OPUS 118 Harlem School of Music, Harlem, New York

A public-school classical music program founded on the idea that anybody—that means anybody—can learn to play top-level classical music. Opus 118 students have played Carnegie Hall, the Oprah Winfrey Show, and inspired a documentary (“Small Wonders”) as well as the Hollywood treatment, “Music of the Heart,”  and have helped launch many similar efforts.

A Tiny, Powerful Idea  Takes Root

Ignition is a hair trigger– it happens all at once. Here, from the documentary “Small Wonders,” is the moment when a class ignites – not because of the violin, but because of the way Guaspari frames their introduction, through a lottery that poses the question: here is a meaningful group. Do you want to be one of them?

  • The first thing to note about Guaspari’s presentation is that it doesn’t center on the violin. In fact, it’s hardly mentioned. Rather, it’s about the idea of a group that is small, worthwhile, and engaged in meaningful work. “Some people are not going to win,” the teacher says. All are wonderful. But there’s only so much room.
  • At 1:25, a moment of ignition, when the boy in the back row suddenly announces,“I wanna be a violinist.”   The boy, of course, has never touched a violin, but as the music psychologist Gary McPherson points out, that doesn’t matter. These small ideas, taking root in the unconscious, have huge consequences.
  • Note that is not a soft sell by any means. Guaspari and the teacher keep emphasizing the hard work that will be required. This reminds me of the way KIPP school  (link) motivate students: simple language that tells the truth about the effort (a.k.a. the deep practice) motivates far better than pretending it’s going to be easy.
  • When the lottery results come in (at 3:35) look at the palpable electricity among the students—who, remember, have yet to so much as touch a violin. I like the girl in the ponytail, who confesses, “My heart is pounding,” and, when her name is picked, announces that her dream has come true. 

Funny thing? She’s right. 

Lessons

Like many hotbeds, Opus 118 started small: in this case, with a few violins in the trunk of beat-up car. Like many, it was driven by a devoted, energetic master teacher—in this case Roberta Guaspari (whose last name was Tzavaras). But there were also a few hidden factors in its favor, which helped ignite these kids to be the skilled and passionate violinists they became.

  •  The power of selection: The lack of violins, which appears a handicap, was turned to an advantage via a lottery. This created a tiny, powerful moment of ignition: when the winning student connected their identity to the violin, sparking a small thought that had big consequences: I’m a violinist.
  • Igniting by example: Roberta Guaspari is a master teacher by any definition, but a key to her success is how she cultivates other master teachers to grow the hotbed. Her faculty now includes students who came up through Opus 118. This radiates, as seen in KIPP, the most basic igniting signal: If they can do it, then why can’t I?

Share on FacebookShare on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedIn