An audience of street-wise, hard-hearted juveniles charged with serious crimes like murder and armed robbery seems unlikely for a concert of classical cello music. Mark Salzman’s reluctance to perform for them at Los Angeles’ Central Juvenile Hall is understandable.

Nonetheless, that is where Salzman found himself one day, drafted by Sister Janet Harris, coordinator of volunteer activities.

Salzman, a Pulitzer-prize nominated author, acclaimed cellist and martial arts master, was a volunteer in the writing program there directed by Sister Janet. When she discovered his musical gift, she enlisted him for a chapel program as well.

Salzman’s 2003 book, True Notebooks, recalls his experiences at Juvenile Hall, a maximum security prison for violent juvenile offenders, many of whom face life in the penitentiary following sentencing.

As he waited outside the chapel for his turn to perform that day, he could hear the loud roar of amplified music from the performers preceding him. Peering inside, he saw the all-male inmate audience clapping and cheering for the hip-hop group, especially for its provocatively dressed lone female member.

In spite of Sister Janet’s reassurances that the inmates would politely receive him and his music, Salzman was concerned. It was a tough act to follow, and an even tougher crowd to engage.

A man with a poorly fitting toupee introduced him, mispronouncing his name and referring to his instrument as a violin instead of a cello. As Salzman nervously walked onto the stage, he tripped on the raised platform, preventing a fall only by using his cello as a ski pole. That, at least, got a round of laughter and applause from the inmates.

To regain his composure, he stalled for time and talked some about his instrument, explaining how almost everything on it, except for the metal strings and end pin, had once been part of another living thing: spruce, maple, ebony, snakewood, ivory. “When we play the instrument,” he said, “we bring these pieces to life again.”

In introducing his first number, “The Swan” by Camille Saint-Saens, he noted that it always made him think of his mother.

With its high ceiling, bare walls and hard floor, the chapel provided a superb acoustical environment. For a moment, Salzman was caught up in the sound as he played, but then a noise from the audience brought him back down to earth. He feared the worst, that his audience was bored.

The rustling noise grew louder, causing him to look into the crowd. He was amazed. Tears ran down the faces of many of the inmates. What he thought were the sounds of boredom were actually sniffles, “music to any musician’s ears,” he wrote.

He’d never played “The Swan” better than he did that day, he says, and when he finished, the applause was deafening. He followed that piece with one from Bach, which also received thundering applause. Then a voice from the audience shouted, “Play the one about mothers again.” The other inmates cheered.

Salzman played “The Swan” three times, with more Bach in between, to an audience deeply moved by what they heard. When the man who had introduced him earlier signaled that his time was up, the inmates booed him. And then, Salzman says, they gave him an ovation.

Something had changed, but what? They were still violent offenders, most filled with unresolved anger, hate and bitterness. But for that moment, at least, those feelings melted away. Memories of their violent pasts briefly vanished. Purity defeated the impurity in their hearts and worked its way to the surface.

In a similar way, authentic Christian discipleship affects changes in our hearts and works its way from the inside out. We may not look any differently at first, but we begin to act differently because our attitudes change.

It’s easy to focus on the outside; it is, after all, what we see. Yet “the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (1 Sam 16:7b).

Right living results from changed hearts, and true disciples follow their hearts.

Jan Turrentine is managing editor of Acacia Resources.

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