Dorothy Roffman’s way
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Dorothy Roffman’s way

The power and spirit behind the Thurnauer School of Music's master teacher

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Ms. Roffman with student 14-year-old Sophia Winograd, back when she was 6.

From time to time, a student at the Thurnauer School of Music says “I can’t” to Dorothy Roffman.

Ms. Roffman, the school’s director, simply throws the word out the door.

Is that metaphoric? Yes, but it works.

She once waved her arms around an infant, as if she were a good witch, and pretended to cast a spell on her. She wanted to ensure that the baby would become a violinist. That child, Katja Adolphe, now 15, already is an accomplished violinist, with a bright future in music ahead of her.

Then there was the time when Ms. Roffman, who lives in Tenafly, asked a student to see how long she could hop on one foot and play at the same time. She’s also had students measure the length of the room by the number of lines of music they need to practice.

Don’t get this wrong. There is serious musical training going on at the school, which is part of the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly, every day but Shabbat. But the training is tailored to fit each child; they are measured for lessons almost as if for a new suit or formal gown.

And that’s not all. Ms. Roffman also makes sure that her students are having fun.

She must be doing something wonderful. On November 7, she was named, along with six other community arts education leaders, as a winner of the 2013 National Guild Milestone Certificate of Appreciation “for their longstanding, exceptional service to the field.”

To those who know, the 30-year-old Thurnauer School of Music is a one-of-a-kind success story. There is nothing like it at any other JCC, the JCC’s executive director, Avi Lewinson, said. That, he added, is because of Roffman.

“She’s an amazing gift,” he added.

He also credited Dr. Sandra Gold, who brought the master teacher to the JCC, with the school’s creation.

Dr. Gold and Ms. Roffman met when Dr. Gold was searching for a violin teacher for Amelia, who was 4 years old. They clicked.

That meeting was momentous on both an individual and a communal level. On the individual level, Amelia Gold, who was the little girl who was able to play on one foot, went on to Julliard. Now, at 42, she is a teacher at Thurnauer, and her own two children study there.

On the communal level, the idea for the school took more shape when Amelia was about 11. Her mother would drive her to the Manhattan School of Music, where Ms. Roffman was on staff, for lessons on Saturday mornings. They often passed Orthodox pedestrians on their way to or from synagogue. Amelia told her mom that it was unfair that Orthodox Jews didn’t have music lessons available to them, because it seemed that those lessons were offered mostly on Saturdays.

“All of the fine music schools were in New York,” Dr. Gold said. “There was nothing in Bergen County at all. An observant person could not go to a really outstanding music school. There wasn’t one that operated on Sundays.

“That was a motivation to become a founder.”

The music school at the JCC opened in 1984 with two part-time teachers and 25 students. Now it has more than 450 students, taught by more than 65 teachers. The school is not open on Shabbat or any other Jewish holiday.

A turning point in the school’s history came in 1987, when William and Maria Thurnauer, both of whom since have died, endowed the JCC’s music school. Many of Maria’s photographs of children making music there still grace the school’s walls. William Thurnauer’s second wife, Lilo, carries on the family’s close association with the school. Lilo Thurnauer established a scholarship endowment in her late husband’s memory.

“I get a feeling of marvel when I walk through the hallways and hear the music,” Dr. Gold said. “But I know that it is Dorothy’s enthusiasm and her passion that has made the Thurnauer School the jewel that it is. She is a leader of education of children. She has no boundaries. There is no such thing as a 40-hour week for Dorothy.”

Perhaps nobody knows that better than Thurnauer’s associate director, Michael Reingold, who has worked by Ms. Roffman’s side since June 1993.

Mr. Reingold, who grew up in Pittsburgh, was playing the French horn in the Stanford University Orchestra when he met Karen Roffman, one of Dorothy Roffman’s daughters. Karen Roffman, knowing about Mr. Reingold’s interest in both JCC work and music, put him in touch with her mother. After getting his master’s degree at SUNY Long Island, Mr. Reingold joined her at the JCC.

“Dorothy was the driving force of what kind of school this should be,” Mr. Reingold said. “She wanted it to be open to everybody, not just for JCC members. She wanted a place both serious and fun.

“She is a particularly hard-working person, who does a lot to make magic happen here.

“She has endless ideas, she’s fantastic at picking great faculty members, and when the faculty thrives, the students thrive,” he continued. “She’s passionate about music being for everybody. Without the support of the Thurnauers, much of what we’re doing wouldn’t be possible. Many families receive financial assistance. And Dorothy, she’s very driven.”

