Filmmaking #7 - ROBERTA TZAVARAS and the East Harlem Violin Program

On May 9, 1991, Itzhak Perlman saw a report on the 11 o'clock news that arts instruction in the New York public schools was being cut city-wide. The broadcast included a short piece about an elementary-school violin program run by Roberta Tzavaras, a teacher in one of the schools. Shown playing along with a class of about twenty students, Roberta scolded the kids and yelled at them by name, but she was unfailingly encouraging: “Jonathan, you're flat. More bow, Jose, more bow – watch Melissa. That's it!”

The fifth- and sixth-graders in Roberta's class were playing at a level beyond anything Perlman would have thought possible. When Roberta spoke to the camera, eloquently defending the value of teaching music in the schools, Perlman was hooked. He decided he had to help. 

Somehow he found Roberta's' phone number and the next day he called her. “Hello, Roberta Tzavaras? This is Itzhak Perlman.” “Sure it is,” she answered, and started to hang up. But something about that deep voice made her hesitate. 

Perlman went directly to the point: he wanted to help Roberta fight to keep the violin program. He was impressed that her students were learning to make music themselves. Unlike what usually happens in the public schools, they were not just listening to recordings, reading about composers, and once or twice a year filling into the auditorium to hear visiting chamber groups mix performance with pleasant chat about the music and demonstrations of their instruments. Imagine watching a visiting group of professional mathematicians adding and subtracting in front of you.

Roberta's program was available to first graders in three elementary schools in East Harlem. No special musical ability was required; the children were chosen by lottery, not by audition. Most of them had never seen a violin – it took them several weeks just to get used to a small beginner's model parked under their chins. They began with easy arrangements of children’s' songs and folk tunes. By fourth or fifth grade they were playing snappy versions of standard Baroque composers, even having a go at Bach. 

At the end of every school year, Roberta presented a gala concert in which students of every level took part. With all the parents cramming the school auditorium, it felt like a sports event – lots of noise, except during the music, when no one seemed to breathe. The grand finale was always the Suzuki “Allegro,” a piece with a dramatic moment of silence just before the end. “The kids love the pause to be as long as possible,” Roberta said. “I make it outrageously long. Sometimes I threaten to go out and get a coffee while they're waiting.” Since 1980, when the program started, no student has ever come in too early with the closing phrase. 

When the TV program asked about her teaching style, Roberta answered, “I'm tough but caring. To my students, the other kids say, 'Ooh, you're in violin, that's not easy.' And that's true. I send notes home, I make a lot of demands. I'm not tolerant of anyone fooling around in my class.” 

* * *

Some of the parents of Roberta's students believed that the only reason to study an instrument was to develop the kind of disciplined personality their child would need for future professional success. They had heard about business executives who claimed that learning music in childhood contributed to their career advancement. Roberta's young students themselves acknowledged that the discipline required to learn the violin helped them develop the ability to concentrate on other subjects. “It's for a good reason that she yells at us – to give us discipline and focus when we play,” said Omar, a seasoned fifth-grader. “It helps us in our schoolwork.” But Roberta was not interested in music as a pathway to later achievement. She believed in the experience of music for its own sake, for the joy and awakening that it can offer. 

“My love of music started with lessons in public school,” she says, “and that's why I'm so committed to kids who would otherwise never have the opportunity or means to take lessons like the ones we're providing.” 

Other parents supported the program for even different reasons; they didn't care whether or not their kids learned an instrument. They simply believed that kids benefited from exposure to the sound of classical music playing in the environment.

This point of view gained advocates fast. It was even discussed in university journals as the Mozart effect:

In 1993, researchers at UC Irvine published a study in the journal Nature showing that 36 undergrads temporarily improved their spatial-reasoning IQ scores after listening to part of Mozart’s Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major. The story got blown up and oversimplified in the mainstream media, which trumpeted the so-called Mozart effect, the notion that listening to classical music makes you smarter. - San Francisco Chronicle Jan 19, 2012

Zell Miller, former governor of Georgia, asked for money in the state budget so that every newborn baby could be sent a CD of classical music.

''No one questions that listening to music at a very early age affects the spatial, temporal reasoning that underlies math and engineering and even chess,'' the Governor said today. ''Having that infant listen to soothing music helps those trillions of brain connections to develop.'' - The New York Times, Jan 15, 1998

Clearly, no one – neither children nor adults – really listens to this kind of wall-paper music. They only hear it.  The only way to find any meaning in music, is to give it complete attention. Playing Mozart in the background is like looking at a Rembrandt painting with a Modigliani superimposed on it.

* * *

After considering various ways to help Roberta Tzavaras's public-school violin program, Itzhak Perlman embarked on an ambitious project – a public fund-raising concert to be performed by Roberta and her students, along with the addition of a roster of star violinists whom Perlman undertook to get in touch with.

First he enlisted the help of the violinist Arnold Steinhardt of the Guarneri String Quartet, and his wife Dorothea van Heften. After observing one of Roberta's classes, the Steinhardts immediately signed on. Together with Perlman, they rounded up a number of other well known violinists: Michael Tree, Ani and Ida Kavafian, and Midori. Roberta invited several country and jazz performers to join the group – Mark O'Connor, John Blake Jr., Karen Briggs, and Diane Monroe. The Steinhardts went so far as to set a date and reserve the 92nd Street Y for a benefit concert. All this fell apart when a few weeks later the Y told them that the their date was no longer available. That was when the Steinhardts decided to go to Walter Scheuer for help. 

