Music (Starting Out)

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. 


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?

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12 Responses to “OPUS 118 Harlem School of Music, Harlem, New York”

  1. […] teachers: hire and, more important, copy successful music teachers like Roberta Tzavaras and Gregg Breinberg, who know how to ignite […]

  2. peter says:

    Mr. Coyle,

    THere are a few videos on your web site that do not work. One of them with the close of of a dark haired woman says it cannot be viewed because it is private. ANother one says it has been removed – here is the link to that one:

    If you can get them reposted or replaced that woudl be great. I am very interested in viewing them. Thanks and thank you for the provocative work on realizing human potential. One thing I wonder about is how much is developable at older ages vs. chidlhood.


  3. djcoyle says:

    Hi Peter,
    Thanks very much for the word — lemme check it out. All best, Dan

  4. djcoyle says:

    Hi Peter, Unfortunately, the user has removed the video and I’m unable to find a replacement. The dvd of the full documentary is available for purchase here, though: Perhaps better, it also looks like Netflix has it: Thanks again for bringing this up. It’s a great movie; you’ll like it. Good luck! Best, Dan

  5. I too was disappointed not to be able to view the video, though I have seen the Hollywood film with Meryl Streep, which was inspiring. I, like your commenter above, would like to know more (since I teach voice at the post-secondary level)about growing talent in late teens, early adult years, and even for those who have practiced many years and are professionals, but wish to grow more!

  6. sean says:

    Your video player is not currently working – says uploader has closed account with youtube

  7. Katie says:

    I just came upon one of the most helpful practicing and parenting books I have ever read. Helping Parents Practice – Ideas for Making it Easier, by Edmund Sprunger. I thought of you, Daniel Coyle. Have you read it?

  8. djcoyle says:

    Hi Katie, Thanks for the recommendation — it’s a truly great book — and a good example of focusing on the real area that can have impact: the parents.

  9. Crystal says:

    This statement, “If they can do it, then why can’t I?” in my experience, can just as easily become a detriment. I struggled in college, especially during my first semester. After handing in my first written assignment, which I had spent several days agonizing over, I turned to a couple of my classmates to inquire as to how long it took them to write the paper. I learned it was significantly less than I. Frankly, I felt seriously stupid in comparison to my classmates. I asked myself again and again why in the world is this such a painful process for me. I could not concentrate unless it was under certain circumstances. I mean, my coping mechanisms were at best weak (for example, I managed to motivate myself to spend every conscious moment studying by making ‘You are going to fail my mantra’). Everything was so extremely stressful, it eventually ended in a mental breakdown. In the beginning of my senior year, I had no other option but to drop out, but at least I left w/a 3.98% GPA (I was dinged for two A minuses during my first semester).

    The moral of the story is that you cannot compare yourself to others.

  10. Crystal says:

    You cannot compare yourself to others in order to “ignite talent”, as it is not fair for you. For instance, not everyone is **physically** capable of rolling their tongue (do not ask me why). If I were a teacher, I would suggest my students try everything that excites them to see where their innate abilities are and then, instruct them in diligently developing them.

  11. Crystal says:

    Oh, oops. I accidentally omitted the most important point that I was later diagnosed w/AD/HD; which is innate, as it is actually inherited.

  12. P says:

    When I was twelve and in a tiny private school, some people from the tiny public school came to find talent for their junior high band. They tested everyone who was interested, including me. I was more than disappointed when they reported that I had no musical talent whatsoever.
    I homeschooled my six children who all play one or more instruments,sing and dance, but in the back of my mind I still believe the conclusion the music talent testers delivered.

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