin is much like … an automobile or any kind of tool we use, they fall into disrepair,” he explained.
The violin’s strings might be too low, or the sound post, if not positioned correctly, will not transfer the sound properly, the pegs do not turn or the strings are old.
“All of these things make a huge difference, and sometimes even five minutes of maintenance can transform an instrument,” he said.
Mr. Bowes spent his days shaping and lubricating pegs, cutting new bridges, changing strings, sanding, and adjusting nuts and bridge heights.
“A few of the instruments at the schools were destroyed, but for the most part, they just needed some love,” said Mr. Bowes, who although he is an expert luthier, does not play the violin or cello himself – he is a guitar player. To get his knowledge about violins and cello, Mr. Bowes was trained at Johnson String Instrument.
“I had the tool skills and they showed me the rest,” he said.
“I own the company and I don’t play either,” admitted Mr. Johnson, who says he once played guitar in a rock band.
“With the guitar, you can pick that up in five minutes and strum a song and make it sound good, but with the violin, there are a lot of different techniques and it’s very challenging. But once you can play the violin, you can really make a beautiful sound.”
Mr. Johnson says he’s very pleased to be helping out kids in Cayman.
“It’s exciting to have these instruments come back to life, and make the kids’ playing experience so much better,” he said.
Since its inception, CAF has been acquiring instruments through donations as well as sourcing used instruments through word of mouth and online buy and sell sites, explained CAF executive Director Marius Gaina. Having Mr. Johnson come into the picture has been a game changer, he said.
“Any time we need instruments we contact Adam, and they will help us source instruments,” said Mr. Gaina. “When we need to purchase more, that is where we buy them from too.”
He said CAF currently owns 40 violins, three violas and 20 cellos, along with three clarinets. The instruments are loaned out to primary schools for use by students, who may also take them home and use them as long as their interest in music continues.
“As kids get better over time, we give them better violins, which they may keep with them, for their entire life, if that’s the case,” said Mr. Gaina.
He said the hope is that building skills among Cayman’s younger kids will help CAF to develop a proper children’s orchestra over time.
“The role of Johnson String Instruments for the CAF is pivotal, as they have been helping since the inception to provide really good instruments for our school programs, which we currently have at West Bay, George Town, Savannah, Red Bay and North Side Primary schools,” said Mr. Gaina.
“By supporting us with instruments and repairing not only our instruments but the instruments owned by the schools, they are like the engine that keeps the children’s programs running.”