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The String Vault:
GRSMA's Donations to Musicians in Cuba

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National Symphony Orchestra of Cuba conductor Raphael Carter (left), receiving GRSMA's donations from Marc Bohland (right), the founder and executive director of First Hand Aid.

Some GRSMA musicians may have wondered what the ancient jumbo manila envelope is (now covered with charming kid artwork), attached to the musician bulletin board backstage at DeVos Hall. It’s actually for donating used strings! But let's back up a bit and explain The String Vault, one of the international projects offered by the Tropikordia Foundation.


The foundation was established in 2010 by Mark Tanner (the cellist brother of GRSMA violinist Eric Tanner) and his wife Janna Lower (Professor of Violin at the University of Florida). The String Vault was created with the mission of promoting string performance around the world and to preserve the art of live acoustic string playing. To accomplish these goals, the Tropikordia Foundation supports both the performance and appreciation of string repertoire by nurturing young performers, with an emphasis on those in underprivileged regions of the world.


One of the first initiatives was the rescue and transport of basic stringed instrument supplies, such as strings for violins, violas, cellos, and basses. Strings are outrageously expensive in many Latin American countries in South and Central America, as well as the Caribbean, often costing a month’s wages, if materials can be obtained at all. Through contacts around various U.S. orchestras, many used strings have been donated by professional musicians, collected and sorted by volunteers, and subsequently brought to teachers and conductors in underserved countries to distribute to students. For a while, soloist Sarah Chang, who goes through about a set of strings every week or two, donated her strings!


Strings aren’t the only things that have been donated and transported to students in other countries. They have received donations of complete instruments, cases, rosin, bow hair, music, and instrument parts, all of which string players in less-fortunate countries are extremely grateful to use. GRSMA string players have been very generous in donating supplies over the years to The String Vault.


Between the untimely loss of Eric's brother in 2017, and the COVID-19 pandemic and related issues, activity at Tropkordia has slowed down substantially in recent years. However, one opportunity recently presented itself when GRSMA violinist Diane Helle visited Cuba in January through a mission trip sponsored by Westminster Presbyterian Church of Grand Rapids.


Diane had the opportunity to be part of the church group that partners with First Hand Aid (, a Grand Rapids based organization which for 25 years has had as its mission “to gather and distribute humanitarian and medical aid to the most marginalized Cubans, giving them hope, dignity, and the necessities of life and health.” 


Thanks to the many GRSMA musicians who have donated their used strings over the years, the January 2024 trip by First Hand Aid expanded the meaning of humanitarian aid and the necessities of life to include our donated supplies for Cuba’s orchestral musicians. 


Along with approximately eight hundred pounds of medicine, health care products, and educational supplies, Diane and eight other travelers were able to transport the very large collection of strings (along with a few mutes and even a bass tail-piece), all divided up into manila envelopes that fit in among the clothes in their carry-on bags. Brand new, this collection of strings would have cost over $10,000.


Unfortunately, the National Symphony Orchestra of Cuba left on tour the day the group arrived in Havana, so Diane was not able to present the gift in person. However, Marc Bohland, the founder and executive director of First Hand Aid, arranged to meet with conductor Raphael Carter upon their return to make the presentation. As Marc reported after that meeting, “I cannot even express his extreme joy in your gifts.”

Conductor Raphael Carter will ensure that GRSMA's donations will be put to good use right away, as he has the responsibility for orchestras all around Cuba, not just in Havana. No doubt that our large donation of strings will have a far-reaching effect.

Many thanks to everyone who contributed to this gift of humanitarian aid and the necessity of musical life for string players of Cuba! Should you wish to contribute items to the Tropikordia Foundation, please contact Eric Tanner at To learn more about the foundation, visit



GRSMA: Eric Tanner and Diane McElfish Helle are to be commended for their contributions to this article, as well as their work for this worthwhile project! 

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