Say It With Music

With 3,200 children taking music lessons, two orchestras in every school and the best teachers in the country, Kfar Sava has become Israel's foremost center for music education.

Coby Ben-Simhon
Coby Ben-Simhon
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Coby Ben-Simhon
Coby Ben-Simhon

Tchaikovsky's '1812,' for example," Nirit Cohen suggests outside a rehearsal hall that throbs with the sounds of wind instruments. "It's a fascinating work that describes a war between France and Russia. You can really hear it - the soldiers, the thundering cannons," she says with a smile. "The atmosphere in the work changes all the time. There are sections that represent France and sections that represent Russia. The first part opens with a prayer, which we play with the trumpets. I can absolutely feel the story while playing the music."

At 16, Nirit has been playing the clarinet for seven years. "I went through all the stages, from a fourth-grade orchestra to orchestras in grades five and six, and then to the municipal orchestra," she continues, as a detonating din of drums in perfect time sounds from the rehearsal room. "Now I am in the representative orchestra, which is the most advanced. It's a hard process, but it's very satisfying, because it's great to work with material that is interesting and enriching. To play Tchaikovsky's '1812 Overture' is a moment like that, a peak. It really is something out of the ordinary."

Small talk with young people about Tchaikovsky is routine in Kfar Sava. Cohen, who is one of 3,200 music students in this city of about 90,000, is a case in point. Without actually setting out to do so, Kfar Sava, located in the center of the country, has consolidated its standing as the capital of classical music in Israel. It is in first place in terms of musical education for children, from the time they enter elementary school, within professional frameworks.

"Something rare and special is happening here," says Ofer Ein Habar, the conductor of the city's representative orchestra, immediately after clarinetist Cohen returns to the rehearsal hall. Ein Habar, who also directs the morning activities of the Kfar Sava Music Foundation, has been on the job for 21 years. "Today I can say that this city has undergone a revolution," he says. "Back when I started here, we worked in two schools within the foundation's framework, but today it's a different world. We teach music in all the elementary schools in the city, and every school has two orchestras. In the elementary schools alone there are about a thousand children who are learning the recorder and the keyboard, and another 150 who play the violin or the cello," he adds, his eyes glistening with pride.

"At the moment, our crowning glory is the 400 students who play wind instruments. They are the reserves for a symphony orchestra that already exists and will develop," he says. "These are crazy numbers, the likes of which you will not find anywhere else in the country. I live in Tsoran, a community with an excellent population, but the difference between the young people there and the young people in Kfar Sava is very clear to me. In the afternoon, the children in Tsoran wander around in the streets they are not delinquents, but they just go to the mall. Here in Kfar Sava there is a huge youth movement of instrumentalists that one sees everywhere and that changes the cityscape. Magic happens here every day."

Head in the clouds

The epicenter of the Kfar Sava musical earthquake is the office of the director of the Music Foundation, Maestro Yeruham Scharovsky. He began his music studies in the country of his birth, Argentina, studying flute, double bass and composition with private teachers from the National Conservatory of Music and the Teatro Colon Opera House in Buenos Aires. Since completing his studies at the Rubin Academy of Music in Jerusalem, where he was a student of the late Prof. Mendi Rodan, Scharovsky has conducted more than 50 orchestras in over 20 countries. With a contented smile, he lists some of them: "All the symphony orchestras in Israel, including the Israel Philharmonic, the New Israel Opera and the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra. I conducted the orchestra of the National Opera of Finland, the Moscow and Marseille philharmonic orchestras, the symphony orchestras of Berlin and Rome, and until two years ago I was the artistic director and chief conductor of the Brazilian Symphony Orchestra in Rio de Janeiro, a position I held for eight years."

