SUBJECTS — Music/Classical; U.S./1991 – present & New York; Biography (Guaspari);
SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL LEARNING — Education; Female Role Model;
MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS — Responsibility; Citizenship.
AGE; 6+; MPAA Rating — G;
Documentary; 1996; 77 minutes; Color.
This documentary entrances and inspires music students ages 6 – 16, by showing children their own age anxious to play the violin, willing to practice, and willing to work hard to live up to their teacher’s stringent standards. The setting is the New York City School system in the late 1980s and early 1990s. As in many parts of the country, public schools are being forced to drastically reduce spending on arts and music education. Roberta Guaspari has created an innovative violin program at three elementary schools in East Harlem. When funding cuts force the school board to eliminate her program, she doesn’t accept her fate and fade away. Instead, Ms. Guaspari, the parents of her students, other teachers, and public-minded citizens create their own nonprofit foundation so that instruction in the violin can continue. To raise money for the program, the parents and their allies organize a concert at Carnegie Hall in which masters such as Isaac Stern, Itzhak Perlman, Arnold Steinhardt, and country fiddler Mark O’Connor, perform alongside the young students. “Small Wonders” documents this story and shows violin students as young as six years of age practicing, taking class and performing.
Watching this film will help children who play musical instruments acquire the discipline to practice. It will make them aware that there are millions of young people throughout the world working hard, learning to play musical instruments. “Small Wonders” may inspire children to take up a musical instrument. Older children (and adults) will benefit from watching caring and nurturing inner-city schools in action and an inspiring teacher. This film shows people of all races in the melting pot of New York City, working together to raise their children. “Small Wonders” demonstrates that sometimes effective action can be taken to correct for misguided governmental decisions. The film also introduces Carnegie Hall and some of the great violinists of our time.
The film features vignettes of educators and parents talking about Ms. Guaspari’s program and arts education in general. The East Harlem Violin Program has expanded to three violin teachers and one cello instructor. Its student body is 36% African American and 60% Latino. Many of its students continue their music study in the Interschool Orchestras of New York, the Julliard School of Music Advancement Program, and the Harlem Schools for the Arts. In addition to Carnegie Hall, the students from this program have performed at the White House, the Kennedy Center, in Germany, Switzerland, and many other locations. Demand for the program still exceeds the space available and the lottery is still used to select students. 50% of the applicants are turned away.
What began as an effort to protect the job of an innovative and inspiring teacher is now a nonprofit organization with broader goals. Opus 118 – We Want Music! has plans that include promoting outstanding teaching efforts in other New York City schools, offering after school and weekend lessons to dedicated students, and a concert series to expose students to great musical performers. Its “Outstanding String Teachers Initiative” seeks to train music teachers in the group teaching methodology pioneered by Roberta Guaspari, along with developing skills in program development, community-parent organization, relations with elected officials, and public-private interaction. Opus 118 – We Want Music! has proposed several other initiatives designed to promote music education nationally.
Roberta Guaspari studied violin in the public schools and went on to major in Music Education in college. She holds a Masters Degree in Music Education from Boston University. She is now Artistic Director of Opus 118 – We Want Music!
New York City’s Carnegie Hall is acclaimed as the world’s most prestigious concert hall. “Its walls have echoed with applause for the world’s outstanding classical artists, as they have for the greatest popular musicians of our time and for the many prominent dancers, politicians, authors, and crusaders who have appeared on its stage.” Financed by industrial tycoon Andrew Carnegie, who foresaw its great legacy, Carnegie Hall was completed in 1891. It is “an embodiment of the aspirations of all those who have striven, on both sides of the footlights, to sustain our musical culture and convey it to future generations.” A performance at Carnegie Hall is considered the high point of a concert artist’s career. For more on Carnegie Hall, see The Carnegie Hall Website.
What did you think when you saw those kids practicing the violin?
There is no correct response. The question seeks to elicit the wonder of these children practicing so hard or the admiration of it.
QUICK DISCUSSION QUESTION FOR CHILDREN 10 – 13 YEARS:
What did you think when you saw those kids playing with all those great violinists at Carnegie Hall?
There is no correct response. The question seeks to elicit how nice it was for the children to have a chance to play at Carnegie Hall with the famous violinists.
QUICK DISCUSSION QUESTION FOR CHILDREN 14 AND OLDER:
Deborah Meier, the founder of the Central Park East School, tells us that:
“The arts are fundamental to childrens’ education and they are fundamental because the art is fundamental to human nature, to human beings. So I don’t see the arts as an instrument primarily to teach something else. The primary reason why we need strong arts programs in the schools is because human beings are artists. One way we grapple with ideas is through the arts.”
