SUBJECTS — Music/Classical; U.S./1991 – present & New York; Biography/Guaspari;

SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL LEARNING — Education; Talent; Disabilities; Romantic Relationships; Divorce and Separation;

MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS — Responsibility; Citizenship.

AGE: 13+; MPAA Rating — PG for brief mild language and sensuality;

Drama; 1999; 124 minutes; Color. Available from

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A popular and innovative teacher of violin at mostly black and Hispanic elementary schools in New York City is laid off due to budget cuts. The teacher refuses to accept her fate and fade away. She and the parents of her students band together to raise money to pay her salary. Can they succeed? Will the public take notice and support their efforts? Or are these children doomed to be deprived of their beloved teacher and their hope for an education in music? The film was inspired by the achievements of Roberta Guaspari and her students in the East Harlem Violin Program.


Selected Awards: 2000 Young Artists Awards: Best Family Feature Film – Drama; 2000 Academy Awards Nominations: Best Actress (Streep); Best Music, Song; Golden Globe Awards Nominations: Best Actress in a Motion Picture (Streep); Image Awards: Best Supporting Actress (Bassett); 2000 Young Artists Awards Nominations: Best Family Feature Film – Drama; Best Ensemble Acting (Michael Angarano, Melay Aroya, Henry Dinhofer, Jean-Luke Figueroa, Justin Spaulding, Zoe Sternbach-Taubman, and Jade Yorker.

Featured Actors: Meryl Streep, Aidan Quinn, Cloris Leachman, Angela Bassett, Gloria Estefan.

Director: Wes Craven.


“Music of the Heart” has many strengths. It shows young children eager to learn and practice the violin; caring and nurturing inner-city schools; female role models; a dedicated teacher; a dedicated principal; a crippled child overcoming her handicaps; and people of all races in the melting pot of New York City, working together to raise their children. The experiences of Ms. Guaspari and her violin program demonstrate that people can, with luck, sometimes triumph over misguided government policies. “Music of the Heart” will also introduce children to Carnegie Hall and to some of the great violinists of our time. The movie contains an excellent subplot about the heroine and her children dealing with their husband/father’s decision to divorce the heroine.


SERIOUS: We much prefer Small Wonders, a fascinating documentary about Ms. Guaspari and her young violin students. Because the documentary shows real elementary school students working hard in class and practicing at home, as well as the actual concert at Carnegie Hall, it is more interesting to both children and adults than the fictionalized version. In addition, it does not contain many of the possible problems of the fictionalized version. The best use of this film is as a refresher, to be shown several years after children are shown “Small Wonders” to remind them and to confirm the lessons of the documentary.

Parents and teachers should think carefully before showing this film to children whose parents are divorced or separated. The heroine and her children can be seen as the victims of an uncaring husband/father who has run off with another woman without giving the family a decent chance. Young children whose parents are separated or divorced might think that this applies to their personal situation. In addition, parents and teachers should consider starting a discussion in which the following issues are raised: Are separation and divorce a matter of fault? Should adults who don’t love each other stay together for the sake of the children or because of the sanctity of marriage? Do divorce and separation have anything to do with how much parents love their children or are they about relationships between adults? What are the responsibilities of adults who are divorced or separated and who don’t have custody of their children? This discussion will prepare children for this film.

Some parents may object to the presentation of marriage and sexual fidelity in the film. The heroine, after her husband leaves her for another woman, has secured a teaching job and brought her children to New York. She is staying temporarily at the apartment of a man she knew in high school. He wants to have a romantic relationship with her and tries to interest her in sleeping with him. She feels the same way but hesitates because she is still married. He persuades her by remarking that her husband, at that very moment, was with another woman. No graphic sexuality is displayed. We are shown only tender kisses and the heroine in bed alone, waking up the next morning, still under the covers apparently without any clothes on. The man is never shown in bed with her. Later the relationship develops into one in which she wants commitment but he doesn’t, so she tells him she can’t see him any more. The man expresses some immature feelings about marriage, asserting that since half of all marriages end in divorce, he doesn’t want to try for a committed relationship. Parents watching this film may decide to simply ignore these issues and talk about the other parts of the film. Most likely, these scenes will not have much of an impact on younger children watching the movie and will soon be forgotten. However, if it appears that the romantic parts of the film are having an effect on children, parents should ask questions concerning this issue (see Discussion Questions below) or explain their views on these events.

Another potential problem with this film is the implicit message that superhuman efforts will be rewarded by the intervention of the famous and that adverse consequences can always be avoided. The sad fact is that Roberta Guaspari and her string program were the exception rather than the rule. During the 1990s, many music and art teachers were laid off throughout the country and their students were denied the opportunity for arts education in the public schools. Children watching this film should be told about the great loss this country suffered in the 1990s, and the losses it continues to suffer to this day, because budget cuts have forced the closure of many public school music and art programs.


Describe for your child the place of Carnegie Hall and Juilliard in performance art in the U.S. See Helpful Background section to this Learning Guide and the Helpful Background section to the Learning Guide to “Small Wonders“. Ask and help your child to answer the Quick Discussion Question.


See Helpful Background Section to Learning Guide to “Small Wonders“.

In the movie, Ms. Guaspari arranges an audition at Juilliard for one of her best students. Julliard is America’s premier performing arts college/conservatory. Founded in 1905, it was renamed in 1919 for wealthy textile merchant Augustus Julliard, who left 20 million dollars to the school. Its campus is New York’s renowned performing arts complex at Lincoln Center, home of the New York Philharmonic, the New York City Ballet and the Metropolitan Opera. Julliard has music, vocal music, and dance departments.



Why would children give up their free time to practice the violin?

Suggested Response:

At first to please their teacher and then to please themselves.


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

[For additional discussion questions see Learning Guide to “Small Wonders“.



[For additional discussion questions on this topic, see Education section to Learning Guide to “Small Wonders“.


1. Did you expect to find talent for playing the violin among poor immigrant children? What does this tell you about talent?


2. Why does this film show us a child with disabilities participating in the program? What are the filmmakers trying to tell us?


3. In the film, it appears that the heroine separates from her husband and then moves immediately into a close personal and sexual relationship with another man. What are the risks of this type of “rebound” relationship? What if the man had not turned out to be nurturing to her children?

4. Should the heroine of this film have had sexual intercourse with a man when her children were sleeping in the next room? Would your answer change if the man had been well known to the children and loved by them?

5. Are separation and divorce a matter of fault?

6. Should adults who don’t love each other live together for the sake of the children or because of the sanctity of marriage?

7. Do divorce and separation have anything to do with how much parents love their children or are they about relationships between adults?

8. What are the responsibilities of adults who are divorced or separated and who don’t have custody of their children?

9. Was the heroine right to send her boyfriend away when he would not agree to a committed relationship? Should she have kept him around for companionship and sex until she found another man?

10. In the film, why was it so important to Nick that he spend the night with the boyfriend?

11. What are some of the emotions that children feel when their parents become separated or divorced?


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)


(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)


Assignments, Projects, and Activities for Use With Any Film that is a Work of Fiction

Students can be asked to read Ms. Guaspari’s book, Music of the Heart, and compare the events in the book to the events depicted in the film.


Proficient high school level readers will enjoy the book Music of the Heart, by Roberta Guaspari with Larkin Warren.



cello, bridge, bow, fiddle. concerto, jazz, hall (as in Carnegie Hall), charitable, nonprofit, budget, concert, performance.



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, Roberta Guaspari with Larkin Warren, 1999, Hyperion, New York.

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