He brought that momentum to Kfar Sava, too, connecting with a musical project that was created in 1986 in order to allow the city's children to experience the thrill of playing a musical instrument. "I came to the city in 1991 through the Music Foundation, which was established 22 years ago by Dr. Shmuel Franco, a local pediatrician. [Now there] is a great story," Scharovsky asserts in a slight South American accent. "That man set out to give a musical education to every child in Kfar Sava; he thought the best way to help children's health was through the creative spirit. When we started, there were two projects in two city schools, but Franco gave me a free hand to advance, and from year to year I expanded the program."

It wasn't as simple as it sounds. "I was constantly flying between Rio and Kfar Sava," he says. "Two weeks here and two weeks there. I was able to integrate my professional life at the highest level of the world's opera houses, with the local schools in Kfar Sava. Franco understood the potential in a connection with the big things. I think the children I taught grasped that the dream does not end in the Kfar Sava conservatory, that the sky's the limit, because I am there."

Even when his head was in the clouds, Scharovsky did not forget where his feet were planted. "Despite all the international activity, I always felt that my roots were here, in the musical habitat conceived by Franco," he relates. "I could have dropped the whole thing 10 times over, but it was important for me to stay involved in the city's music education. It has always been meaningful for me to feel this connection to children. I find it exciting. Because Kfar Sava is a small city, the foundation's activity became very dominant. When I walk along the street and hear music coming through the windows, I am indescribably thrilled. I didn't believe we would achieve anything like this."

Not even Dr. Franco believed it. Franco, 63, the driving force behind the extraordinary music project, sits in his private clinic next to his home on Golomb Street. "I am not a musician," he says. "I arrived at music because I dreamed of a youth orchestra in Kfar Sava. Though I didn't think I would be the one who would have to create it. In 1982, I broached the idea to the mayor at the time, Ze'ev Geller. He died not long after our conversation, and the idea did not come to fruition. So I decided to take action on my own, and I started to acquaint myself with the subject."

How did you arrive at the fantasy of establishing a youth orchestra?

"The idea came to me after visiting the Fringe Theater Festival in Acre. A youth orchestra played there, and I felt deeply envious. I wanted the same thing. As a child, I was also very fond of the sounds of the orchestra. I always went with my father to hear the orchestra that played in the Independence Day parade. I would run after the musicians. I remember that the police orchestra occasionally played in our garden in the summer. I just loved it, and I thought it was a missed opportunity for us because we didn't have an orchestra."

Innovative model

But attempts to persuade the city's leaders hit a stone wall. "Nothing helped," Franco says. "I tried every way I knew to kick-start the process, including as a member of the city council. In the end, after all else failed, someone suggested that I should set up a non-profit association and raise the funds myself. At the same time, I visited Kfar Sava's sister city, Delft, in Holland. As soon as I got there, I asked if they had a youth orchestra, and I was referred to a very special person who was running a tremendous music education project."

For Franco, the Delft project was the classic realization of his dream. "The man in Delft had developed a method to teach children music via a philosophy that linked music education to child development. As a pediatrician, I found that intriguing, and it further encouraged me to fulfill my dream. After that meeting, I started to raise money and moved ahead with the non-profit idea. In addition to fund-raising, I developed an economic basis for the Music Foundation, according to which parents cover the cost of individual teaching, while the municipality and the foundation pay the conducting costs." The model Franco developed, which combines the private and municipal sectors, continues to operate in Kfar Sava to this day.

"After raising money, I worked on persuading one school principal. I proposed an innovative model: music teachers would give individual lessons in the school to students who would leave the regular class framework. Once a week the orchestra thus formed would rehearse at the school. It wasn't easy to sell the idea, because the principal was concerned about students leaving a Bible lesson in order to learn how to play the saxophone, say. Without the consent of the principals, the foundation would not be able to operate."

