SUBJECTS — Music/Classical; U.S. 1945 – 1991;

SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL LEARNING — Education; Male Role Model Parenting; Father/Son; Mother/Son; Marriage; Disabilities;

MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS — Responsibility; Citizenship; Caring; Respect.

AGE: 10+; MPAA Rating — PG for mild language;

Drama; 1995; 143 minutes; Color.

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This is the heartwarming tale of the career and family life, the triumphs and tragedies of a music teacher.


Selected Awards: 1996 Academy Awards Nominations: Best Actor (Dreyfus); 1996 Golden Globe Awards Nominations: Best Actor (Dreyfus); Best Screenplay.

Featured Actors: Richard Dreyfus, Glenne Headly, Jay Thomas, Olympia Dukakis, William H. Macy, Alicia Witt, Terrence Dashon Howard, Damon Whitaker, Jean Louisa Kelly, Alexandra Boyd, Nicholas John Renner, Joseph Anderson, Anthony Natale (II).

Director: Stephen Herek.


“Mr. Holland’s Opus” shows a musician who discovers his true vocation as a school teacher. Mr. Holland fails in some ways, but in the long run he faces the opportunities, challenges, and tragedies of his life with love and commitment. The film shows his false starts as a teacher, husband, and father and how he perseveres and finally meets the challenges that life places in his path. This film is a “tear jerker” in the best sense: love, success, rejection, and understanding tug at our heartstrings.


MINOR. Mild profanity is used two or three times in the film. The film implies that once a school board decides to cut a music program, there is nothing that students, teachers, or parents can do except give a rousing send-off to their now dismissed music teacher. This is not quite true. See Small Wonders and Music of the Heart.


Ask and help your child to answer the Quick Discussion Question.


In the late 1980s and early 1990s, lack of funds caused public schools across the United States to reduce spending on arts and music education. Many parents, students, and educators felt that this was shortsighted. Arts education has many positive effects: teaching discipline and teamwork and giving children an opportunity to excel. However, these are not the most important reasons for arts education.

The arts are fundamental to children’s’ education and they are fundamental because 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 that human beings are artists. One way we grapple with ideas is through the arts. [Deborah Meier, founder of the innovative Central Park East School, a public school in New York City, and principal there for many years. Ms. Meier is shown making this statement in Small Wonders.]

George Gershwin (1889-1937) was one of the great songwriters of the 20th century. He composed primarily for the Broadway musical theater but Gershwin also wrote significant classical pieces. As a songwriter, Gershwin was unparalleled in the lyricism and beauty of his music, as shown by the songs performed in the film. In the classical realm, Gershwin’s works combined jazz with classical forms and include such favorites as “Rhapsody in Blue” (a symphony), “Porgy and Bess” (an opera), “Concerto in F,” and “An American in Paris” (also a symphony).

Ira Gershwin, George’s older brother, wrote the words to most of George’s songs. In a reversal of the usual relationship between songwriters and their lyricists, Ira wrote the words after George had written the music.

Sign language arose from gestures of a community of deaf people in Paris, France, in the eighteenth century. They were observed by Abbe Charles Michel de L’Epee who established the first free school for the deaf in 1755. From the signing that he observed, and using his own creativity, L’Epee fashioned a system of hand signs by which concepts could be communicated. L’Epee’s system was brought to the United States in 1816 by Thomas Gallaudet who founded the American School for the Deaf in Hartford, Conn. American Sign Language (ASL) developed from an amalgamation of the French system and various systems then already in use in the United States. ASL is now used by more than 500,000 deaf people in the United States and Canada.

ASL has its own grammatical structure that is different from English. Users of ASL can also sign in English word order, a modification of ASL that continues to grow in popularity. It is used especially when hearing people are part of the conversation. It’s easier for hearing people to learn sign language using English syntax rather than the grammatical structure of ASL.

In the film, Mr. Holland’s son uses not only sign language but he also speaks a little. This is called “total communication” in which all available means of communication are used, including sign language, gesturing, finger spelling, speech reading, speech, hearing aids, reading, writing, and pictures.

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1. See Discussion Questions for Use With any Film that is a Work of Fiction.


2. When Mr. Holland asks his student, Gertrude, to “Play the sunset,” what did he mean? How did this change the way that she played afterward?

Suggested Response:

Performing a piece of music is more than just playing the notes on the page. In every musical composition, there is an emotional aspect that true artistry captures. It is in the small variations in rhythm, volume, pitch, and phrasing — the interpretation of the notes — that gives music the soul.


3. Public schools in the United States are subject to periodic and, in some areas, chronic financial crises. This grew worse for most school districts in the late 1980s and early 1990s. If you were on the school board and there was simply not enough money to run the schools, which programs would you cut, and in what order would you cut them? Explain your reasons.


4. 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?


5. Mr. Holland started teaching in the early 1960s and was laid off in the early 1990s. During the 30 years that he taught school, the United States went through many changes. Some of these changes are portrayed in film clips interspersed throughout the film. Can you name some of these events and briefly describe what they did to the fabric of American society? Did they appear to have any effect on Mr. Holland? What were the filmmakers trying to tell us by interspersing the footage showing upheavals in American life among the other events in the film?


6. 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?

Suggested Response:

See the Helpful Background Section of the Learning Guide to “Small Wonders



1. Many educators and parents believe that music should be part of the regular curriculum for all students in public schools and that individual music lessons should also be available from elementary school through high school to those students who want them. Do you agree or disagree?


2. What did the principal mean when she told Mr. Holland that a good teacher not only gives students facts but provides them with a compass?


3. Do you think that most students can be introduced to classical music through popular music?


4. Is there anything that could have been done to keep Mr. Holland’s job and the orchestra program? Suggested Response: See Small Wonders and Music of the Heart.



