Meet the Thurnauer School’s new artist in residence

Meet the Thurnauer School’s new artist in residence

Rob Kapilow will discuss the importance of listening

Rob Kapilow teaches and conducts at the Kaufman Center in Manhattan; here, he’s onstage with students. (Courtesy Kaufman Center)
Rob Kapilow teaches and conducts at the Kaufman Center in Manhattan; here, he’s onstage with students. (Courtesy Kaufman Center)

Dorothy Roffman, the director of the Thurnauer School at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly, is excited. In fact, Ms. Roffman, who also is the school’s founding director, is thrilled.

The Thurnauer School has named composer, conductor, author, and PBS/NPR commentator Rob Kapilow as its 2018-20 artist in residence. “He’s so incredibly entertaining and informative at the same time,” Ms. Roffman said. “You walk out and are floating and want to listen to him all over again.”

The community can experience that floating sensation on Sunday, November 18, when Mr. Kapilow introduces himself to the community at a free program, “All You Have to Do is Listen.” (See box.)

“Rob is a Pied Piper for music,” Ms. Roffman said. “His enthusiasm and extraordinary knowledge is infectious and brings new groups of people to consider and love music. Rob explores the choices that composers make and why those choices contribute to the greatness of a piece of music.”

Mr. Kapilow is best known as the creator of the “What Makes It Great?” series, his family compositions and Family Musik events, and his “Citypieces.” He has been artist in residence at institutions ranging from the National Gallery of Canada to Stanford University. He lives in River Vale and says that his musical career began when he first started to play the piano — when he was 4.

He and the Thurnauer School are still working on a precise definition of his role as artist in residence there. “He will work with our chorus, orchestra, and jazz band as well as others in the broader community,” Ms. Roffman said. “He will help us to reach new audiences, involve people in our programs who’ve never been to the school or the JCC, and deepen our students’ and families’ knowledge of music.”

The program will feature a discussion about the joys of paying attention, noticing, and listening closely, as well as the important difference between hearing and listening. Thurnauer faculty members — violinists Krzysztof Kuznik and Laura-Lindsay Sewell, violist Sarah Adams, and cellist Sarah Katz —will join Mr. Kapilow.

“Listening versus hearing is all about focus, awareness, empathy, consideration of intent, and more — all skills that musicians need to play music well — and also skills that people need now more than ever, to understand each other,” Ms. Roffman said. “What Rob will teach is nothing short of the skills needed to save the world.” Not to mention that “Rob is inspiring. He is brilliant at communicating how to listen to music. He is entertaining and fun — this is an afternoon not to be missed.”

Mr. Kapilow is no stranger to Thurnauer. “I’ve known Rob for years and loved his ‘What Makes it Great’ series at Lincoln Center in New York, now at Merkin Concert Hall,” Ms. Roffman said. “His son, Ben, was a student at Thurnauer and is now a composer, pianist, and educator himself, as the music director for the Media Theatre, near Philadelphia.”

Mr. Kapilow’s daughter, Sarah, and his wife, Claire, also are musicians. Sarah, a singer-songwriter, teaches at the School of Rock; while her mother — for whom music is “a principal side activity,” her husband said — plays violin five nights a week with various ensembles.

The new artist in residence — he’s hard to categorize, and generally is introduced on the radio as a conductor, composer, author, and commentator — said he generally divides his year into two segments, nine months and three months.

During the nine-month period, “I generally go someplace every week,” whether teaching, conducting, or serving as a distinguished visitor in music. He recently spent time at Stanford University as a Knight-Hennessy scholar in residence. “It’s a brand new program,” he said, established in 2016 to prepare “50 extraordinary scholars” to take leadership roles in finding creative solutions to complex global issues.

He also spends time conducting, offering master classes, and presenting corporate programs. Last year he created corporate programs for the Evolution of Psychotherapy conference in Anaheim; the CEO for a Day program in Istanbul, with the Istanbul State Symphony; and an Orchestrating Your Board event for CEOs and board chairs, with the Edmonton Symphony and the Peter Lougheed Leadership College in Edmonton.