The current mayor, Yehuda Ben Hemo, remembers Franco's desperate efforts. "I was working with youth at the time, and he, as a member of the city council, mapped the needs of the city's young people," says Ben Hemo, who allots NIS 2.5 million a year from the city's budget to the Music Foundation and the conservatory. "He talked about his dream of a youth orchestra. We thought he was a bit off the wall, because of the scale of the project. He wasn't talking about a small group of children; he saw what we could not see at the time, but which we see today. At that time it seemed hallucinatory for every school to have its own orchestra. Today we are living his dream. My daughter plays the clarinet, and I see how much strength that gives her. My wife is also taking clarinet lessons. In the wake of the children, an orchestra of about 80 parents was formed in the city, after their children pulled them into the world of music. Who would have believed it?"

For six years Franco stubbornly made the rounds among the schools, but things did not take off until he got Yeruham Scharovsky involved in the project. "The foundation would not have been created without Yeruham," Franco emphasizes. "During that period I was working in a hospital, but afterward, at the beginning of the 1990s, I opened my private clinic. I was no longer able to bear the whole burden alone, and I asked Yeruham to become the director general of the foundation. That was a smart move, because he is a rare combination of a professional, a superb musician, a pedagogue and a true bulldozer. Everything I could have dreamed of, and more, he put into practice. I dreamed of a youth orchestra playing in the city square, and something on a huge scale emerged. I am delighted to see how the foundation generated the tremendous growth of the conservatory and a blossoming of music in the schools. Over the years, and thanks to the hard work, the message of music in Kfar Sava gave the city an authentic cultural character."

Emotional anchor

In the rehearsal hall, with its forest of music stands, Ofer Ein Habar talks about a well-oiled cultural enterprise. "Because we are considered a musical empire in Israel, very senior teachers want to work here," he notes. "We have succeeded in bringing the best teachers in Israel, and it is far from self-evident that they would be ready to work in a municipal institution. The teachers include the first trumpet from the Haifa Symphony Orchestra and the first clarinet from the Rishon Letzion Opera Orchestra. We also have Shimon Weinreed, a flute teacher who produces the finest flutists in the country, and Adela Omansky, head of the piano department in our conservatory, who is considered one of the leading teachers in Israel. With teachers like that, the students reach new heights."

According to Ein Habar, one of the conditions for all this success is the public response. "The population here accepted the gift graciously and held onto it tight," he says. "All kinds of people come up with ideas, but not everything catches on. In Kfar Sava, people appreciated the music. In the same way my children speak Hebrew, here people speak music. When kindergarten children visit the school in which they will enter first grade, they get a concert. The school orchestra plays for them. From the child's first encounter with the school he understands that he will learn the aleph-bet, along with do-re-mi."

Irit Eisdorfer, the principal of Ussishkin Elementary School, agrees with every word Ein Habar says. "I am the principal of the largest grammar school in the city," she says in her office, minutes after watching 400 very young students practice the recorder in the gym for Independence Day events. "More than half the school's 700 students play an instrument. I don't know of any other principal in Israel who has more than 400 students studying music as part of their regular curriculum. All the children in grades 1 to 3 play an instrument. Music gives them the possibility of learning a different language, values, discipline. Many children with learning difficulties find a place to stand out and express themselves with musical instruments."

Music is also an integral element in all the school's ceremonies and events, Eisdorfer notes. "Playing an instrument is part of the curriculum, not only an after-school activity. It is the culture of Ussishkin School, as with all the other schools in the city. In every ceremony - the start of the school year, Memorial Day and so forth - my students play. Every year the school orchestra gives a concert, to which the parents are invited; it is one of our most festive evenings. Without the Music Foundation, none of this would be happening, period. The foundation's teachers, who are part of the school staff, are the driving force of all these activities. The education system as such does not have the resources to implement a vast project like this - at best, we would get one music teacher."

