Social Issues

Amid a life of poverty and torment, the cello became his instrument of survival

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Photos and video by Jahi Chikwendiu

On a winter afternoon, Eddie Adams walked into a Kohl’s department store in Fairfax County looking for a red button-down shirt. He really didn’t have the money, but he was set to go onstage at the Kennedy Center the next day to play the cello in a quartet with three of his classmates from George Mason University. They had all agreed to wear red, and he didn’t want to let them down.

Adams picked out a bright ruby-colored dress shirt, walked up to the counter and slid his debit card over to the salesperson. It cost him about $45, then came $25 for a haircut and $29 to fill the tank of his gray 2004 Acura. Add in parking, and his performance on the Millennium Stage in January would set him back $116 — more than he had in his bank account. Fortunately, a professor at George Mason University, where Adams is a sophomore, gave him some money to help.

Adams’s classmates don’t know how stressful it is for him to play an unpaid gig. He is painfully aware that they have what he does not — a safety net, money that will be there for what they need. Adams grew up in poverty; he has nothing to fall back on. His only home, at 20 years old, is his dorm room.

The afternoon of the performance, Adams and his classmates arrived at the Kennedy Center and carefully opened their cases to remove their instruments, then plucked and tightened their strings. Adams was hungry but he had left his meal from Chipotle in his car across the street, and it was pouring rain outside. He sighed audibly.

“It’s cool to play at the Kennedy Center, but I’m so not wanting to be here,” he said.

His last performance in front of a large audience a few months ago had been a disaster, and he couldn’t afford that again; the stakes are too high for him. College, and the instrument he held in his hands, were his only way out.

He tried to force these thoughts from his mind as he stepped onstage to face the Kennedy Center audience that evening, carefully positioning himself on his chair and nodding at the other players in the quartet. He took a deep breath and gripped his bow, lowering it onto the strings of his cello.

Eddie Adams practices at the George Mason University School of Music. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

Adams had been a shy seventh-grader at Potomac Middle School in Prince William County when he first encountered a cello. His choir teacher had put several instruments on display in class so the students could examine them. He touched the smooth, glossy wood.

“What’s this?” he recalled wondering.

Later, his teacher randomly distributed the instruments to the children. He gave Adams the cello and Adams began to test the strings. “I was like, I don’t know what I’m doing. This sounds terrible,’ ” he said. “I didn’t know what was in tune and what was out of tune.”

He did not know the instrument would become his lifeline, providing him refuge from a difficult home life, inspiring mentors to help him and eventually becoming his ticket to George Mason University’s School of Music. Maybe, too, it would one day help him fulfill his dream of becoming an orchestral musician.

By middle school, Adams had moved homes with his mother and five siblings about seven times, including to a homeless shelter in Alexandria. Even when he had a roof over his head, Adams recalls a childhood that felt like one long spell of unsparing punishment, sometimes as the target of family jokes for getting good grades and “acting white,” he said, other times for reasons he never seemed to grasp.

“They make fun of me when I sound intelligent. They make fun of my grammar, the inflection of my voice,” Adams said. His mother, Myra Mason, said his siblings were jealous that Adams did well in school, but she believes her son is spurning his racial identity and family — something Adams denies.

Already feeling like an outsider at home, Adams said he hid his growing sense that he was bisexual from his family, afraid of their reactions.

Before he started ninth grade, his family moved yet again, and he enrolled at Gar-Field High School in Prince William County. In orchestra class, he chose to play the cello. His teacher, Gerald Fowkes, took an interest in him and showed him what the instrument could do.

Adams would stay after school and play to avoid going home. That was when the cello started to make sense to him. “It clicked because I was really having problems at home,” Adams said. “I was like, ‘Wow, that’s what a cello can do? That’s how it can sound?’ ”

Eddie Adams, 20, practices at George Mason University. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)
Eddie Adams, 20, practices at George Mason University. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)
Eddie Adams, 20, practices at George Mason University. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)
Eddie Adams, 20, practices at George Mason University. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

His mother said she noticed that when Adams hit middle school, he became withdrawn from the family, though she did not understand why. “He was unhappy with who he was,” she said.

Fowkes, also a cello player, said Adams initially stood out for his shyness.

“He was extraordinarily introverted,” Fowkes said. “At first it was really hard to read him. I could tell he was starved for attention.”

