Partner Profile: Hawken High School Student Recounts His “Little Miracle” at Joseph’s Home

Adapted from Jacob Dennis’ paper, “A Little Miracle.”

Jacob DennisChilly December air greeted my face—but the cold wasn’t the reason I shivered as I carried my cello and music stand to the door of Joseph’s Home.

The day before, Mr. W., a former Joseph’s Home resident, having learned that I play cello, had proposed that we play some Christmas carols together for the residents. Although he was exuberant about the idea, I was more than a bit nervous. After all, here was this guy I barely knew asking me to play with him. Not knowing many Christmas carols on the cello by heart, I was unsure how we would sound and worried that a poor performance would crush his spirit—and possibly bruise my ego.

But his eagerness had prevailed. So here I was, very unsure of what would happen in the next couple of hours. After a few minutes of anxious waiting, Mr. W. arrived.

“Hey Jacob, where’s your stuff?” he asked brightly. “I brought my guitar and violin along, and some music.”

As we began to set up, Mr. W. couldn’t stop gushing about how excited he was. “Thanks for doing this. Do you have the music? You know, I built this violin myself. Got scrap parts and stuff.”

Getting out an old, cracked, weathered violin, he attempted to tune it. After struggling with the E string for a while, he handed it to me.

Gingerly, I picked up the violin. A large crack had developed along the rough front of the instrument; clearly, it was in dire need of professional care. Perhaps even reincarnation as a doorstop. I was doubtful that it could ever be properly tuned in its current state. The butterflies in my stomach multiplied.

“Ah, well,” I thought to myself. “Might as well try to fix this as well as I can.” I started to turn the peg, plucking as I turned to gauge the pitch. Plink. Plink. Plink. Pliiiaauunnnkk. The peg slipped, dropping the pitch a good half-octave.

“Yeah, you might have to spit in it to get it to stay,” Mr. W. suggested. Resolute, I began tightening the string again. Plink. Plink. Plink. TWANG! The string snapped. Mortified, I started apologizing profusely to Mr. W. “Ah, it’s all right,” he counseled. “I can play on the other three strings.” As he checked the tuning of the other strings, I went back to my cello. Embarrassed by having broken the string, I tried in vain to calm my nerves.

“This isn’t going to work out at all,” I thought to myself. “I’ve messed up his violin. We’re going to sound out of tune… oh, this is going to be awful and embarrassing for both of us.”

Fortunately, I was wrong.

Starting with “Amazing Grace,” Mr. W. and I each began to get a feel for how the other played. As he played a bluesy version of the melody, I attempted to harmonize. Bit by bit, we improved. Slowly, the knot of tension within my stomach began to dissolve. Mr. W., meanwhile, was absolutely ecstatic.

For a good two hours we played away, experimenting with Spanish music, some blues and a ton of improvisation. We made some missteps, but as time passed our styles blended in a way I never expected. Unfortunately, we had to stop when I was at risk of missing my bus. As we started to pack up, Mr. W. approached me, almost in tears.

“Thank you so much for this, Jacob,” he said. “I can’t say how much this means to me. Together, we sounded great. You know, last night I was nervous about doing this. I didn’t know if you wanted to do it or if we might sound bad. But you know what? We sounded great! Thanks.”

A little flustered by the sudden outpouring of emotion, I could only stammer that he was more than welcome, and he should feel free to call me if he wanted to do this again. Still surprised and slightly confused, I hurried towards the door. Had we really sounded that great?

I’m still not sure how we sounded. But I know something beautiful happened on that cold December day.

Jacob Dennis is a senior at Hawken School. He lives in Euclid and is a member of the Hawken Strings Orchestra.