Barnard College Commencement
Tuesday, May 17, 2011
New York City
Roberta Guaspari. Master violinist. Beloved teacher. Celebrated ambassador of music, and heart, for the aspiring youth of Harlem.
Raised in a working class family in Rome, New York, you took your first violin lessons at the age of nine in public school, and you and the strings and the bow have been inseparable ever since. With music and music education degrees from SUNY Fredonia and Boston University School of Fine Arts, your path was set but not unshakeable. In 1980, you left a failed marriage for the East Harlem neighborhood of New York City, a single mother with two young sons—and a cache of violins in tow.
Within a year, there between 96th Street and the Hudson River, 5th Avenue and the East River, you began your teaching career in three public schools, using a method all your own. The budget was low and the obstacles high, but you gave time and energy in scores. When, in 1991, cuts in funding eliminated your position, threatening the strings program and the 150 kids whose lives it touched, you joined forces with parents, fellow teachers, and community volunteers to save the program and continue your work. The opening strains of Opus 118 – Harlem School of Music were heard.
From the first benefit concert at Carnegie Hall in 1993, with the likes of Pearlman, Stern, Midori, and O’Connor performing alongside your students, the reviews have been unanimous, and the support unwavering. Your story and your school have inspired the 1996 documentary Small Wonders, and Music of the Heart, with Meryl Streep, who learned to play both you and Bach’s Double Violin Concerto for the role. Soon thereafter, Opus 118 funding was restored.
In the two decades since, over 3,000 students have tuned up and joined in. They’ve studied, rehearsed, and stood on stages from the Apollo Theater to Avery Fisher Hall. In Zurich, Mexico City, and on the White House Lawn. In the echo of their collective sound, you have been many times honored and praised for your “distinctive contributions to human freedom,” and “significant influence in the development of young American artists.”
Today, Barnard hails this amazing achievement. You are a hero of Harlem and a champion of its children, and we join together to thank you for your artistry, for your heart, and for your gift of music to all.