Despite a lack of early musical education, Adams had a natural ear for pitch, Fowkes said. “If I could demonstrate something, he could mimic it,” Fowkes said.

To figure out where to put his fingers and how to hold the bow, Adams watched YouTube videos.

At that time in his life, he said, the world only felt right when he was in the practice room.

When he played, he would feel stress physically leaving his body. He could be in a practice room for five hours and lose track of time until he noticed the sun had set. The best music, the most therapeutic for him, is heavy and mournful. The darker, the better. Sometimes he would turn off the lights and play, tears streaming down his face.

“Playing felt natural, everything fell into place,” he said. “I didn’t have to think about things. . . . It made me feel like I want to be myself.”

Eddie Adams, 20, with his cello. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

In 2016, Adams was attending yet another high school — this time, Forest Park in Prince William County — and was days away from graduating when he got the call that his oldest brother, Najee Alexander Mason, 24, had been shot to death by a roommate, possibly in a dispute over money.

Not long after, Adams had a particularly harrowing fight with his mother and arranged to go to New York to live with his father and stepmother for a year. Adams’s mother said the trauma of losing her son made that time challenging for everyone.

Adams said he confided in his father and stepmother that he was bisexual, and his secret made its way to his mother.

She was furious, saying God didn’t make him that way, Adams recalled, although Mason said she doesn’t remember having a direct conversation with her son about his sexuality.

Feeling betrayed and lost, and sleeping in his car, Adams said he decided to turn to Fowkes and his former high school orchestra teacher, Benjamin Pereyra, for help.

Pereyra, 34, and his wife let Adams move in with them for a time in their home in Virginia and told him to apply to George Mason, Pereyra’s alma mater. Pereyra helped Adams fill out the application, and the school waived the fee.

Adams was granted admission academically, but there was another step: He had to audition to earn admittance into the School of Music. He was terrified because he hadn’t been playing regularly for months, and he didn’t have a cello. Pereyra loaned him his.

Before classes started in spring 2018, Adams walked into a nondescript practice room and faced two judges. One was June Huang, the music department’s strings director, who sat behind a brown table and neatly scored the dozens of applicants who auditioned that day.

Adams began to play assigned excerpts from a Brahms’s symphony, and Huang did something she had never done before: She dropped her pencil. Then she forgot to score him.

Adams chats after class with June Huang, the director of strings at George Mason University School of Music. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

“It was the most beautiful, soulful playing,” Huang said.

Adams became the principal cellist in the school orchestra. He started taking private lessons — a first for him — through the school to help him with technique. But college was overwhelming.

His scholarship, a grant and financial aid covered classes and housing, but not food, books and other expenses. He kept a job he had at Starbucks, but after paying bills, he often had just $20 left over for food that had to stretch the month. He would stock up on ramen, pasta and frozen broccoli.

One week, he realized he was in danger of failing a class, so he took the weekend off from Starbucks to study, setting off an unfortunate chain of events. The missed work meant he didn’t have enough money to pay his mother’s car insurance in exchange for using her car. Then he didn’t have a way to get to work, so he lost his job. As a result, he had to return the cello he’d been renting.

For two weeks during strings classes, Adams, a performance major, used an old cello he found in school, but it was difficult to play and sounded terrible. Huang asked him why he didn’t have a decent instrument and, embarrassed, he shared his story.

“Okay,” she said, “take my cello.”

Over the next few months, she gave him rides to performances and one day bought him a bow when he needed one. “I can’t accept this,” she recalled him saying. “I can’t pay you back.”

“You don’t have to pay me back,” she told him. “In the music world, we pay it forward. One day you’ll help someone who needs it.”

Adams prepares to take the stage at the Hylton Performing Arts Center in September. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)
Adams prepares to take the stage at the Hylton Performing Arts Center in September. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)
Adams prepares to take the stage at the Hylton Performing Arts Center in September. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

Adams said he was arguing a lot with his family that semester and, unable to focus, his grades tumbled. Suddenly, with a grade-point average of just 1.9, he was in danger of losing his scholarship and getting kicked out of the university. Huang pushed him to study.

In the fall of 2018, Adams decided not to take a regular job so he could focus on his schoolwork. Through financial assistance, he got a meal plan covered. But even with that and occasional paid gigs through school, his living expenses were crushing him.