Academic institutions, too, are astonished by the activities of the Music Foundation. "The idea of the Kfar Sava foundation was 20 years ahead of its time," says Prof. Tomer Lev, director of the Buchmann-Mehta School of Music at Tel Aviv University. "The system which intertwines the conservatory with music lessons in the schools, music tracks in high school and youth orchestras has created something that is greater than the sum of its parts. In the past, each of these bodies was separate and weak, but now all the music resources are united and therefore reinforce the status of music in the city. This structure does not exist in big, established cities like Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. You won't find anything like it in Ra'anana or Netanya, either."

As a judge in youth orchestra competitions, do you find something distinctive about the orchestras in Kfar Sava?

"I was a judge in the Israel Festival for Youth Orchestras, which has been held in Kfar Sava for the past six years. The big-city orchestras were usually inferior in quantity and quality to the Kfar Sava groups. That's clear. Nearly 10 percent of the 200 students in the school I head come from Kfar Sava, including four outstanding players on wind instruments, who are at a super-professional level. The results of the intensive work done in the city are visible. It is obvious that these students emerged from an environment that enabled them to get ahead by playing in an orchestra. Most of the students arrive without any experience, but we get the ones from Kfar Sava ready-made."

What conclusions do you draw from this regarding music education in Israel?

"It is clear to me that we must look at Kfar Sava as a model. Amid all the talk these days about the serious problems of Israeli youth, the activity in Kfar Sava provides a message. I see it as an exemplary model for educational and cultural activity. In lower-class areas, a project like this could bring salvation: In place of aimlessness and deterioration, it offers an anchor. In established locales, where working parents do not devote enough time to raising their children, the project could provide an emotional anchor, a warm social circle. These are very meaningful things, which, regrettably, are lacking in the country."

Feeling of momentum

Yair Mashiah, who began his music career in Kfar Sava as a trombone teacher, is now the director of the city's conservatory of music - a preeminent center of activity in the chain of musical education available to the city's children. "My role is to take the children who have completed their period of playing an instrument in elementary school - thanks mainly to the Music Foundation - and continue with them. To give them a profound musical education and bring them to a level so that in their senior year they can give a matriculation recital, for example," he says. "Every year we have between 10 and 20 students who earn a five-point matriculation [the highest level] in music. Our conservatory is now the largest in the country, with 700 students. There is no other conservatory that approaches this level and scale."

Mashiah is currently overseeing renovations - dazzling by Israeli standards - of the old building that houses the conservatory. "This is going to be the largest and most advanced facility in the country for music and dance studies," says Mashiah, who was director of the Haifa Youth Symphony Orchestra for 14 years. "There will be 22 classrooms for individual teaching, two internal performance halls of about 180 square meters each, a music library, a workshop to repair instruments and a 400-seat auditorium. I have already built music centers in Haifa, Yokne'am Illit and Tirat Carmel, but this is going to be something of a completely different standard. I know all about the difficulties of economic considerations in a construction project like this. Here, professional priorities come first. From my point of view, this is a clear message of the order of priorities, because it could have been built at half the cost."

Mashiah, who until two years ago conducted the IDF Orchestra in the reserves, a post he held for 10 years, proposes an additional index for measuring the success of the music project in Kfar Sava. "The relative proportion of soldiers from Kfar Sava in the IDF Orchestra and in the army's tracks for outstanding musicians is the highest in the country," he notes. "In an orchestra of 70 musicians, between 5 and 10 were from Kfar Sava. That was one of the considerations that led me to forgo an appointment as conductor of the Israel Police Orchestra, with the high rank it offers, in favor of managing the Kfar Sava Conservatory. I wanted to be here, because this is a wonderful place in terms of doing things. There are tools to work with here; you don't have to cope with an insensitive bureaucracy or a mayor who isn't interested. There is a constant feeling of momentum here, because everyone wants it to succeed."

And it's not only the money. "There is an orientation here toward excellence in music," Mashiah says, before launching into a description of the conservatory's impressive range of activity. "We have a piano department with 90 pianists whose representatives regularly win prestigious competitions, such as the one in memory of Pnina Salzman or the one sponsored by the America Israel Foundation. There is an organ department, a percussion department, an artistic choir and a big band made up of youngsters playing bass guitar, electric guitar, piano, drums, five on saxophone and four on trumpet.

