A cello, a violin, a final grace note

At a North Portland school, a lifelong music lover and students in the BRAVO music program meet and learn in the circle of life


PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOE CANTRELL
STORY BY BOB HICKS


On a busy musical afternoon at Sitton Elementary School in Portland’s St. Johns district earlier this month, a woman arrived at after-school music rehearsals bearing gifts: a cello in a hard case, and a half-size violin.

As it turns out, the cello and violin – as welcome as they were for the BRAVO Youth Orchestras program, in a school where the price of instruments is often beyond the means of the young musicians’ families – were emblematic of a larger gift: a gift of love and legacy; a passing-on, from generation to generation, of joy and encouragement. A going-away gift; a final grace note.

Sara Waddell and BRAVO’s Seth Truby, passing the torch.

The students are part of BRAVO, a program fashioned after the El Sistema movement that began in 1975 on the outskirts of Caracas, Venezuela, to bring the love and challenge of music to children in the barrios. Portland’s program began in 2013, and also concentrates on areas with higher than average poverty rates.

The woman is Sara Waddell, a 52-year-old mother of two teens from Beaverton who set aside her own musical studies and teaching career years ago to raise her sons. “I had sold my wonderful cello with its rich, beautiful tone from my younger years of trying to learn in college when my kids were very small and my little family needed the money,” she said. “Then I did without and believed I had given up learning to play forever.”

The go-between is Joe Cantrell, a veteran photojournalist and frequent ArtsWatch contributor who has followed BRAVO from close to its beginning and who almost accidentally became friends with Waddell about a year and a half ago through the online NextDoor network. Waddell was looking to borrow an exercise bike to help her recovery from what she thought was a sports injury. Cantrell had one. “We discovered that her father and I had both been Brown Water Navy sailors in the Mekong Delta during the Vietnam War,” he said. That began a bond of friendship.

A long and unexpected journey led to the January afternoon’s meeting of the generations at Sitton Elementary, one of BRAVO’s key sites in its mission to make music a central part of learning and life for lower-income children. That involves, among other things, supplying instruments for kids to practice on and play in performance, advancing them from basic learning instruments to larger and higher-quality ones as their bodies and skills grow. “We started seven years ago with the poorest school in Portland Public Schools. Rosa Parks Elementary,” said Seth Truby, BRAVO’s co-founder and executive director.

A Sitton BRAVO student, taking a violin for a spin around the musical block.

Life happens, and often in unanticipated ways. Waddell had wanted to learn to play the cello, and wanted to be a teacher. She married, and had two children, and did become a teacher, but learning the cello got put off. She worked as a substitute teacher, deciding she needed a flexible schedule to care for her family. Life was busy. And there was what she calls “a painful divorce.”

“I decided to try to learn the cello again while my kids took music lessons of their own so we would all have to practice,” she recalled. “But I truly didn’t have time to practice as a single mom, or money for lessons, so I gave it up again and intended to sell it one day.”

That left teaching: “I love students and teaching with all my heart. My oldest son was thriving in the wonderful Merlo Station High School (an alternative high school in Beaverton), so I was at last able to begin my teaching career, this time in special education instead of English and social studies 7-12, as I had intended to do when I was just out of college in my 20s.”

In June of 2018 she put out the ad for an exercise bike, and met Cantrell. “I was working on my funding and application to graduate school at Portland State University, certain it was my year and all was about to happen for me with my career.” And that, coincidentally, is when the story took a big left turn.

What she wanted to recover from wasn’t a sport injury. Instead, she learned, she had cancer. “It’s an ‘undifferentiated pleomorphic sarcoma’ and is as rare as winning millions in the lottery,” Waddell said in an email exchange. “And as rare as it is, it’s even a cancer that tends to strike men in their 70s – certainly not a chubby, but otherwise perfectly healthy 51-year-old woman!”

Sara Waddell with Cecille Elliott, BRAVO’s site director for Sitton Elementary.

Except for her young sons, her entire family was on the East Coast. “I only knew Mr. Cantrell from borrowing his exercise bike,” she said, “but I knew he is a journalist and asked him to accompany me to my biopsy followup appointment at OHSU, because they insisted I bring someone along.” Cantrell, she thought, was “an incredibly kind and gracious human being as well as someone who could keep it together and take notes during the appointment, in which I was told I had a 50-50 chance of living five years. But I didn’t know that at the time. The bravery to call a relative stranger and ask him to come along and help was providential, and one of the smartest things I’ve ever done.”