It is not surprising that Ms. Roffman is driven by the need to share music. It has shaped her life.

She was born in Havana; her parents, Holocaust escapees, had been able to get Cuban visas. Her parents, Paul and Aranka Kaplan, escaped Berlin via Brussels, and fled to Havana, where her grandparents joined them. Ms. Roffman was six months old when her family left for the United States, settling in Manhattan’s Washington Heights. Her dad was a dentist, and both her parents felt it important that their daughter be educated in music. (Her parents were so instrumental in her development as a musician that the school honors their memory every year through the Kaplan Honors Recital.)

Providing her with a musical education was not easy, but her parents persisted. “They didn’t have much, but she got lessons,” Mr. Reingold said. She went to the High School for the Performing Arts (now Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts) and then on to the University of Rochester, where she majored in English, studied at the university’s Eastman School of Music, and played violin for the school’s Eastman Philharmonic.

She realized that she wanted to teach; it was her burn, she said. It was her passion; she has known it, she said, since she was 5 years old. She remembers riding in a cab with her mother, and explaining something to her mother. “I remember the feeling that it was because of my explanation, my mother understood,” she said.

“I was 5, but I knew that teaching is what I wanted to do. That moment in the cab was one of the greatest feelings I’ve ever had.

“I still feel that way. I never get tired of teaching a child how to stand with a beautiful position, how to hold the bow. To teach a child these sophisticated concepts of learning violin is the biggest high for me.”

She also remembers how she realized the importance of individualized instruction. When she was 18, she taught a young boy, the son of her parents’ friends. It didn’t go well. She realized that she wasn’t teaching in a way that was comfortable for herself or her student.

“I remember thinking that the lesson was awful,” she said.

So she took the subway to 56th Street, to the by-now-long-gone Joseph Patelson’s Music House, which offered rack after rack of sheet and book music.

“You could go and stand there and pull out a music book to look,” she said. “I stood there for four hours, looking at every single book they had on teaching violin. Every book presented the same problems I had in teaching that child. If you put the bow on the string, you have every conceivable problem. How do you hold the bow? What does each finger do on the bow hold? Where is your elbow in relationship to your hand? The bow is heavy. The books I looked at didn’t seem like they were giving the best way to engage someone interested in violin who wants to start, especially a child.”

But then, finally, she found what she was looking for. It was a book called “Listen and Play – Book 1: Based on the Violin Teaching of Shinichi Suzuki” by John D. Kendall.

For Roffman, this book was the golden key.

“I still open Kendall’s book today and feel goose bumps,” she said.

For decades, Suzuki’s method has been the gold standard for teachers of young violinists.

“It is more of an attitude than a way of teaching,” Ms. Roffman said. Suzuki believed that if children are to start to play violin very young, their parents have to be involved. It is important for parents to know what their children feel as they learn to play.

Suzuki taught that lessons should build up, step by step. Students should not be overloaded with too much information at once. The ideal pace varies from child to child.

And, he taught, much of what students learn is physical. “Suzuki taught that it takes time for the muscles to understand and to learn what to do,” Ms. Roffman said. “The Suzuki method involves lots of repetition. You are always building on what you have learned.”

Suzuki also stressed the importance of having children listen to the music they are learning to play, and it’s the teacher’s job to help them understand what they are listening to. They must be helped to understand that they will not be able to sound like the musicians to whom they listen in a short time. Learning music properly is a process.

Ms. Roffman began teaching according to the Suzuki method.

Her first job as a music teacher on staff was at the Lighthouse School of Music, a school for the visually impaired. Next, she joined the Harlem School for the Arts and worked with its director, Dorothy Maynor, a world-class soprano.

Ms. Maynor wanted Ms. Roffman to go to Japan to meet and study with the method’s creator, Shin’ichi Suzuki.

That was in 1967. The trip was planned, and Ms. Roffman wanted to go, but it was the eighth month of her first pregnancy. What to do? As Mr. Reingold put it, it was “a very big deal, actually. I don’t think many people studied with Dr. Suzuki.”

But, as Ms. Roffman said, “I had a woman gynecologist. She told me not to worry and by all means go to Japan. It’s much easier when they are inside than when they are on the outside.”

A few weeks after the trip, Dorothy and Dr. Eric Roffman’s first child, Kim, was born. The Roffmans were married in 1964; they have four children and 6 grandchildren.

Dr. Suzuki “was an amazing educator,” Ms. Roffman said. “In addition to all the specific details I learned about teaching the violin, what was most important was the spirit and attitude with which he taught. He created his ideas from the things he observed as he was teaching children.

