The first time the students saw Adrian Anantawan play his violin, they were stunned. He had no right hand, and yet an attachment he called “the spatula” allowed him to play an arrangement of the Beatles song, “Yesterday.”
“I was astonished,” says Kelly Exilus, 11, a violist from Jamaica Plain and one of the students that spring day at the Conservatory Lab Charter School in Brighton. “I thought, ‘Wow.’ ”
Nobody at the school talks much these days about Anantawan’s right arm. They’re too busy practicing, while also learning a greater truth from their teacher: Music is the great equalizer.
On Thursday, the 29-year-old Anantawan, who has played at Carnegie Hall, the White House, and the Olympics, will lead a concert at the Longy School of Music in Cambridge featuring the 41 children who make up the Dudamel Orchestra at the Brighton school.
More than 60 percent of the third- to sixth-graders at the school come from low-income homes, according to school officials. They have seen the limitations that could have held back both the students and teacher — physical or sociological.
“What accessibility is, in my mind, is raising the series of potential development for any child,” says Anantawan, who earned a scholarship to the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music and graduated from Harvard.
“It’s really a collective act we have to do together. What they do within that is up to them. If they don’t like playing music and want to do something else, they should. But at the same time we have to make sure that chance is there.”
Before this fall, Anantawan had never taught full time. And these are children. They’re late. They chatter. They lose interest. They pump their hands in the air eagerly when Anantawan asks a probing question about the music, only to ask if they can go to the bathroom.
“Hurry up,” Anantawan says impatiently to a player who arrives in the room one recent afternoon a few minutes late.
“Sorry,” the girl says, head down.
“I really liked Elijah,” Anantawan says, putting the spotlight on another player. “He is in his chair, ready to go. That’s what we need more of. In a professional symphony, you sit down and maybe quietly talk to your staff partner. Aside from that, you’re warming up.”
Conservatory Lab opened as a charter school focusing on music in 1999. In 2010, the school incorporated El Sistema, the program inspired by Venezuela’s music education system. Children are loaned instruments and given free private lessons.
They also get a chance to play in the Dudamel Orchestra, named after the Latin American conductor, Gustavo Dudamel, nurtured under El Sistema. David Malek, a clarinetist trained in New England Conservatory’s Abreu Fellows program, led the Dudamel Orchestra until last year, when he left the school.
Anantawan applied and his story fascinated Rebecca Levi, the El Sistema program director. But she hired him not because of his disability, but because of his ability.
“We have here an entire elementary school filled with classroom teachers who already know how to do the management piece,” she says. “The ingredient we were missing was that excellent artistry.”
It has not been a seamless transition.
Levi told Anantawan early on he was talking too much to his students. “The most engaging part of this class is playing and making music,” he says. “I was going too conceptual on them. Thinking the idea was more important than them doing it.”
As 3:30 approaches, the children file into the room. They wear identical, greenish-blue, collared shirts. Within minutes, the space fills with the sound of players warming up. Anantawan usually has music playing, whether Brahms or the great Argentine tango master Astor Piazzolla.
On a recent day, they start with a clapping exercise to get into a rhythm.
“Feel the beat,” he urges. “The pulse. You guys should be like fish in the sea. Everyone in the same direction.”
The children are fidgety. It’s the end of the day. So Anantawan peppers his lessons with a disciplinarian’s stern voice.
He leads the group through a Japanese lullaby, moving his left arm to mark the rhythm instead of using a baton.
“Clarinets,” he says when they’re done. “I really liked that. It’s getting better and better every day.”
The students say they appreciate Anantawan’s calm approach. Growing up in Toronto, Anantawan, who was born without his right hand, played baseball by catching with a mitt on his left hand and putting the glove under his arm to throw. He rode his bike and swam.
“I can’t think of anything I was interested in and was physically unable to do,” he says.
But when he was 10, his elementary school teacher wanted the children to play the recorder. The instrument required two hands. Instead, Anantawan’s mother spent $300 to buy him a violin.
“My parents were ignorant in terms of what experts would think would be possible,” he says. “If they were professional players — and knew what bow technique was about — if they had known all the fine motor skills required with our right hands or keeping a straight bow, something I still don’t do, and all this refinement of all these muscles I didn’t have, then they probably would have done something else. But they were wonderful advocates as well. They went to my first violin teacher and said, ‘He’s here, we’ll pay you.’ ”
“The spatula,” as he calls it, is a piece of aluminum connected to a bow that he attaches to his arm.
Even though he’s played around the world, there have been times when he struggled with how to discuss his disability. As a teen, he remembers the parents of a girl who loved violin but had lost her arm in a car crash approaching to ask if he could talk with her.
“All I wanted to do at that point was learn to play the violin,” Anantawan says. “All of a sudden I was thrust upon the role of, ‘He is a symbol for us.’ ”
Over time, he’s come to appreciate that responsibility.
“I’m extremely careful to always prepare work for the best of my ability, even if it’s at a disability gala,” he says. “I always want to make sure I approach it as a musician first.”
During a recital at a children’s hospital in Toronto three years ago, he found his calling. Anantawan learned about the center’s music therapy program. Through technology, students badly hurt or physically disabled could play a virtual instrument with an orchestra. Anantawan scored a grant from the center and the Yale School of Music and created an interdisciplinary research team. Eventually, Anantawan headed to Harvard, where he earned a graduate degree in arts and education last May.
He is driven by the idea that music is “an inherent civil right.”
“Who is to say that’s going to be limited to those who are cognitively or physically ‘able’ in big quotation marks,” he says.
This philosophy led him to Brighton and students such as Trayvon Ricks.
The 10-year-old fifth-grader plays bass and lives in Dorchester. When Anantawan started, Trayvon admits the children noticed his disability. These days, they notice only the music.
“I feel like we’re making progress,” says Trayvon.
And playing bass? He does not take it for granted.
“There’s a lot of kids in the world who don’t get to play an instrument.”