From the first days of middle school, the bullies at John Hopkins in St. Petersburg were cruel.
They teased him because he had worn-out shoes. He didn't understand why. You just put on shoes and walk in them. What is the big deal?
They said he looked like the cartoon kid in Go, Diego, Go! Was something wrong with that?
They took his school-issued viola out of the case and mocked him playing it. Was music bad?
Maybe it was because he is quiet and believes in nonviolence and wouldn't fight back. Maybe there wasn't a reason. For two school years, Adán Martinez endured the bullies.
Then one day, his eighth-grade health class studied how to handle one: Stand up, fists unclenched, look them in the eye.
Toward the end of the class, a bully who liked to steal Adán's viola started in on him. He called him Diego.
Adán said the boy looked like the kid from Good Times. The other kids laughed. The boy stood up to cross the room.
Adán stood up, too. He kept his fists unclenched. He looked the bully in the eye.
The bully responded with an uppercut to his nose.
Adán saw gray.
The concussion Adán suffered that day in 2012 threw him into a rut for the next couple of years.
It used to be easy to take notes in class. Now it was harder. Now he couldn't concentrate, and his teachers seemed impatient.
Adán changed schools, but the neighborhood bullying didn't stop.
"I just felt like the weight of the world was on me," he remembers.
He stopped trying to pull his grades up. He stopped trying in general.
Then one windy weekend, he took his student viola to St. Petersburg's Saturday market. He had seen someone busking with a violin for tips. It looked like easier money than mowing lawns, if he could overcome his stage fright. He used clothespins to keep his music on the stand and made $20. It felt like a fortune. He could go to the mall and buy a shirt. He could get shoes. He could start saving for a laptop.
He kept busking, kept making money. But one day he accidentally left his viola in his car. Heat and humidity damaged the bridge, and he had no option but to use his newfound cash to pay for the repair.
The Tampa repair shop owner was kind to him and told him to pick any loaner viola he wanted while they fixed his old one. Adán chose a slick-looking instrument with tiger-striped woodwork and a sturdy bow. It felt good in his hands compared to his elementary school viola. It was the right size for him. He felt more professional.
He passed the bow over the strings, and the sound that emerged was a revelation.
Tone. A Deep Tone. A tone he could feel in his toes.
He had heard elusive traces of that kind of tone from his little viola, but getting it to sound right was just one more struggle. Like schoolwork, and the neighborhood, and everything else, it was just one more thing he couldn't do.
He tried other instruments in the store. Each had something he liked. One projected the kind of confidence he wanted to feel when he played. Another just bowed so smoothly. On another, he felt like his fingers moved about the strings like magic.
No instrument was perfect, but each felt like something finally giving him a break.
The problem was, a viola like that would cost around $3,000, more than his family could afford.
He decided he would busk for it. Depending on the viola, he would need to cover at least $100 per month for the shop's lease-to-own plan. It would be worth every penny if he could find that perfect viola.
He decided he would audition for the Gibbs High School orchestra. Private lessons were out of his reach, so he went on YouTube and found a new hero, William Primrose. Adán watched the grainy black and white videos of the long dead violist compulsively, scrutinizing his technique. He practiced long and hard in the family kitchen, the coolest room in a house with no air conditioning. Galaxy, his cat, attacked his feet when the practice sessions ran long.
Adán began to hunt for the perfect viola. He tried scores of them, but none felt like it was quite worth the time and effort he would have to put into owning it.
One weekend he went to a strings convention at the Tampa Convention Center. The Tampa shop owner who had done his repair pointed him to a small booth owned by a family from Beijing that handcrafted each instrument. He suggested they would have a great instrument at a good price.
"They had three that I liked," Adán says. "I felt like it was the three bears. The cheapest one could project, but it wasn't smooth. The expensive one had good tone but couldn't project like I wanted it to. The middle one was perfect. It had everything. It made me want to play it and keep playing music all day."
He felt like he and the viola were working together, like he needed to keep up his side of a bargain. It had a rich, warm, comforting tone that hummed in his bones. It felt like glue.
That almost-a-cello tone felt like it could be a constant in his confusing life. It made him want to keep making music. This viola made him want to get better.
He traded in his old viola and agreed to pay $109 per month for two years, adding up to $2,616. Shortly after he brought the new viola home, he placed on the case a bumper sticker of a street sign: Lamar Boulevard, a road in Austin, Texas. The sticker reminded him of fun vacations visiting his grandfather. It was an easy place to hang out, free from bullies, far away from south St. Petersburg.
Classmates began calling his viola Lamar. The name stuck. They became inseparable.
"When you are paying for something yourself, you treat it like your baby," Adán says.
When he goes to the grocery store, Lamar rides in the cart.
But Lamar didn't magically fix everything. Adán's high school grades were low. His concentration was still short, and his head was muddled. He flunked several classes, including music theory.
He signed up for the class again. He sought help from a St. Petersburg College music professor and got back to work.
Adán began to busk in front of the Mahaffey Theater and easily got the money he needed for his monthly viola payments. He also got tickets to concerts thrown in his case. He heard performances he would never have been able to afford. Orchestra members took him aside and told him he had grit.
He began to feel like he did have grit.
He joined Men in the Making, a St. Petersburg group dedicated to providing role models and life skills to minority young men. Mentors surrounded him.
He joined the Arts Conservatory for Teens. He made friends, learned about scholarships, made a plan for high school.
He began to grasp music theory by changing the way he learns — in patterns he could remember, not in words that got lost in the fog. He passed the music theory class with flying colors.
He practiced with Lamar relentlessly. Things began to get clearer in his head.
"I was told by a doctor after my concussion that when your brain gets shaken around, you can sever brain connections and ways of thinking," Adán said. "You slow down and get distracted. I think playing complicated music and really studying music theory has helped me build some new pathways in my brain, you know? I don't pause as much as I used to. I don't have that little '404 error' message as much anymore. I feel like I'm back again, after all these years."
Now 16, Adán keeps busking. He hopes to keep up with his payments on Lamar, to save enough for private lessons and to pay his way to summer camp at the Juilliard School in New York next summer. He wants to meet the professors who will someday watch him audition for a place in the prestigious music school.
He knows he needs to learn a second instrument to qualify for the school, and he is beginning to learn the cello. He knows that kids who can afford years of private lessons have a huge lead on him. He knows he will have to practice countless extra hours to close that gap.
But Adán has a quiet advantage. His struggle has taught him things he couldn't learn from a music instructor. He feels the weight of being a great composer's messenger. He and Lamar resonate intangibles as he bows: anger, sadness, longing, resolve.
Contact John Pendygraft at [email protected] or (727) 893-8247. Follow @pendygraft.