The aftermath of chemo, as Cantrell put it, “went very badly.” It killed her large intestine. She has an ileostomy, and almost died from septicemia. “Yet I lived,” Waddell said. “OHSU pulled a rabbit out of a hat and did what few hospitals in this country could have done, and they saved my life. … I believe what happened to me when I lived last fall was an act of God. I’m simply thankful it gave me another year to get ready in my life and say goodbye to my beautiful boys.”

For Cantrell, what some might have considered a duty became a kind of gift, perhaps even a blessing. “We’ve been to many appointments together,” he said. “I’ve seen her in what seems a tractor-beam of love with kids, reflecting her upmost desire to be able to teach kids with special needs. I’ve seen her interact with kids. It has always been revelatory for all involved.”

Waddell’s health continued to deteriorate. “I had multiple surgeries, drains for abdominal abscesses,” she said. “After almost three months in the hospital, and then time in rehab to learn how to walk, talk, swallow, and so on again, I came home in a wheelchair and excellent home health care from Providence.” Then the cancer metastasized. After a clinic trial failed to help, she was put on hospice care in November.

“These things happen,” Waddell said simply. “It’s just my turn. Of course, it’s heartbreaking. My teen boys are 15 and 18, and I’ll never be able to teach in the classroom, but I’m thankful for so much. Truly! Our brothers and sisters around the world have cancers, and they are getting bombs dropped on them as well, or are miles away from the nearest Band-Aid. I live 25 minutes from OHSU. I had Obamacare since I worked as a substitute teacher and was a single mom.”

BRAVO Lead Teaching Artist Emma Downing at the center of the circle of learning at Sitton Elementary.

And that, finally, brought Waddell to her January afternoon meeting at Sitton Elementary School with the teachers and students of BRAVO Youth Orchestras, where a passing-along of much more than musical instruments took place. “Last week Sara asked if I had any ideas where she might donate her personal cello and her son’s half-size violin,” Cantrell said on the day of the meeting. “I suggested Seth’s miraculous kids in North Portland. A few arrangements, and today I had the privilege of being in the room where Sara got to interact again with a group of kids. The immediate, positive body-language response around that talented, bright circle was palpable. And the cello and violin will lead long, happy, fulfilling lives.”

Ordinarily, when people donate instruments to BRAVO, they drop them at the organization’s offices. This wasn’t an ordinary donation. “When I understood the circumstances I said, ‘How about if we meet at one of our programs?’” Truby said. “Sara was really delighted to see the class.” A fair number of visitors drop in to observe classes, Truby noted, and the students are used to it. “What was different is that Sara was so excited that she joined in the clapping and singing exercises. So it was like extending the circle. It was delightful to see her join the music-making. She was so moved by the experience that she asked to address the students. She gave an impromptu talk. I don’t think she’d planned it. It was very much from the heart.”

Waddell’s donated violin, which is in fine condition, will go into immediate use. Her cello, Truby said, needs a little minor work, including some bridge adjustment, but it’s of higher quality than many of the instruments the students use. “The cello that Sara gave us is a full-sized cello, and it’s quite a nice one – nicer than your standard student cello,” he said. “I’m saving it for a serious, advanced high school student.”

That pleases Waddell. “Now that I am dying,” she said, “there’s just no contest between selling it for perhaps half of what I paid for it or less and giving it to a student who could learn with a beautiful cello of their very own. As I do the work of handling my stuff and all the valuables and clobber we accumulate in our lives, there was no question I would most want these instruments to go to a program for students eager to learn music. It was an honor to meet everyone and even just be in a classroom for my last time, seeing the work of all these unsung heroes of teachers who daily give of themselves for the best futures for kids. All of it was an overwhelming blessing for me.

Sara Waddell, back row left, joining in on BRAVO clapping exercises at Sitton Elementary School.

“I don’t have much to give, but I’m giving what I can from my heart. My work wardrobe went to a women’s homeless shelter, and it similarly makes me happy to think of these women getting a fresh start and new jobs with the label-hound finds I have collected from thrift stores all these years.

“I think of people as I get ready to leave this earth. Just imagine their faces! We are all brothers and sisters, really, and it simply makes me happy to give all I can to do some good – and pour out all the love in my heart – as I say goodbye. This is why I wanted to give these instruments to these students, who are our future, and I wish them the best of all in the best of possible worlds.”

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