Roberta Guaspar Tsavaras purchased fifty violins in 1978, while married to a naval officer stationed in Greece. She assembled her collection piecemeal, from stores in Athens and neighboring towns. “The idea was that I would teach violin at schools and when he was transferred to a new base, I would take the violins, show up at the next school, and say, ‘Look, I’m a really good teacher and I’ve got all these violins.'”
A year and a half after she bought the violins, however, the marriage broke up, and Ms. Tsavaras and her two young sons returned from Greece to her home town, Rome, New York, where she spent, as she put it, “Three weeks lying in bed and crying. Then my mother said, ‘Enough of this, you’re bright, you’re talented, your life isn’t over. Get up.'”
It was around then that Ms. Tsavaras’ career as a music teacher in New York began. “My grandparents on both sides of my family were working class Italian immigrants. My grandfather actually died in a mill accident at a foundry. I was the oldest of four kids, and I learned to play violin because it was offered in public school. I never had private lessons until I majored in music in college.” Since 1980, she has been teaching violin at three progressive elementary schools, referred to as “Magnet” schools, in East Harlem.
Ms. Tsavaras has a raspy voice that would not be confused with a murmur. She has brown curly hair that is somewhat unruly, and favors loose flowing dresses below the knee. There was a time when her favored footwear to go with her dresses was combat boots, but a recent visit found her in white tennis sneakers. She lives on 118th Street in East Harlem, with her two teenage sons and a two year old daughter. She refers to it as El Barrio, in such phrases as, “The people in El Barrio were very upset when they saw the Prime Time Live piece a few years ago. The piece was very beautiful but it started with these scenes of burned out buildings and shots of the worst corners of the neighborhood and then cut to these angelic faces playing the violin. It was like this white woman was coming into the neighborhood from outside, which isn’t accurate. This is where I live.”
Violin teachers are not a regular staple of television news programs and newspaper articles, but Ms. Tsavaras’ career has taken some unlikely turns in recent years. The first unlikely turn was when she lost her job the year before last. “One day I was called into the director’s office and told that my position is being cut. I was like, ‘You can’t do that, it’s not like the program hasn’t been successful. The kids play wonderfully.’ The director’s response was that they’re cutting everything. I cried a lot, my sons too. We all cried together. My son’s are very involved with what I do. I got my first job when I took my five year old, who I’d taught violin, to an interview and said, ‘Okay Nick, show them what you can do.'”
Ms. Tsavaras’ students don’t get the individual attention advocated by the Suzuki method, because she usually has approximately one hundred and thirty of them. Her course is so popular at the schools where she teaches that beginning students are selected by lottery. Her regular schedule entails five or six classes a day, of about fifteen students each. “I try to give as much individual attention as possible, I try to touch everybody, but I always need help. I make it so the classes overlap, so when for the last ten minutes that I’m with my beginners, the beginner-intermediates are there too, helping demonstrate things. A lot of beginners, who are usually around six, want to quit. I’ll call they’re parents up and say, ‘It’s like a hill and your kid is almost at the top, and if he hangs in there another month it’ll get much easier.’ But nothing is as effective and bringing some seven year old over to a six year old who wants to quit and saying, ‘Omar, remember when you wanted to quit last year?’ And then Omar will talk about how much better he got and how glad he is that stuck with it and the six year olds are all very impressed by the seven years olds and want to be like them. It’s like that all the way up to my advanced kids, they all help.”
There isn’t much music education in public schools these days, and when Ms. Tsavaras was laid off, it touched a nerve. Arnold Steinhardt, a violinist for the Guanari Quartet, had seen Ms. Tsavaras’ teach and when the program was cut, he was part of a letter writing campaign that helped fund her position this past year and has now snowballed into a larger event, a benefit concert to be held at Carnegie hall on October twenty fifth, which will feature such prominent violinists as Isaac Stern, Itzhak Perlman, members of the Guanari Quartet, and (as a press release puts it), “Children from East Harlem Schools.”
“When I first saw Roberta teach, I wasn’t prepared for the response these kids were having to her and the instrument,” explained Mr. Steinhardt. “It wasn’t that I heard a room full of budding geniuses, but what really knocked me over was the visceral response these kids were having not just to music, not just to violin, but to the idea of learning about learning, that they could actually do something, be experts at something. Like many musicians my age and older, I’m very concerned with the state of music education today. One hears all kinds of hand ringing now days, that this country is going to the dogs, what can we do? and here was someone who is going and doing something about it.”
A recent visit found Ms. Tsavaras preparing to begin a class with her advanced students on the eve of their traditional year end concert. The following morning they would perform at a press conference to announce “Fiddlefest,” which is what the Carnegie Hall Benefit is called. Her advanced class – in knee length shorts, T-shirts, and some with baseball caps turned sideways on their heads – was running around the room making a tremendous noise, the sort one might expect from a group of elementary students on a summery day, except they all had violins under their chins. Ms. Tsavaras tuned one violin after another above the din.
Eventually she called out for quiet; the last strains of music died out, and the class stood at attention facing her. “O.K,” she said, “Let’s start with an A Major scale.” The students began an A major scale, and a most beautiful sound rose up in the class room, drifting out the door and echoing down long corridors lined with finger paintings.
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