Norma Tarrow

San Mateo, CA

“I saw the piano as another form of literacy. Music is its own language.” - Norma, volunteer tutor at JCL

If you come to North Shoreview Montessori School on a Wednesday afternoon, you’ll notice that just before 1 o’clock, the hallways fill with the jolly melody of the “Mickey Mouse March” and the majestic “Ode to Joy.” You can bet that Norma Tarrow will be there, guiding a group of seven 7-to-9 year olds to reach their fullest musical potential, and joining the students in giggles and smiles, full of pride between sets. Tarrow, a veteran volunteer with the Jewish Coalition for Literacy (JCL), leads the after-school piano program at the elementary school in San Mateo.

“You know what I like?” Tarrow asks as she leans forward aiding one of her more advanced students. “You’re really listening. You know when you’ve hit the wrong key and you automatically go back and correct yourself. You are improving.”

Tarrow, a lifelong educator, came to North Shoreview three years ago as a volunteer reading tutor with JCL. After attending a three-hour training workshop, Tarrow began tutoring struggling K-3 readers in a one-on-one setting once a week. One day while on the school’s campus, she discovered several electric keyboards that were sitting unused. Drawing on her own musical background, she decided to extend her literacy tutoring to include a musical element. She used the keys on the keyboards to teach her students vowels. “I saw the piano as another form of literacy. Music is its own language,” Tarrow mused.

After noting how much her students’ attention spans and interest increased while at the piano, Tarrow enlisted the help of two colleagues from her piano group, Miyuki Tanaka and Annette Rappleyea, and sought permission to pilot an after-school music program at North Shoreview. School officials agreed.

Tarrow began taking piano lessons at age eight. Though she completed her undergraduate degree in music at Brooklyn College, she went on to have a career in education and academia in the U.S., Mexico and Israel.

After retiring in 2002, Tarrow began volunteering. Working with JCL has given her the chance to combine her love for literature with music. “I truly believe in Tikkun Olam and feel compelled to do something to ‘repair the world,’” Tarrow explained. “I spent my entire life as a teacher and a teacher of teachers. For me, education is the best safeguard of our values, our culture. And music is big part of this.” Moreover, continued Tarrow, “an informed populace is a major safeguard of democratic values and the preservation of the art, music and literature bequeathed to us by our predecessors.”

The North Shoreview community is highly appreciative of Tarrow’s work as a JCL tutor and all she has done to create such a successful after-school music program.

“This program has increased [my daughter’s]
 creativity,” said Gayathri Srinivason, a mother and member of North Shoreview’s PTA. “She feels supported and has improved quickly.” Srinivason’s son also receives tutoring from JCL’s literacy tutors, stating, “My son comes from his literacy tutoring and tells me what he’s learned. Whenever he comes back with a new word, he is so proud. All the volunteers have put their hearts into helping these kids and we are so grateful.”

“This program has been so great,” said Jean Lorenat-Cutler, whose third grader is in her second year of the piano program. “I can’t believe they come here and volunteer their time with these kids. She’s created such a love of piano in my daughter, and it has helped her in so many other ways. I think a lot of that has to do with the patience and care Norma has.”

Tarrow’s passion for service and education matches the enthusiasm of her students and their parents. “JCL seemed like a natural for me, moving from an active career to active retirement in the field I love,” Tarrow added. “When I first began doing this I had a friend ask, ‘Do you get any pleasure out of this?’ I told her ‘no.’ I get unmitigated joy.’”

To become a volunteer tutor with JCL or to learn more, visit: jclread.org.

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