In 1992, thirty-seven-year-old Vedran Smailovic was principal cellist of the Sarajevo Opera. Because of the fighting, Sarajevo was being called “the capital of hell.” On May 27, a long line waited in front of one of the last bakeries in town. Parents wanted to buy bread to feed their families. A mortar landed among them, exploding and killing twenty-two people in line.
Something inside Vedran Smailovic’s heart broke.
The carnage lay in the street outside his window. Instead of white bread for the masses to eat with their red meat, there were white bones and bloody masses of red flesh scattered everywhere.
It scarred his mind. His naivety evaporated. War was in his neighborhood. What could he do about it?
As he stayed up that night sobbing, his anguished mind struggled to rescue his soul from the pit of despair. How could he make a difference in a living hell? What could he do? Smailovic did the only thing he could. The only thing he knew.
The next day, he donned black. Not the black of mourning, but the formal black of a musician of a prestigious opera company. Twenty-four hours after the massacre, at 4 p.m., Smailovic settled his stool beside the still smoking crater.
And he began to play.
Excellence Amidst Tragedy.
He continued to play every day for two years. He played through the rockets red glare and the bombs bursting in air.
The citizens in the capital of hell received a heavenly emissary every day. They heard music that reminded them of the good, beautiful things of life. The lilting music singing that there was hope that again peace would return.
His powerful testimony brought even more attention to the horrors around him. This is quoted from a news report.
“Asked by a journalist whether he was not crazy doing what he was doing, Smailovic replied: “You ask me am I crazy for playing the cello, why do you not ask if they are not crazy for shelling Sarajevo!”
He played on.
After twenty-two days, he moved his chair. He played in other neighborhoods with freshly charred craters and fragments of humanity where souls had recently departed this earth. He played in graveyards amidst the newly buried where muffled mourners shuffled in the street looking for bread. Snipers poised to shoot those who attended funerals where he played. Smailovic played on.
He played until December 1993.
He had played to hold out hope to those who would listen. He became the personal embodiment of hope for peace in Bosnia. He dispensed hope in his music; he became hope to his people.
The next year, in 1994 famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma played a newly composed piece by English composer David Wilde at the International Cello Festival in Manchester, England. The piece entitled “The Cellist of Sarajevo” haunted those who were there. Pianist Paul Sullivan described it this way in Everyday Greatness:
“When he had finished, Ma remained bent over his cello, his bow resting on the strings. No one in the hall moved or made a sound for a long time. It was as though we had just witnessed that horrifying massacre ourselves.
Finally, Ma looked out across the audience and stretched out his hand, beckoning someone to the stage. An indescribable electric shock swept over us as we realized who it was…
Smailovic rose from his seat and walked down the aisle as Ma left the stage to meet him. They flung their arms around each other … everyone in the hall erupted into a chaotic, emotional frenzy…
We were all stripped down to our starkest, deepest humanity at encountering this man who shook his cello in the face of bombs, death, and ruin, defying them all.”
My heart is quiet.
It is as if the strings inside my vocal chords that make that dissonant sound – the sound of whining – those chords are broken. Snapped in two by the understanding that far worse things are happening in the world than my struggles to make ends meet and to put 26 hours into a 24-hour day.
And the vocal chords that share hope and goodness, and knowledge are stronger. I feel compelled. I must impart knowledge, but I must also teach things to prevent more carnage in future breadlines. I must play my music. I will lend my voice. I will pull up my chair to empower my students to add their voice to the things that echo for the good in this world.
You see, right now, our schoolyards are pretty tough places. I don’t care where you work; parents are stressed out. And when parents are stressed out, they send stressed toddlers, tykes and teens in through our doors.
And teachers are stressed too! Administrators! Curriculum directors! Librarians! Tightening budgets mean we have to do more with less. And we love our students, which means we have a decision. We have a choice.
We can see the carnage and problems outside our window – and we can have a pity party and say we are in the midst of the capital of hell. And we can do nothing.
Or, we can take a bit of humility and perspective from a cellist who really has been to hell. Realize that we have a choice as we retreat into our homes at night and lock our doors and contemplate what we shall do on the morrow. Surely our problems are far less. Most of our problems aren’t hell. They are hard. Sometimes they are hell. But not always.
We can’t do a lot. Some of us can blog. Others can speak or sing. Lots of us can teach, encourage, and help others. But there’s one thing we can all do.
We can teach.
For, you see, a good teacher is like music in the life of a student. Every educator is music in someone’s life. Our little words and actions are notes in the symphony of our school. The more of us who unite to play sweet music, the more we can be heard. United we are a symphony. But alone, we can still play sweet music.
So many times, life is not what we want it to be. But we examine ourselves, see what we can do and then we do what we can with all we have.
For, by playing our music – sometimes we become the only symbol of hope that others will hear.
The Cellist of Sarajevo. Live Positive.
Everyday Greatness: Inspiration for a Meaningful Life Paul Sullivan. “The Cellist of Sarajevo”