“If something didn’t work with a particular child, he’d try something else.

“He had a very creative spirit about the whole thing. He was constantly evaluating what he was doing and creating, because he was observing what was working best with young children.”

Ms. Roffman combined what she learned from Dr. Suzuki with her own experience and style.

“I had to learn that I could explore with each new student what the answer for that student might be,” she said. “All children are different. They think differently and they are also physically different. What might be easy for one child is not necessarily easy for another child. Strengths and weaknesses vary from child to child.”

Bruce Adolphe, a professor at Julliard, is a pianist and composer whose credits stretch from the Lincoln Center to NPR. He is the resident lecturer and director of Lincoln Center’s Chamber Music Society, and he is National Public Radio’s piano puzzler. He has written music for cellist Yo-Yo Ma and violinist Itzhak Perlman, among many others. He is also a big fan of Dorothy Roffman; it was his infant daughter, Katja, upon whom Ms. Roffman cast a pretend spell.

The spell took. Ms. Roffman taught Katja from the time she was 4 until she was 9. Mr. Adolphe remembers that she taught with a child’s sense of wonder, and that she knew that too many comments and critiques from the teacher could harm a child’s sense of self-confidence.

“To have the children have their own objectivity,” said Adolphe, “she and the children created imaginary listeners in the room. Katja’s imaginary listener was named Shtarsht.”

As Katja tackled something difficult, Ms. Roffman would ask her what Shartsht was saying. Katja would reply, for example, that Shartsht “talked about the left hand.”

Ms. Roffman had a hat filled with suggestions that Mr. Adolphe and his wife would write. Katja would pull the suggestions from the hat. One might be “practice phrasing.” Another might demand “do a dance.” Others might ask for behavior that had nothing to do with the violin – “kiss your mother” or “eat a cookie.” Ms. Roffman said she included those notes to lower the pressure and put some fun into the lesson.

When it was time for Katja to move to another teacher, Ms. Roffman broke the news by saying, “You don’t actually leave a teacher, you just collect new ones,” Mr. Adolphe recalled.

“Dorothy keeps everything imaginative, fun and unexpected,” he continued. “None of this by rote stuff. She was teaching Suzuki, which can be dull, depending on the teacher. Dorothy brought in a counterbalance.

“Dorothy is committed to excellence, and she puts the time in to create it. That’s why her school is special. Dorothy is the parent of all the children in the school.

“She had the vision of bringing musical experiences into the lives of children,” Mr. Adolphe continued. “Dorothy is like the wizard of a castle. The children want to be with her. Her commitment is to the children. All the children.”

One last story, told by both Ms. Roffman and Mr. Reingold. Each was asked – separately – for a memorable “Dorothy moment.” They both came up with the same answer.

It seems that Ms. Roffman saw the legendary young violinist Maxim Vengerov present the children’s book “Ferdinand the Bull” at Carnegie Hall – he narrated, played the violin, and acted the part of the matador. She loved it. She was so taken with the performance that she brought Mr. Reingold to an open rehearsal of the New York Philharmonic with her. “When the rehearsal was over, we went to the backstage door, and Mstislav Rostropovich himself, the conductor, opens the door,” Mr. Reingold said. “He told us that Vengerov wasn’t there. But he had a great sense of humor, so and then he said, ‘Mr. Vengerov is right this way.'”

Mr. Roffman asked Mr. Vengerov to come to the JCC to play for the school’s Gift of Music gala benefit concert. He agreed. When the moment came to play “Ferdinand the Bull,” Mr. Vengerov invited all the children in the hall to come on stage with him. Both Ms. Roffman and Mr. Reingold said it was one of the most amazing moments they’d seen at Thurnauer.

“When you get people like Wynton Marsalis and Itzhak Perlman to do a master class at your JCC school, you can’t do that unless you have Dorothy Roffman, a person whose heart is filled with a passion in music and in the education of children,” said Lewinson. “She is amazing with kids. She knows how to speak to them. They say you can’t give more than 100 percent? Yet when I think of Dorothy she gives the extra. She is still as passionate about it for every single youngster. She is a Jewish educator par excellence. I’m not taking any credit. I am a great supervisor; I stay out of her way when it comes to running a music school.”

Ms. Roffman says that she still learns from the children.

“Recitals are my food for my soul,” she said. “I am still growing after 30 years, and reacting to what is working.

“When you have the freedom to keep shaping things, it helps you with the vision of creating a great community music school. We need to offer the best we possibly can in music education. It needs to be for everyone.

“We don’t make judgments about talent or ability. We just allow people to come and learn to help us create this wonderful community.”

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