Do you agree or disagree? Explain why.
The purpose of a question like this is to spark debate. There are those who feel that schools should focus exclusively on academic subjects, seeing the arts as dispensable. There are others (we are among them) who see the arts as indispensable. Men and women have been drawing, singing, chanting and dancing since the dawn of time. These activities are a major outlet for our spirit. Without them our lives are deeply impoverished.
2. What does it say about our priorities that one of the richest nations in the world cannot afford arts and music education in the schools?
3. What if Ms. Guaspari could not have attracted Isaac Stern and the other famous violinists to the concert and had to settle for a location less prestigious than Carnegie Hall? Should she and the parents still have tried to raise the money to save the violin program? Do you think they would have been successful? What if the school had been located in a poor rural area? Would that have made a difference?
4. Remember the girl who was dropped from the program because she left rehearsal for soccer practice? She had to choose between two activities, both of which were good for her. Did she (or rather her parents) make the right choice? Explain your answer.
5. Would you rather play the violin at the New York Knicks’ halftime or play the violin at Carnegie Hall with Isaac Stern, Itzhak Perlman, and other great violinists?
1. What did you think of Ms. Guaspari as a teacher? Was she too harsh?
2. Ms. Guaspari insisted that her students practice their instruments, bring their instruments to class, arrive on time, and try hard in class. When students violated these requirements they were dismissed from the program. What was the purpose of Ms. Guaspari’s strict requirements? Were they beneficial to the children even when a child was dropped from the program?
3. Why would children give up their play time to practice the violin? What would you give up your free time to practice?
4. Many educators and parents believe that music should be part of the regular curriculum for all students and that additional music lessons should be available from elementary school through high school to those students who want them. Do you agree or disagree?
5. What is the reason for music education? Is it because music education trains children so that they can succeed in other areas or is it because as human beings, we all need to be able to express ourselves artistically?
FEMALE ROLE MODEL
6. Why would someone think that Ms. Guaspari is a female role model? Do you agree or disagree? Explain your answer.
7. What are some of the hurdles that Ms. Guaspari had to overcome to be a good violin teacher?
MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS (CHARACTER COUNTS)
Discussion Questions Relating to Ethical Issues will facilitate the use of this film to teach ethical principles and critical viewing. Additional questions are set out below.
(Do what you are supposed to do; Persevere: keep on trying!; Always do your best; Use self-control; Be self-disciplined; Think before you act — consider the consequences; Be accountable for your choices)
1. Many music teachers who faced the elimination of their teaching program, simply folded up their tents and went away. Others protested but, when the elected officials declined to act on their protests, they accepted their fate. See Mr. Holland’s Opus. And there is nothing wrong with accepting a defeat, unless the teacher can figure out a way to stay involved. That is what Ms. Guaspari did. How does her actions apply to the ethical values of citizenship and responsibility?
(Do your share to make your school and community better; Cooperate; Stay informed; vote; Be a good neighbor; Obey laws and rules; Respect authority; Protect the environment)
2. What made Ms. Guaspari a particularly good teacher? How does this demonstrate the ethical principle of citizenship without considering her success in keeping her program alive?
(See also the discussion questions under the headings “Responsibility” and “Education.”)
ASSIGNMENTS, PROJECTS & ACTIVITIES
High school age students can be asked to read Ms. Guaspari’s book, Music of the Heart, and write a report on it. See also Assignments, Projects, and Activities for Use With Any Film that is a Work of Fiction.
BRIDGES TO READING
cello, bridge, bow, fiddle. concerto, jazz, hall (as in Carnegie Hall), charitable, nonprofit, budget, concert, performance.
MOVIES ON RELATED TOPICS:
For a fictional treatment of Ms. Guaspari’s efforts to teach children to play the violin and to save The East Harlem Violin Program, see Music of the Heart. For another film about the story of a laid-off music teacher see Mr. Holland’s Opus.
The “Composers’ Specials” are well-made films created especially for children, ages 6 – 12. They show actual events in the lives of great composers but introduce a fictional child character. The titles in the series are Bach’s Fight for Freedom, Bizet’s Dream, Rossini’s Ghost, Strauss: The King of Three Quarter Time, Liszt’s Rhapsody, Handel’s Last Chance, and Beethoven Lives Upstairs.
In addition to websites which may be linked in the Guide and selected film reviews listed on the Movie Review Query Engine, the following resources were consulted in the preparation of this Learning Guide:
- Music of the Heart, by Roberta Guaspari with Larkin Warren.