Narrator: This podcast is a project of the Massachusetts Cultural Council, a state agency committed to building creative communities and inspiring creative minds.
Carol Johnson: This has to do with these children and this commitment, and then I have an opportunity to make something for these kids and by God, <laughs> I ought to get out there and make it happen.
Anita Walker: Hello, I’m Anita Walker at the Massachusetts Cultural Council, and welcome to Creative Minds Out Loud. Joining us today is Carol Johnson who is the president of the Johnson String Project, and she has a wonderful story about a transition that she has made from providing literally thousands and thousands of stringed instruments to young people wanting to make music to actually taking this effort a step further. Welcome to the program, Carol.
Carol Johnson: Thank you. It’s good to be here.
Anita Walker: So to start with, let’s talk about Johnson Strings. Tell us about your company.
Carol Johnson: Johnson String. Johnson String is a company that my husband and I started around 40 years ago. We had a small violin shop. We realized that we had to feed our family and it was very difficult to do it on repair, the occasional instrument you sold, so we decided to get involved in rental. So we were told by a young man in town that if we would buy 100 rentals he would see that every one got rented, so Roger and I ran off to a trade show in Atlanta and we got a company there to take a chance on us, and we purchased 100 instruments. And we got back here and lo and behold, he rented 20 of those 100 and we went into a panic and we got on the phone and we started calling teachers we knew and some wonderful teachers here stepped in and started getting those instruments rented for us. And so over the years, we started honing our craft and we did it by listening to teachers, players, and students and families.
Anita Walker: Your commitment to the fact that every child who picks up a violin, whether they’re 5 years old or 15 years old, deserves to play an instrument, it sounds good.
Carol Johnson: I think this is absolutely correct. I think that every child deserves that start. Every child. And in fact before we got involved in the El Sistema programs, when we do a school program we offer scholarship to kids that are starting who can’t afford an instrument, and we always provide the same quality instrument that we give everyone else.
Anita Walker: So now you’ve built this company. You’re one of the largest providers of rental violins to people probably in America, and then you discovered that there was a need beyond that for young people who want to make music but can’t afford to participate in a music program. Talk a little bit about how that came to you and how you responded to that.
Carol Johnson: Things came to me, Anita, in increments. We were renting instruments and as I say, we were doing scholarships to kids who needed scholarships and we were kind of moving along in that direction. And then I had a teacher who came to me and needed 12 instruments for a program that she was starting in the Boston area in a very underserviced community and she needed 12 instruments and we had 12 instruments, so we gave her 12 instruments. And then she came back and she brought back 3 and took 5, and then she brought back 2 and took 7. And because she used to work at Johnson’s, nobody really paid much attention to her. She kind of came in, took instruments in, took them out, and as she did that other people kind of found out that we were providing these instruments. And so I started hearing from other programs and meeting people who were teaching in every corner of the state who were in incredible need of instruments and of support, and I was there. I had the ability, I had the tools, I had the means, I had everything in my power to make this happen. I could do it. This was something I could do, and so I started putting these instruments out because these teachers were so dedicated, so involved in what they were doing and they were providing music every day to children and for an hour, for two hours, giving them a safe environment, a place to be safe, a place to have a rigorous lesson, a place to have a chance to create community that wasn’t a community of gangs or drugs. What could possibly be wrong with that? It just sounded to me like it had to be successful. It had to be successful because if only that happened that was success, and if in the process it gave these children opportunity– an opportunity to think beyond their zip code, to make a dream, to create something beyond what they thought possible– then yes, why not? Why not, because I could do it, but when I met you and you began to talk about something more systematic, something that could create an organization that could provide these instruments and provide them at the same quality and with the same service that all my kids in these affluent communities were getting, it was like <explosive noise> a door opened, for me.
Anita Walker: And what you’re talking about is the Massachusetts Cultural Council SerHacer Program which is modeled after El Sistema in Venezuela, and this is a music program that is all about providing a safe place and an opportunity for kids to play music together. We have probably 20 to 30 El Sistema-inspired programs here in Massachusetts looking for musical instruments. And then we found you. <laughs>
Carol Johnson: And then I found you. And I have a very good friend who has been very supportive of me, and I said, “I don’t know how to do this. I don’t do fundraising. I have no idea how to make this happen. I don’t know if I want to have to be under the rules of the state government. I just do what I do. However, I want to do this. And he said, “Just do it, Carol. Just start the nonprofit.” He said, “Hundreds of nonprofits are started every year. Hundreds of them fail. You might fail. So what?” And he didn’t really mean that it was so much okay to fail. What he told me or what I took from it, “Carol, this is not about you.” It’s not about Carol Johnson. It has nothing to do with whether I succeed or I don’t succeed. This has to do with these children and this commitment and that I have an opportunity to make something for these kids and by God, <laughs> I ought to get out there and make it happen. And so we had this wonderful event and this gala. We pulled together this wonderful group of people, and we started our first year. And in that first year, we were able to provide 300 instruments to kids.
Anita Walker: Three hundred instruments.
Carol Johnson: Three hundred instruments to kids and it would have been more. Some people didn’t want basses. And it would have been more if some kids, some teachers weren’t in school systems where they just had to buy the instruments rather than rent to own. So we put out these 300 instruments, and then I suddenly realized this is something way more serious than this. This is just year one. Now I’ve got year two, and I’ve got year three, and I’ve got year four, and I’ve got year five because when you make a commitment to a child, that’s a commitment. The other thing I didn’t realize is the importance of the partnership between the Mass Cultural Council and the private sector, me as representing the private sector, but what I’m coming to understand is that it is very much the function of government to provide for, to serve the needs of the people, to help create the common good. That’s your function. My function as a citizen of that government is to never turn my back on a neighbor, to never say, “Oh, that’s government’s problem. Let’s just let them take care of it.” This kind of a partnership where you are bringing your power to give voice to these people who have no voice and I bring the tools to give them the ability to give these children a little opportunity, a little bit of a level playing field, it’s just beautiful. It’s just beautiful. I work with a teacher who several years ago in her Dorchester neighborhood saw a shooting in the street and caught in the crossfire was a three-year-old child, and in her panic and misery afterward is going, “What can I do? What can I do?” And what she came up with is, “I can play the cello.” And so now she’s got 35 kids playing cello. I have a friend who when she retired from teaching in Cambridge she and her husband moved to Greenfield and there she set up a program where she is determined to change a culture of drugs and poverty into a culture of music and opportunity, and she’s got the whole town involved. People want this, and when you give your support, when you lend your voice and we lend our commitment, we have something that we have to offer this whole country. I love it.
Anita Walker: Carol Johnson, President of the Johnson String Project, one of our Creative Minds Out Loud.
Carol Johnson: Thank you very much, Anita. I really enjoyed being here.
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