Aside from the basics, he had to fix strings as they broke, renew his driver’s license — and then there was the mandatory hiring of a piano player to accompany him during musical exams, an expense that can run students $400 a semester.

Huang, an accomplished violinist, started playing small performances to collect money for him. One of her private students set up an online fundraiser, and friend of hers gave Adams a used car — which was crucial for him get to gigs at churches, nursing homes and other places, even though he was still on the hook for car insurance, gas and maintenance.

Huang said she tries not to get overwhelmed by Adams’s problems.

“I have friends who say this isn’t going to work because the gap between poverty and a college education is just too great,” Huang said.

She disagrees.

Adams’s drive and musical talent have made her believe in him.

“There are lots of abused and neglected people out there,” Huang said. “But how many of them say, ‘Okay, I’m going to play the cello?’ That’s what music is. That’s what makes music meaningful.”

Adams performed at the Hylton Performing Arts Center in September. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

Adams spent weeks preparing to perform as part of GMU’s legendary pep band, the Green Machine, to kick off the school’s basketball season in October at an event called Mason Madness. For Adams, it was an important night in his social circle, and the largest crowd he’s ever played — 3,000 excited students and ticket holders.

To look the part, Adams stood with his head bowed in the men’s bathroom at Eagle Bank Arena before the performance as a friend sprayed his hair electric green, one of the school’s colors.

“I’m going to die, it’s flammable!” Adams yelled to his buddy, Wagnus Prioleau, a violinist.

“Edward!” Prioleau jokingly snapped back, trying to calm his friend.

Adams performs a solo at a school pep rally in October at EagleBank Arena in Fairfax County. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)
Friend and fellow bandmate Wagnus Prioleau sprays Adams%u2019s hair green before a school pep rally at an event known as Mason Madness that kicks off GMU%u2019s basketball season. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)
Adams performs a solo at a school pep rally in October at EagleBank Arena in Fairfax County. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)
Adams performs a solo at a school pep rally in October at EagleBank Arena in Fairfax County. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

Adams, a classical cellist, wasn’t used to playing rock, funk and hip-hop. And he was on edge because the music director wrote the entire act around Adams’s solo cello performance, a converted guitar riff from the Guns N’ Roses song “Welcome to the Jungle.” The director even bought a wireless electric cello for Adams just for the night, which Adams had to learn to play on the fly.

He was anxious about the solo and the literal spotlight that would be on him. He had no backup orchestra, no room for error.

Adams walked out onto the stage and into the spotlight, his green-haired profile illuminated. Thousands of fans cheered as he started to play. Adams immediately knew something was off. He was playing all the right notes, but some of the chords were terribly muted. The audio system had failed.

The riled-up crowd didn’t appear to notice, but for Adams, it was humiliating. The minute-long solo performance seemed to last forever. He wanted to stop playing and walk off.

When the show was over, shaking his head and visibly upset, Adams shuffled off the stage.

Now on the Kennedy Center Millennium Stage, he faced another large audience, this time in Washington’s storied arts center where the world’s top artists perform.

Seated in his chair, cradling his cello, he looked out at the packed house. In the very back, a row of people were standing to catch a glimpse of the performance.

He glanced at his friends in the quartet and steadied his cello, pulling his mind and body into the zone.

Then he smiled.

Beautiful, rhythmic notes filled the auditorium. Adams’s body swayed as he played the traditional Chinese melody “Friendship,” then four other pieces, including the Neapolitan song “Funiculi, Funicula.” His head bounced happily.

The Kennedy Center camera pulled in tight for a close-up. His part in the performance lasted about 30 minutes. At the end of it all, the audience clapped madly and rose in a standing ovation.

In that moment, his dream of one day winning a spot in a major symphony orchestra felt closer. He knew a life-changing achievement like that would turn on a single audition, and there was no way to predict if he’d ever get such a chance. Even so.

Minutes later, Adams stood outside the Kennedy Center, those notions far from his mind. It was raining, and he didn’t have an umbrella. He hoisted his cello case on his back, settled the straps on his shoulders and stepped out into the cold, wet night. He crossed the street into the dark parking garage and looked down at the $17 parking ticket he still had to pay.

Julie Tate and Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.

Credits: Story by Allison Klein. Photos and video by Jahi Chikwendiu. Designed by Audrey Valbuena. Photo Editing by Nick Kirkpatrick.