Solo with marbles

The last hollow "bong" strikes 10 and echoes down the cobblestone streets against closed walls of the houses and buildings of San Miguel de Allende. Behind a wroughtiron gate, in a high-ceilinged gallery off the patio, a child with eyes as shiny and bright as black marbles tightens the gut of his bow and prepares to tune his polished violin.

As rarely as anything happens on time in Mexico, the last stroke of the earthquake-cracked bell in the tower of the Iglesia de la Parroquia is an absolute signal for twenty children, from 6 to 16, to be in their seats tuning their instruments.

The day is Sunday, almost always clear, sparkling, and warm, with blue sky everywhere. The streets are clean and washed, empty as this early hour except for an occasional family moving slowly, single file, up the narrow sidewalk toward El Centro, dressed in gay-colored serapes. A few other people have entered the gates to the cool, stone buildings of the Mexican National School of Fine Arts to hear the weekly concert.

Sunday in Mexico is the day of music, fun, and good eating. It is the only day off for the average citizen or child in school. It is a particularly special day for a music-minded child who plays the violin. The most gifted musician of the Belles Artes children's chamber group is the boy, Juan, about 10 years old, who has walked down the mountainside barefooted, carrying his shoes and his violin case.

The volunteer conductor, an American painter and amateur violinist, treats his young musicians with dignity and demand. His directing is crisply professional and he manages to extract the best from each child. The concert begins with a Sousa march. Juan works along with the others patiently and carefully as the group moves into a Mozart minuet, a scherzo, and then a largo. The little concert is touching both in its simple artistry and in the enormous effort of the director and his group.

The audience, mostly students at the school and proud partnes (often holding wide-eyed silent babes in their arms), responds warmly to the music. Strangers are delighted to discover such fine music in San Miguel.

It is time for Juan to stand up and step forward for his solo. The audience now sits up and waits attentively, poised, and ready for what they expect to come next.

Raising his bow and watching with rigid attention for the conductor's signal to release the mainspring, Juan whacks into Vivaldi. An absolutely imperative sense of concentration between Juan and his audience allows the child's talent to reverberate in the hearts of all present. He plays with conficence and control and the humility of his respect for the music coursing through his finger tips.

Juan uses each note perfectly until all the notes of the music are used up. All too quicly the movement is over. Slowly the group relaxes into the last lilting Strauss waltz.

As the final "bong" of 11 sounds, some of the listeners move on into other galleries of the school or stroll in the courtyard brilliantly rimmed in crimson bougainvillea. In the center a fountain gently trickles into a pool of golden carp.

A few of the children are packing their instruments to go on to their appointments and pleasures of the day. Most of them will stay and begin a next hour of rehearsal, one of three more rehearsals for the following Sunday's concert.

Juan waxes his bow solemnly. He reaches into his pocket for a fresh kerchief to put under his chin. Half a dozen brightly colored marbles tumble to the wooden floor.

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