5. (1) When Cole was a teenager Mr. Holland realized that he had been too distant from his son. Describe how Mr. Holland corrected for this in the film. (2) The film doesn’t show us everything that happened in Mr. Holland’s life and obviously, the concert and the song were only part of what he did in his effort to establish, however late, a good relationship with his son. What else could Mr. Holland have done to rectify his relationship with Cole?

Suggested Response:

Some examples: spend time with Cole doing activities that they both enjoyed, or at least that Cole enjoyed; take an interest in Cole’s activities.


6. How could Mr. Holland be a good teacher but not a terribly good parent?

Suggested Response:

People act very differently in different situations. A criminal who would mug an old lady or break into a house, when put into the military and allowed to bond with his unit, can become a courageous soldier.


7. Cole grew up relatively unscathed by his father’s problems in dealing with Cole’s deafness. Why do you think that happened?

Suggested Response:

There is no one correct answer to this question. TWM suggests the following: There are two important factors that contributed to Cole’s ability to escape emotional injury from his father’s inability to deal with Cole’s deafness. First, it was an innate, inborn strength and resilience in Cole himself. Second, Cole’s mother was able to make up for the father’s deficiencies. This often happens in families.



8. Would you consider Mr. Holland to be a male role model? Describe his strengths and weaknesses as a human being.

Suggested Response:

There is no one correct response to this question. However, a strong response will note that no matter what, Mr. Holland kept trying to be better than he had been in the past and that he fulfilled many of his responsibilities. On the negative side, he didn’t see, until the end, that he really was doing a great job as a music teacher; he should have been more nurturing to his son.



9. Cole’s deafness put a strain on his parents’ marriage? How could they have handled it differently?

Suggested Response:

They could have united in their efforts to help and nurture their son. Instead, Mr. Holland isolated himself and didn’t work on the situation as a partner in the relationship with his wife and a loving father to his son.


10. The film shows Mr. Holland’s wife doing nothing when she discovered that her husband had a crush on Rowena. Was this the best way for her to handle it? Explain your answer.

Suggested Response:

In this case, it was. Crushes happen throughout life and mature adults realize that there is more to relationships than physical desire and temporary infatuations.


12. Does the fact that Mr. Holland had a crush on Rowena for a while mean that he didn’t love his wife and that they had a bad marriage? Explain your reasoning.

Suggested Response:

Crushes happen and they don’t necessarily last. A short-lived crush doesn’t mean that the marriage is bad if the person experiencing the emotion has the maturity to realize what is going on and doesn’t act on it.


13. For Rowena, going away and following her muse was clearly the best thing to do. She suggested, in her effort to get Mr. Holland to leave with her, that he could write his music in New York City. Why wasn’t going away and writing music the best thing for Mr. Holland?

Suggested Response:

Mr. Holland was a teacher and that was his calling in life. In addition, he had a family. He could not keep up his loving relationship with his family by running off with Rowena.



14. Compare how Mrs. Holland responded to her son’s deafness with the manner in which his father responded.


15. Mr. Holland obviously felt separated from his son because of the child’s deafness. What did he and his son miss as a result?


16. Why did the filmmakers include the scene in which Mr. Holland was describing Beethoven’s deafness to one of his classes? What were they trying to tell us?


17. Remember the situation in which Mr. Holland and his wife had received advice from a doctor that they should not try to use gestures to communicate with Cole? Did that strategy work? Have you ever been in a situation in which a doctor or another professional gave you advice that did not work? What did you do?


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 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)

1. The film shows Mr. Holland at times failing to live up to this ethical principle in his dealings with his family. Can you describe these incidents, what he did wrong, and whether he ultimately rectified the situation?

(Additional questions are set out in the “Marriage” and “Parenting – Father/Son – Mother/Son” sections above.)



(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)


2. Did Mr. Holland stay in teaching after the first few difficult months because he liked it or because he had a family to support? What was his reaction to his initial difficulties in teaching and what reward did it eventually bring him?


3. Do you think Mr. Holland should have gone to New York with Rowena so that he could write music? Justify your answer and describe which of the attributes of responsibility could have caused the character to make the choice that he made.


4. Did Mr. Holland act appropriately when he told Rowena that she had a great talent and that she should develop it?


5. Should Mr. Holland have told Rowena’s parents that she was leaving home without their permission instead of helping her by giving her the address of his friends?


6. Mr. Holland’s description of his difficulties in learning to appreciate John Coltrane’s music is a metaphor for at least one other series of events in the film. Can you describe what it is?



(Be kind; Be compassionate and show you care; Express gratitude; Forgive others; Help people in need)

7. Did Mr. Holland approach his teaching with a view to the ethical principle of “caring?” Please give examples from the film.


8. Did Mr. Holland, at least initially, fail to obey the ethical principle of caring in his family life? Justify your answer.


(Additional questions on this topic are set out in the “Social-Emotional Learning/Parenting – Father/Son – Mother/Son” section above.)



(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)

9. What made Mr. Holland a particularly good teacher? How do his actions demonstrate the ethical principle of citizenship?



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:

  • Articles in Encyclopedia Britannica Online on “Gershwin, George” and “sign language”.

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ingenue, wistful, opus, symphony, expendable, annotated, muse.


What was Mr. Holland’s Opus? How is that term used in the title to this film?

Suggested Response:

The word “opus” in this film had two meanings. It was the composition that Mr. Holland had been working on for years and it was, in addition, his whole life as a teacher and the children that he taught and inspired. Mr. Holland said, “It’s almost funny. I got dragged into this gig kicking and screaming and now it’s the only thing I want to do.”

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