In the spring of 1981, a young violin teacher named Roberta Guaspari Tzavaras, newly arrived in East Harlem, held the first concert of the violin program she had just started at Central Park East School (CPE). The concert wasn’t very big, and it wasn’t very fancy. The program was hand-lettered by Roberta, decorated with a picture she had drawn herself. As word spread of the dynamic violin teacher at CPE, her program spread to CPE’s two affiliate schools, CPE II and River East. It grew from about 40 students to 130 and more. Every year there was an end-of-the-year concert that brought parents and grandparents to their feet, clapping, cheering, and crying. And every year there was a hand-written program with a picture drawn by Roberta.
Then, in 1991, disaster hit. There were budget cuts for New York City public schools, and the violin program was axed. But Roberta wasn’t giving up. Working with parents, other teachers and volunteers, she founded Opus 118 Harlem School of Music. Violinist Arnold Steinhardt, impressed by Roberta’s music classes, engaged colleagues Itzhak Perlman and Isaac Stern to organize Fiddlefest, a benefit concert at Carnegie Hall to keep the violin program alive. Arnold’s wife, Dorothea von Haeften, began working tirelessly to help save the program. Not only did this first concert shine a bright light on Opus 118, it became the first in a series of Fiddlefests with acclaimed musicians such as Joshua Bell, Yo-Yo Ma, Wynton Marsalis, Bobby McFerrin, and Mark O’Connor joining the students in performance. This concert helped to create Opus 118’s In-School Program, which is now serving five East Harlem public elementary schools with group violin classes during school hours that are free-of-charge to families.
Roberta Guaspari’s passionate struggle to keep music instruction alive in Harlem’s public schools has inspired two films: Small Wonders, a 1996 documentary produced by Walter Scheuer and Susan Kaplan and directed by Allan Miller, and Miramax’s 1999 feature film, Music of the Heart, starring Meryl Streep. Both films received Academy Award nominations.
In 2002, Opus 118 Harlem School of Music expanded on the success of its In-School Program and established a comprehensive community music school. Through these programs, Opus 118 meets the needs of the community by offering students private, partner, and group instruction. Many of these students would not otherwise be able to afford music instruction outside of regular school hours. In addition to Opus 118’s internationally-renowned violin lessons, the program offers lessons in viola, cello, guitar, and piano. Aspiring music teachers interested in Opus 118’s unique methodology are invited to intern and apprentice with Roberta Guaspari and other master teachers through Opus 118’s Teacher Training Initiative. Many of these interns and apprentices go on to join Opus 118’s faculty, serving more classrooms of young violinists.
In 2012, Opus 118 Harlem School of Music formed a partnership with Kaufman Music Center on West 67th Street that has helped to ensure that this valuable work can continue for years to come. What started in one Harlem classroom now touches the lives of thousands of children, here in New York and in other cities that have taken inspiration from the Opus 118 story. To find out more about Opus 118 Harlem School of Music, please visit opus118.org.