Lessons From Juan Ramírez On The Power Of Music

Story by David Fulmer
Photos by Mary Anne Mitchell

Juan Ramírez Hernández‘s father loved music and filled the family home in the Mexican town of Madero with instruments, surrounding his ten sons and daughters with both folk and classical melodies of Mexico and beyond.

Juan, the ninth child, was destined for great things. He spent his early years learning the guitar, the violin, and whatever else he laid hands on before advancing into a conservatory near Mexico City, where his skills flourished. After decades of practice and study, he reached the rare pinnacle of master violinist in the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, one of the world’s great ensembles. As such, he gets to travel the planet, to bask in applause, to earn a good living from performances and recordings, and to enjoy the rare life of an artist of renown. It’s the culmination of his decades of toil and he could well rest on his laurels.

But, perhaps remembering the magic that music brought to his childhood and all too aware of the dangerous world that many immigrant children inhabit, he decided to use his craft to create Atlanta Virtuosi Foundation with the mission of bringing music into the lives of young people who might not otherwise have access to the instruments and the training. Among the foundation’s programs is “Casa de Cultura,” which he designed to give Hispanic students not only the musical skills, but an understanding of the culture behind what they’re playing.

It’s what brings him on this day to a middle school just north of Atlanta. Many of the  parents of his students left Latin America, often to escape poverty and violence and find a safer, kinder place for their families, but still not without its own perils.

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Juan Ramírez brings music to students who might not otherwise have access to instruments or training. Photo by Mary Anne Mitchell.

“In parts of the city where we teach, some parents have trouble keeping their kids off the streets,” he says. “This is one solution.”

Through the maestro, the students learn a new language, one of notes and scales and keys. A language that they can then use to create beauty — and understand its origins. “Their parents work all day and sometimes all night to build a life for them here,” he says. “Yes, they go to school. But they’re not learning enough where they came from and about their culture.”

For many of them, the family histories are rooted in the land of Norteno, mariachi, ranchero — and, yes, narcocorrido music. But it’s also the land of Silvestre Revueltas and Carlos Chávez — and of Juan Ramírez — and it’s those great talents he wants to share with them. “The language of music is the same, no matter where they come from.”

And yet, he says, it’s about much more than the notes on the sheets. What they absorb from him will have profound effects on other parts of their learning processes. “Like mathematics or a foreign tongue, music rewires the brain,” he says.

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Through the maestro, the students learn a new language, one of notes and scales and keys. Photo by Mary Anne Mitchell.

That’s only the beginning of what he teaches them. “They learn discipline through practice. They’re expected to take on the responsibility of caring for an instrument. I want them to understand cooperation and working together to reach a goal, which is to play something beautiful.”

But it’s not a straight path. “I tell them that we strive for perfection, yes,” he says. “I also want them to understand that they’ll make mistakes and when they do, to just keep going. To do the best that you can in the moment. These are lessons for their lives.”

The maestro takes it another step further. “It’s a way for them to experience the past, present, and future. The past is how they have practiced and prepared. The present is the performance that depends on what they’ve done in the past. The future is crossing the bridge to the next step, whatever that might be.”

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“The language of music is the same, no matter where they come from,” says Juan Ramírez. Photo by Mary Anne Mitchell.

And opening doors to futures is the ultimate goal. Because he understands that few of them will ever reach a master level. The values that he imparts go beyond music.

“They learn to play as individuals, but they also have to learn to play together,” he says. “To be in an ensemble, a team with one goal. It’s different from sports where the goal is to win. An orchestra is not there to win something, but to pull together for everyone’s good. It’s the way we want a society to work.”

In this room, as students struggle through their parts, he listens and smiles no matter how skilled (or unskilled) their playing might be. He’s a teacher and leader and a healer who uses music as his medicine, and they respond to him with their eyes and their hands and the breath in their lungs. He hears their mistakes, but also their simple strivings.

“Maybe they don’t have voices in other places,” he says. “But they have voices here.”

The fathers and mothers who brought them to a place where they could learn from a master are rewarded, too, when the children perform in recitals. “The parents come out to hear them play,” he says. “Even if they don’t speak English, they hear the music and they’re all so proud that the children — their children — are creating it.”

And for Juan Ramírez, creativity is the greatest lesson. “I don’t need for them to play like me,” he says. “I want them to play their music.”

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David Fulmer, the author of nine novels and a novella, won the Shamus Award for Best First Novel and has been nominated for an LA Times Book Prize, the Barry Award, the Falcon Award, and the Shamus Award for Best Novel. His books have received superlative reviews from, among others, The New York Times, USA Today, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, and Publishers Weekly. Eclipse Alley, the sixth novel in his Storyville series, will be released in October.

Mary Anne Mitchell is a fine art photographer working primarily with analog processes. Her work has been exhibited in solo and group exhibitions across the country and can be found in private and corporate collections across the US, Dubai, Taiwan, and Canada. She lives in Atlanta, Georgia.  

Copyright © 500 Pens. September 2017.