Roberta Guaspari's story had Hollywood written all over it: A mother of two young sons
emerges from a failed marriage and finds her calling teaching violin at a New York City
public school in East Harlem. When budget cuts threaten to close her program, she fights
City Hall and wins. In 1999, eight years after Guaspari's efforts were first chronicled
by the media and, later, in a documentary called Small Wonders, she served as an
inspiration for Wes Craven's "Music of the Heart".
Roberta Guaspari began studying violin in fourth grade. She eventually graduated with a music education degree from the
State University of New York at Fredonia in 1969. While working on her master's at Boston University, she met George
Tzavaras, a Navy officer studying at MIT. "I was 24, Italian and not married," she says. "The pressure was on from my
family." They wed in 1971. As George rose through Navy ranks - with postings in Honolulu and Newport, R.I. - the family
was always on the move. Teaching violin and persuading school administrators to invest in musical instruments proved a
dauntingly tough career choice, especially after the birth of the couple's two sons. Finally, when the family moved to
Greece in 1977, Roberta devised a solution. Withdrawing $5,000 from the family savings, she bought 50 tiny violins and
persuaded the headmaster of the British-run Campion School to hire her. No sooner had Guaspari-Tzavaras established
herself there than George asked for a divorce. "It was the lowest point of my life," she says.
But Guaspari-Tzavaras rebounded. With her sons - and violins - in tow, she moved to New York City in 1980, subletting an
East Harlem apartment from a couple whose children attended Central Park East schools, a city-run alternative program.
That led to an introduction to the school's music-loving principal, Deborah Meier, and a part-time job. Three years later,
when she was hired full-time, Guaspari-Tzavaras had fallen in love again - this time with her gritty new neighborhood,
where she lovingly restored the townhouse she lives in with Sophia, a 5-year-old from El Salvador, whom she adopted in
1991. "My mother really needs to come home and be a mother," says Alexi. "She is just as passionate about mothering as
she is about teaching."
The real Roberta Guaspari teaching one of her young students to play the violin. Consulting Meryl
Streep on the set of "Music of the Heart". In a production still from the film.
And there are those who are passionate about her. In 1993, world-class violinists, including Itzhak Perlman and Arnold
Steinhardt, helped organize a Carnegie Hall benefit concert that raised nearly $300,000 for her program. "This woman has
an incredible, demonic amount of energy," says violin virtuoso Isaac Stern. "She draws things out of the kids. And from
her they gain a sense of self." That's certainly true for Guaspari-Tzavaras alum Melia Crumbley, 15. When kids who hang
out on the street mock her for spending so much time practicing, says Melia, "I just look them right back in the eye and
say, 'What are you doing with your life?" A documentary film about Roberta called Small Wonders was nominated for an
Academy Award in 1996. Further developments inspired by this teacher include a feature film, released in October 1999.
Music of the Heart starred Meryl Streep as real-life violin teacher Roberta Guaspari-Tzavaras.
Meryl on "Music of the Heart"
"That came to me late. I had to beg them to give me some more time for the violin part of
it. The gift was working with these children, who were endlessly inventive. It was like an
acting primer; and it was the thing I didn't expect. I was totally the boss! They didn't
listen to Wes Craven at all. He'd say, 'Meryl, can you please...' and I'd say,
'Awrighawrightawright! Everybody shut up!' And I thought, 'Hmmm. Maybe I could direct!'"
Links & Research
Opus 118 Harlem School of Music