“I used the musical metaphor of conducting for leading a program,” he said, citing string quartets as models of leaderless teams. In each presentation, he stressed the importance of creativity, innovation, and listening. Indeed, he said, whether addressing audiences at medical schools or international law firms, teaching people how to listen is a key element.

Those are just some of the things he does for nine months of the year. During the remaining three months, “I write a book or a piece of music.” He has set several Dr. Seuss books to music and has created a series of “Citypieces,” which involve entire communities in conceiving and creating new pieces of music.

The Citypiece “Summer Sun, Winter Moon” commemorated the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark expedition. The narrative is told in part from the viewpoints of the Native Americans Lewis and Clark encountered on their journeys. For these parts of the libretto, Kapilow collaborated with Darrell Robes Kipp, a writer and educator from the Blackfeet Tribe in Montana. Another Citypiece focused on the Golden Gate Bridge, which, he said, “everyone has an opinion about.” Indeed, his pieces center not just on a topic but “on a topic people have an opinion about.”

His most recent Citypiece, “Maman,” focuses on the sculpture of an enormous spider, created by artist Louise Bourgeois, that stands just outside the National Gallery of Canada. According to Mr. Kapilow, he was listening closely to the world and the people around Maman so he could compose a piece for Ottawa’s Chamberfest.

“Ottawa has the largest chamber festival in the world,” he said; it features 120 concerts in two weeks. He has been an artist in residence there for six years. The spider statue is at the center of a musical project that the festival and Mr. Kapilow have undertaken to mark the musical event’s 25th anniversary. It will premiere in 2019.

Mr. Kapilow is the author of three books, “What Makes it Great,” “All You Have to Do is Listen,” and, launching in 2019, “Listening for America,” focusing on the Great American Songbook, from Kern through Sondheim.

He explained why he was now drawn to working at Thurnauer. “I was talking to Dorothy [Roffman] and I said I’ve done so much traveling but almost nothing in New Jersey.” Recalling the phrase “Think globally, act locally,” he decided that he should do something in his own community. While working on his Citypiece commemorating the Lewis and Clark expedition, “I spent time on a Montana reservation,” he said. “They’re very poor and have very little, but they have an enormously powerful sense of community.” Here, on the other hand, he said, “you don’t feel part of any community where people take care of you.” Also, “There, you have no money, but if something good happens, the tradition is to do give-aways. It’s very different, the opposite of our political leaders.” On the reservation, “If you have money, you failed,” since the tradition is one of generosity. “Sitting Bull was poor.”

“It made me think a lot about community, made me more sensitive to the issue,” he continued. “I went to Dorothy and said, ‘What can I do? How can I be useful?’ The idea of the residency evolved and we decided to get started with some kind of talk to introduce me to the community. And maybe I can do something with the choir.

“We also came up with the idea for a project,” based on the book “We Came to America” by Faith Ringgold, a children’s book author in New Jersey. One idea, he said, is to interview immigrant families in the area who have a family member in the school’s chorus, “just as Michael Bennett interviewed dancers and the story became ‘Chorus Line.’ We could use the title and frame of Ringgold’s book but create stories from the local immigrant community.” The project, he said, might serve as a template for other communities across the country, and music could be created to provide a backdrop for the work. For her part, Thurnauer’s Dorothy Roffman said she’s “very excited” about the possibilities presented by such a project.

Mr. Kapilow is passionate about the idea of listening — not just listening to music, but listening in general. In his upcoming talk, he will use music to help people learn to listen, “but they don’t have to have an interest in music to come,” he said. “It’s about what music can teach us about listening.” The takeaway is “a new pair of ears, a new way of learning to pay attention.” So much of what it’s about, he said, is what you miss. “Most of us never listen. Paying close attention to one thing lets you pay attention to all things.”

Who: Rob Kapilow, the Thurnauer School’s 2018-2020 artist in residence

What: Will deliver a talk, “All You Have to Do Is Listen”

When: On November 18 at 2:30p.m.

Where: At the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades, 411 E Clinton Ave, Tenafly

To register: Seating is limited. Advance registration for express entry is available at or by calling (201) 408-1465. Those seats held will be held until 15 minutes before the concert.

Cost: The program is free, though a $10 suggested donation is encouraged. A reception will follow.

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