Athol woman sends gift of music to Haiti

  • Some of the violins sent to children in Haiti who are learning to play the instrument. PHOTO BY GREG VINE

  • Joanna Katzen of Athol CONTRIBUTED

  • Joanna Katzen of Athol CONTRIBUTED

  • Some of the violins sent to children in Haiti who are learning to play the instrument. PHOTO BY GREG VINE

  • Some of the violins sent to children in Haiti who are learning to play the instrument. PHOTO BY GREG VINE

For the Athol Daily News 
Published: 12/1/2022 2:35:12 PM
Modified: 12/6/2022 12:13:30 AM

ATHOL — Haiti, according to the the Council on Foreign Relations, is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. While the annual per capita income in the United States stands at more than $53,000, in Haiti that figure is just over $1,800.

An Athol woman has decided that, while she couldn’t do much about the grinding poverty in the Caribbean island nation, she could perhaps do something to enrich the lives of some of the youth there.

Several years ago, Joanna Katzen, a 2012 graduate of Boston’s Berklee College of Music, met a violinist by the name of Jesus Saenz while working on a recording project for a Cambridge-based songwriter. Saenz, who is now with the New Jersey Symphony, happened to be one of the students at what is now the Boston Conservatory at Berklee who she hired to play on the recording, and the two have remained friends.

At one point, Saenz posted on his Facebook page that he was looking for used violin strings. While the request at first sounded odd to Katzen, she soon learned that he was sending the strings to Haiti, where students of the violin simply couldn’t afford strings for their instruments.

Fast forward to the present. About two months ago, Katzen, a big fan of recycling, spotted a Facebook post from a woman offering to give away 17 children’s violins.

“I immediately thought of Jesus and the work he was doing,” Katzen said. “So, I wrote to her and asked what their condition was. Ten of them were in horrible condition, and the other seven either needed repairs or could be used for spare parts.”

Katzen then contacted Saenz to see if he still looking for help for the Haitian students of violin.

“It turns out that he and a woman named Kelly McGarry founded an organization called Musicians for the World. They’re doing amazing work, and he jumped at the chance. He said ‘yes,’ he would send them straight off to Haiti where children — small children who really, really want to learn to play the violin — are sharing instruments among themselves because there are not enough instruments in the entire country to go around. So, they’re sharing instruments or playing instruments that are too big for them, or both. He was really happy to coordinate with me to do this.”

Katzen was quick to point out that she has no official affiliation with Musicians for the World, she simply wanted to give the gift of music to impoverished children in Haiti.

“It’s an amazing, very professional organization,” she said. “They have amazing teachers, and they’re all over the world, wherever children in underprivileged countries want to learn to play an instrument.”

Katzen picked up the instruments, packed them in her car, and met up with Saenz at an event taking place at Berklee last month. Katzen said the used instruments came from a violin teacher in Fitchburg who had rented out instruments to her students over the years.

The woman and her husband, said Katzen, “Were not interested at all in hearing about the joy of music being given to underprivileged children. She just wanted to get rid of the violins. So, I happily took them. From Fitchburg, they came to Athol and stayed in my home —  with loving care — for about two months. I then handed them off in Malden. From Malden they were shipped to Miami, and from Miami they were packed up to be sent to Haiti.”

Asked about the violins that weren’t in playable condition, Katzen said, “This is really cool. Jesus explained to me that they are training someone to be a luthier, and these instruments will go to that person to help train him or her. So, some of them, of course, will be fixed up and when they’re in playing condition they will be sent to some child somewhere who wants to learn to play the violin.”

The word "luthier" is French in origin, derived from the French word for lute. The term was originally used for makers of lutes, but it came to be used for makers of most bowed and plucked stringed instruments, including those in the violin family.

Katzen, who majored in performance and songwriting at Berklee — and graduated at the age of 57 — moved to Athol several years ago. She said she loves the feel, the people and the culture of the North Quabbin area. 

“There’s not a lot I can do in the world to make it a better place,” she said, “but if I see something that might help someone else, if I can make that connection for them, it just fills me with joy to do it.”

According to its website, Musicians for the World is currently engaging with students in Haiti, Peru, Kenya, Mexico, Uganda, Trinidad and Tobago, Belize, Suriname, Bolivia, Philippines, Guatemala, Honduras, Uruguay, and Argentina. Donations may be made by visiting. www.musiciansfortheworld.org.

Greg Vine can be reached at gvineadn@gmail.com. 


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