"There is a solution for everything," he continues. "For example, if you play a wind instrument but don't want to play only big-band music, you have three wind-instrument orchestras that perform every week. If you want to go in the direction of symphony, to play a string instrument, for example, there is a full symphony orchestra that plays a classical repertoire. And if all that isn't enough, there are also chamber groups: a clarinet quartet, a saxophone quartet, a horn quartet, a quintet of metal instruments and a guitar ensemble with Yehuda Shrier, the head of the classical guitar department in the Jerusalem academy. We have everything here and we provide all the support needed as part of the deal."

Is this education only for the wealthy?

"One of the distinctive things about Kfar Sava is that this whole story costs the parents less, thanks to municipal support. The maximum monthly tuition is NIS 500, but the average is far less, between NIS 230 and NIS 280. Everywhere else in the country the situation is different. At the Striker Conservatory in Tel Aviv, the fee is NIS 800; Petah Tikva has long since passed NIS 500. This year our conservatory gave out scholarships totaling NIS 40,000. There is a clear decision here that this will not be only for the rich, that anyone who wants to study music will be able to - which is hardly the case in every locale."

Reaching out

The Israel Festival for Youth Orchestras, held two weeks ago in Kfar Sava, celebrated its 20th anniversary with a spectacular musical offering. Over the years, the three-day festival has consolidated the city's musical standing. "Kfar Sava has created something that exists in the United States and Europe, but is unique in Israel," says Motti Eines, general manager of the Haifa Symphony Orchestra and director of the conservatory in Kiryat Yam, a Haifa suburb.

"There is no other festival for youth orchestras that approaches Kfar Sava's standards. Today, if I want to take an Israeli youth orchestra to a special experience of this kind, I have two choices: go abroad or go to Kfar Sava. The festival there is a tremendous experience and one of the most important events in musical education in Israel. The best thing is that a festival in which children, not stars, participate succeeds in drawing such a huge audience. The square in Kfar Sava was jammed with 10,000 people who came to listen to classical music. That is fantastic."

In the meantime, the Kfar Sava Music Foundation is reaching out beyond the city. Branches of the foundation now operate in the remote southern town of Yeruham and in the affluent community of Kochav Ya'ir, close to Kfar Sava, with both units providing musical education according to the model conceived by Dr. Franco. Nir Nahum, now 30, who went through the Kfar Sava musical process from fourth through twelfth grade, is the conductor of the school orchestra in Kochav Ya'ir. "From my point of view, it is the closing of a circle," he says of the opportunity he has been given. "I started to play an instrument by chance. When everyone else in the class played, I balked. I was a pretty disturbed kid."

Nahum, who is considered one of the rising young talents of the Music Foundation, organized the youth orchestra festival. "We wrapped it up two days ago," he says, as he watches students take glistening instruments out of black cases. "Every festival ends with a parade on Weizmann Street, and this year 40 orchestras from around the country marched along the street. All the residents came out to watch, as the orchestras moved along to the main stage," he relates, still sounding thrilled by the event. "It is one of the social peaks of our city. The square was packed two hours before the opening concert, and so were the balconies of the mall above. It was a spectacular sight. The fact that this festival, which started out as a modest event of the Music Foundation, became an event of the city of Kfar Sava and is now a national event, pretty much tells the story of the process here," he says, before going off to help young musicians who have arrived late for a rehearsal that has already begun.

Inside, the conductor stops the music. "Someone in the trumpet section is playing like the firemen's orchestra," he says. "The note is 're' and that's what you have to play." A long silence ensues. Dozens of eyes gaze at the conductor in quiet concentration. "Once more from the beginning, please, last bar, but without percussion, I want a last note that rises to a summit. Who said a pause is not music? It also has to be played properly, is that clear?"