They had become friendly with Wally, as he liked to be called, during the filming of “High Fidelity,” my 1989 documentary about the Guarneri String Quartet. Wally had been its Executive Producer. In 1980, after Wally and I had collaborated on “From Mao to Mozart," he had fallen in love with the whole process of making documentary films. From then on, if a project interested him, he would jump in. “Come on,” he'd say. “We'll have a great adventure.” 

During the first days of the 1989 Czech revolution, for example, Wally and I watched events unfold on a television set in his office. As the dissident Vaclav Havel addressed huge crowds in Wenceslas Square, forty years of Communism were dissolving in front of us. “We have to go and film it,” he said. I thought he was kidding. “That's a tough one,” I replied. “They're having a revolution, Wally. Anyway, we'd have to find a Czech crew, get visas – all those preparations that even in New York would take at least a couple of weeks. We probably couldn't even get into the country.” “Come on,” he said, and got up from his chair. “We have to go. Maybe we’ll get lucky.” 

A week or so later, we were in Prague filming the celebration of Vaclav Havel's election to the Presidency of the new Czechoslovakia.

* * *

When the Steinhardts visited Wally, they told him about Roberta, and reported that the Y had cancelled their benefit concert date. Wally went to a couple of Roberta's classes and immediately proposed another plan: “Let's have the concert at Carnegie Hall – I'm a board member there. I'll talk to Isaac Stern.”

Stern did not agree at first; he was wary of building such a big event around kids, but Wally's enthusiasm won him over. The concert was scheduled for late October. Though Wally had never embarked on anything like this before, in a couple of weeks he had formed a committee to organize the gala. By concert time almost every seat in the house had been sold. 

As the date of the concert approached and anticipation was building, one of Roberta's students asked to be excused from a rehearsal in order to attend an important soccer practice. Roberta explained to her parents, in front of the rest of the kids, that their daughter would not be able to play in the concert if she chose soccer over a violin rehearsal. When the parents held firm, Roberta told the girl she was out of the concert. The rehearsal that followed proceeded with crackling intensity. 

The kids loved playing in Carnegie Hall. They were all dressed up in their best outfits, and with Roberta leading from the center of the stage, they played with great flair. These were Roberta's best students, including some who had come back from high school and even college to play in this concert. The finale, the Bach double-violin concerto, with Perlman, Stern, Steinhardt and all the others playing alongside the students, was a sensation: all those kids holding their own with the pros. The students and the stars were spread out shoulder to shoulder: student-star-student-star. A girl in a green taffeta dress looked to her right and saw Itzhak Perlman; to her left, Isaac Stern. She tried to keep a straight face, but she smiled broadly each time she glimpsed one of her neighbors. At the end, the audience clapped and cheered and shouted. The concert had been a wild success. Here is what the New York Times reported the next day: 

The finale of the Fiddlefest concert at Carnegie Hall on Monday evening was a reminder that the professional music world, the parade of stars and contenders who tread the boards night after night, is only part of the picture...The real knockouts were the student performances. Ms. Guaspari-Tzavaras led 35 players in two Bach minuets, in a Telemann sinfonia and, with Mr. O'Connor, in “The Orange Blossom Special,” all played from memory and fully in tune. There was reason to marvel at the players' technical polish, but the impact of the performances went deeper. It was clear from the vigorous attacks and releases of the young musicians' bowing and from the concentrated passion with which they dug into their lines that Ms. Guaspari-Tzavaras has shown them how to experience the mixture of visceral and spiritual excitement that is the best part of making music. - Allan Kozinn, October 27, 1993

As a result, Roberta was able to form a foundation to perpetuate her violin program. She called it Opus 118, after the street she lives on, and she soon expanded it to offer music lessons to neighborhood kids, in school and out. It continues to this day. After facing the possibility of having her program eliminated, Roberta had not only survived: she had made the strongest possible demonstration that active participation was essential to building a love and understanding of music.

Wally not only organized the concert but also funded a documentary called “Small Wonders,” about Roberta's school violin program. Susan Kaplan, who had worked with me on many films, became Producer, and I directed. We followed Roberta and the kids from the lottery that selected the students, through the struggles of the beginners' classes, to their triumphs as fifth- and sixth-graders. Week by week, month by month, we filmed the kids learning to play the violin.

The June gala concert at school, with parents and siblings and friends cheering and stomping, was the culmination of the academic year. But nothing could top the excitement and dramatic achievement of the Carnegie Hall concert. So after following the program chronologically, we went back and ended the film with the October rehearsals and performance in Carnegie. 

In 1995 our documentary, “Small Wonders,” was nominated for an Academy Award. It later became the basis of a feature film called “Music of the Heart,” directed by Wes Craven (one of his rare non-horror flicks). Craven succeeded in getting Meryl Streep to play the part of Roberta. Streep even studied the violin for a few months, and at the climax of the movie, that's really her, next to Isaac Stern, fingering the right notes in the Bach Concerto for Two Violins in Carnegie Hall.


When “Music of the Heart,” the feature film based on our documentary was in production, Wally Scheuer and Susan Kaplan and I were given Associate Producer credit. That allowed us to visit the set and witness the filming. Whenever we showed up we were provided with special director's chairs that had “Associate Producer” embroidered on the cloth backing. We felt like Hollywood big-shots. But Associate Producer chairs were apparently meant only for people who had put money into the film. When the man in charge found out that we were just film makers, he removed the chairs.