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When David France needs money, he heads down to an MBTA station and starts playing the violin.
"Well, let's say the rent deadline is coming up. It can be hard," France says.
France is a professional violinist. But he was homeless for about six months and slept behind the aquarium in Boston.
Now, he chooses to live frugally. He could be performing and teaching for good money. Instead, he gives his time and talent to help change the lives of teenagers in Boston through classical music. He teaches them how to play the violin, viola or cello — instruments most of them have never touched.
'A Dream To Use Music To Transform Their Lives'
Three hours a day, five afternoons a week, France coaches and cajoles a group of students in the cafeteria at the John D. O'Bryant School of Mathematics and Science in Roxbury.
On the day we visit, eight high school students pull their seats in a circle, start the metronome, and practice, practice, practice. France calls the group The Roxbury Youth Orchestra. It's part of an organization he founded in 2013 called Revolution of Hope.
His life experiences help him identify with some of the kids he teaches. He's the child of immigrants from the West Indies. And he felt a bit adrift when he young.
"I was super shy, and I really needed a voice," France reflects. "And when I was 7, I was offered a chance to play the violin through a free violin program. And so I really kind of found my voice and found my way."
France developed skills that propelled him to New England Conservatory on a graduate fellowship. He studied the renowned El Sistema program in Venezuela. He saw how young people in neighborhoods wracked by poverty were uplifted by classical music training.
Later, he came to realize students who came from low-income backgrounds could excel just as much as wealthy ones, if they had the right teacher.
"I came with a dream to use music to transform their lives," France says. "And they wanted to play these instruments. But they also wanted to have fun."
During practices, France plays equal parts endearing uncle and sarcastic sibling — but mostly, meticulous maestro.
"One, two, cue and yeah! Smile, come on!" France says boisterously as he leads the students in one of many runs through a particular piece. He encourages them to have their bows ready on the strings before the song starts and to communicate with each other through movement and eye contact.
'Very Kind But Also Strict'
Niaz Uddin, 15, is one of 14 kids who played in the orchestra this year. He took up the violin eight months ago.
"I think [Mr. France is] pretty selfless," Uddin says. "He sacrifices a lot of time to be able to teach us all this stuff."
The students only have to pay $150 per semester for the program. That amount would normally cover just a few lessons for a kid. The instruments are donated.
Niaz says he appreciates that France makes the program both affordable and rigorous.
"He's very kind but he's also strict," Uddin says. "You could get the wrong idea because he's strict all the time. But behind his strictness there's meaning in which he wants to teach us more, and he wants us to get better."
Fifteen-year-old Xavier LaPlante says without a program like this, he wouldn't be playing the violin.
"Me and my family, I'm not going to say we don't have money, but we don't have too much money to spend on these type of things that aren't, like, essential," Xavier says. "We can do it, but it wouldn't be too wise."
Before Xavier joined the program, he had never even been to a concert. Yet his first week with the group, he played in one.
"It was invigorating," he recalls. "I kind of forgot the fact that it was my first time there — first time anywhere [at] a concert and performing in one. I was just, like, submersed in the music. I was enjoying the fact that I was playing the music, playing for other people, that they were enjoying it."
Music As A Bridge
To France, the kids become musicians the moment they first take their instruments in their hands. He sees music — and the connections it brings — as a vehicle for the students to expand their boundaries.
"A lot of times young people who live in neighborhoods like this [in Roxbury], they don't feel other parts of the city are places maybe that they're welcome," France says. "Every year when we go to Harvard Square, whether to perform or just to hang out, there's usually a student who has never been there. And so for this music to be a bridge connecting people who maybe wouldn't normally interact, that's what it means."
France wants to help the kids become as musically proficient as possible, whether they plan to pursue careers in music or not.
Lyana Portillo had studied violin briefly before joining the orchestra. She says the program has made it her passion.
"I'm here because I want the violin as my career," Lyana says. "So I'm putting in all my work now so that in the future it can pay off later."
She adds that without the orchestra program, she would have given up violin and just focused on schoolwork.
"Without Mr. France my violin and playing wouldn't even have a meaning behind it," she reflects.
France says he wants to reach any kids who have a hunger to express themselves through music.
One day, a student from Boston Arts Academy, Nick Allen, wandered into the rehearsal room. He likes to rap, and France invited him to freestyle to the orchestra. Now, Allen shows up to practice every week. On the day of our visit, he raps through a tune that ends with the lyrics, "I got no limit."
That idea of having limitless potential is what France wants the young musicians to take away from all of their practicing and performing.
"It's that through learning something as difficult as violin or cello that they can get confidence, that they can learn endurance and resilience," he says.
School administrators say that translates into better performance in the classroom for many of the kids.
The students have the summer off — most of it, anyway. They're performing at an educators' conference in Philadelphia in two weeks.
Lyana, who wants to play violin professionally, applied to a summer music academy in Minnesota at France's urging and was accepted. There, she performed her first-ever recital last week.
As for France's summer plans, he says he'll indulge his passion for world travel. As always, he'll do it with little luggage, but his violin on his back.
And when he needs a little cash along the way, he'll be back to busking.
Editor's Note: This story is part of an ongoing series called "Change Agents," about people who create change in the community with little fanfare.
This segment aired on June 27, 2019.
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