When violinist Sharon Roffman — concertmaster of the Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse — comes back to New Jersey next month to play in the JCC Thurnauer School of Music Annual Gala, she will have a chance to do two things at once.
First, by performing at the Gift of Music concert — which benefits Thurnauer’s scholarship program — Ms. Roffman will get to play with noted musician Joshua Bell. That’s something she has wanted to do for a long time.
Second, and perhaps equally important, she will get to honor her mother, Thurnauer’s founding director, Dorothy Kaplan Roffman, on her 75th birthday.
“I grew up listening and watching my mom teach,” Sharon Roffman said. “I was in lessons with her when I was a baby.” While she never formally studied at the Thurnauer school — she was already settled into a music program in Manhattan when Thurnauer was created — “I grew up there,” Ms. Roffman said.
Thurnauer, she added, “is my mom’s passion and her life.”
Begun 32 years ago, the school has been named a major arts institution by the New Jersey State Council on the Arts. Its director, too, has been publicly recognized, receiving a Distinguished Service award from the New Jersey chapter of the American String Teachers Association. In 2013, it also won a Milestone Certificate of Appreciation from the National Guild for Community Arts Education.
Sharon Roffman, “a card-carrying Francophile,” has been in Toulouse since February. From 2009 to 2011 she was a member of the Orchestre National de France. “I love the life there,” she said. A versatile musician who has played all over the world, music “is a part of my DNA,” Ms. Roffman said.
“I remember being conscious of having an aha moment when I was a junior in high school and my friends started talking about college and the future — and all of a sudden I realized that was not a question I had to ask myself,” she said. “This was a realization in and of itself. I learned a lot from that.”
Ms. Roffman, who is now 37, started playing the violin when she was two years old. “The Suzuki method starts with baby steps, like how to hold the bow,” she said. “You don’t start playing immediately,” any more than children learning to talk “start by saying mama and dada.” Instead, first they babble, gurgle, and coo.
While the violin has been her focus, “I had a brief flirtation with the saxophone,” Ms. Roffman said. “We were not meant for each other. I did it to be in the band at school.” She attended Tenafly High School, which she described as “amazing. I got a great education. I think back on public school education fondly,” she said, adding that the school helped her arrange her schedule so she could leave early to practice.
“I doubled up on things in my freshman and sophomore years so in my junior year I could get out at 1:30. I was always very serious, even as a child,” she said. Still, “I consider myself a well-rounded person. That’s important to me.
“I’ve never been one of those prodigies who practices all day and never leaves their room. I’ve always had hobbies, interests, and friends. That doesn’t mean I’m not serious.”
Ms. Roffman said that she went to the Manhattan School of Music, where her mother has been a faculty member for more than 30 years, “from the time I was two weeks old. I went with my mom every Saturday.” Taking advantage of the many performance opportunities there and elsewhere, when she was 16 she won a concerto competition.
“I left high school early to go to the University of Southern California and study with violin teacher Robert Lipsitt,” she said, crediting Tenafly High School with allowing her to count her college credits toward high school graduation. “After one year of college I got to graduate with my class,” she said. She didn’t even have to miss the prom.
Moving on to the Cleveland Institute of Music to study with Donald Weilerstein, she then spent four years at Juilliard working with, among others, Yitzhak Perlman. “He’s a fantastic human being,” she said. “We bonded over our love of food and wine.”
After leaving Juilliard, Ms. Roffman spent several years living in New York, “playing and doing various things, living the life of a free musician.” Nevertheless, she wanted to see more of the world. “I moved to Paris; lived in Sydney and worked with the Australian Chamber Orchestra; lived in Bremen, Germany, and did a variety of different things with different groups in different countries. It’s fascinating to see how different people work.”
(Asked if Amazon’s series, “Mozart in the Jungle,” is a realistic portrayal of backstage orchestra life, Ms. Roffman said that “while a lot of things are ridiculously overdramatized, it brings up some interesting points. It’s a mélange. I enjoyed its silliness.”)
Ms. Roffman said that she has been a fan of Joshua Bell since she was three. “Seventeen Magazine sponsored a violin competition,” she said. “It was a famous competition and launched a lot of careers. He won it when he was 14. I distinctly remember my violin teacher posting [an article about it]. It was the first time I heard of him. I love his playing.
“He’s one of my favorite violinists.”
Mr. Bell “has an amazing sense of architecture when he plays,” she continued. “His pacing makes sense. A piece can have, say, 500,000 notes. If someone plays every note the same, it becomes an endlessly flat landscape. He creates landscapes that make sense. There’s something special about the way he plays.”
Mr. Bell “has been a friend of the Thurnauer Music School for years,” she said. “This will be his third concert. He’s a great violinist, who brings in an audience that bridges generations. He’s so charismatic.”
She is “super-excited” that she will have the opportunity to play with him, and that the concert falls at a time when she is able to leave work, she added. “We have a lot of friends in common,” she added, pointing out that while she hasn’t yet had the opportunity to play with him, it’s likely they would have played together at some point. She is especially pleased that the first such performance will be at the JCC.
“Thurnauer is unique because it is a community music school open to everyone, and it’s also got the highest standards of an exclusive conservatory,” she said. “That is very unique and what makes it stand out from any other music school I know of.” As for her mother, “you’ll never find a better pedagogue either specifically for violin or for music in general,” Ms. Roffman said. “She’s an unbelievably warm and nurturing teacher. A lot of times, we in our society honor people with big important jobs. People on the ground, like mom — teaching, talking to parents of kids every day, talking with teachers — truly make a difference in the world. They touch and change lives.”
“Music is the most effective way to teach empathy — the key to a peaceful world,” she added. “When you’re playing, you have to be in touch with your emotions. The point is to express feelings, beauty, and things you can’t say in words. It forces the music-maker and the listener to reflect and to connect with emotional parts of their personality. Reflection and emotion are the keys to building empathy.”
The upcoming gala has two components, she said. For the average attendee, “just being present will offer you a great concert with great music, great performers, and an entertaining evening.” But in addition, “The people who come will have the added benefit of actively helping the community by making music education available to those who can’t necessarily afford it. Thurnauer never turns anyone away. The benefit is an important part of helping to ensure that it can always happen.”
For her part, Dorothy Kaplan Roffman — who, with her husband, Eric, has three daughters, one son, and six grandchildren — said she has no plans to slow down her work at Thurnauer. “It’s my fifth child,” she said. “Because we live so close to the school, the distinction between home and work is very blurred. I roll out of bed and roll over there,” something she has been doing for 32 years. And, she added, “It’s so much fun.”
Why did the community need the Thurnauer school?
“We felt that there was a need for good high-quality music education in Bergen County,” Ms. Roffman said. (The “we” includes Dr. Sandra Gold, with whom she worked closely to create Thurnauer.) “Many private teachers are very good, and there are programs around that are good. But we wanted a school all in one place, where students could begin younger than age 3 with general music classes, grow into choosing an instrument, or into being part of a chorus, or orchestra, or chamber [group]. There was a need for that. We didn’t think a lot about how large it would become. We wanted to create an important and meaningful music education for people of all ages.”
The school opened in 1984; in 1987 Maria and William Thurnauer of Teaneck endowed it, and it took their name. Both Thurnauers took an enduring interesting in the school; many of Maria’s photos of children learning and making music there still hang on its walls.
Both Maria and William Thurnauer have died; Mr. Thurnauer’s second wife, Lilo, who now lives in Fort Lee, maintains the family’s close and loving connection to the school.
“People are very busy,” Ms. Roffman said. “I hope that we represent the ability and opportunity for people to take the time out of their busy lives to enjoy either making music or listening to it. That’s something extremely important, especially now in our history, where there’s a great deal of stress and rushing around. You have to sit back and listen, slow down. Learning to play an instrument, you have to slow down. I hope we are contributing to that in people’s lives.”
And what is her proudest achievement?
“I don’t know how to answer that,” she said. “I wanted always to create a community of music lovers and music learners. I love my faculty — I love working with them and learning from them, being in it together. I wanted to create a certain tone and atmosphere of warmth and enjoyment of music and learning of music with a sense of cooperation and not competition. I think that’s how we all feel.”
The school serves between 450 and 500 students a year, “except it didn’t start that way,” she said. “It started with 30, then doubled, then doubled again. It was a few years before we plateaued at 450. And those are just the actual students who come to school.”
But in addition to teaching, “We do so many other things — masters classes statewide, concerts for the entire community, the Gift of Music,” she said. “People come from all over. We impact many more than just students who come to the school itself.” The goal of the gala, she added, is “to celebrate the remarkable achievements of our students, while raising critical scholarship funds for children in our community who wish to study music, but whose families lack the financial resources.”
Since the school opened, it has awarded more than $2.6 million in need-based scholarships. Nearly 25 percent of its student body now receives financial assistance. The school also has sustained its 18-year “Music Discovery Partnership” with the Englewood Public School District, providing a high-quality afterschool music education to underserved children.
Ms. Roffman said that Drs. Joan and Alan Handler came up with the idea for the annual Gift of Music gala 26 years ago, and they continue to sponsor it. “We’re so incredibly lucky to have wonderful artists come as a gift to the school,” she said. “It’s so necessary for us to raise funds for scholarships. Josh Bell has come in 1992, 2003, and now.”
His first visit “was at the beginning of his career. We’ve cherished him as a person and as a magnificent artist. He’s a fine violinist. It will be an evening of wonderful music.”
In addition to Mr. Bell, Ms. Roffman, and pianist Allesio Bax, the Thurnauer Symphony Orchestra will perform — it will rehearse and play with Mr. Bell. So will violin groups from Thurnauer, “showing many levels of artistry.” The school chorus will perform as well.
“I’m struck by how much financial support is available at more advanced levels,” Ms. Roffman said, citing such schools as Juilliard and Yale. “I feel that support has to happen at the very beginning, to give children the opportunity to be as good as they want to be. To realize their potential.
“It’s not about creating professionals. It’s about giving them a good music education and making it possible for them to go in any direction they want. It enriches their lives, and gives them something forever.”