The arts mean opportunity, former Klezmer musician Merryl Goldberg teaches at Cal State San Marcos

By Donald H. Harrison

Donald H. Harrison

Prof. Merryl Goldberg, Cal State San Marcos, December 2017

SAN MARCOS, California – Arts professor Merryl Goldberg of California State University at San Marcos declares that arts equal opportunity. She explains that the more that arts are incorporated into a child’s life, the better career prospects he or she will have as an adult.

A former saxophonist with the Klezmer Conservatory Band, which once was shadowed by KGB agents during a visit to the Soviet Union and eventually forcibly deported, Goldberg’s life as a professor today may be less dangerous, but is just as idealistic.

In 1985, four members of the band headed by Hankus Netsky decided to meet and play music with a group called the Phantom Orchestra in Tbilisi, in the Soviet Republic of Georgia. They went first to Moscow, Russia, where they were intercepted, questioned, searched, and followed by Soviet KGB agents. Goldberg said she had devised a system of writing down people’s names and contact information in musical notation. Inspectors who went through her luggage found what they thought were musical scores, though if they knew how to read and hum music, these “scores” would have sounded strange indeed.

On more than one occasion on their multi-city journey, Goldberg, Hankus, along with Jeff Warschauer (who today is a cantor) and Rosalie Gerut, were locked into dormitories and guarded by machine-gun-toting military. Soviet authorities apparently had been alerted to their desire to meet in Tbilisi with the Phantom Orchestra, which though amounting to no more than ten musicians included Jewish refuseniks, Christians who also wanted to emigrate, poets, and members of human rights groups created in response to the Helsinki Accords.

Goldberg speculates that the Soviet regime was worried about the Phantom Orchestra because it linked members of various dissident groups, which in the past had typically been isolated from each other. After holding a jam session with the group in Tbilisi, the Klezmer Conservatory Band pushed on with some foreboding to Yerevan, Armenia, having recognized that a KGB agent who previously had interrogated them also was on the flight. When they arrived in the Armenian capital city, they were arrested on the tarmac, and not permitted to travel freely.

Nevertheless, Armenian guards, none too fond of the KGB, permitted them to make contact with people in Yerevan, who alerted other people in Tbilisi of the band members’ predicament. Folks in Tbilisi alerted Reuters, which reported on the group being under arrest. The next morning, according to Goldberg, the KGB put them on a plane to Moscow, then drove them around for hours, before locking them up in another dormitory – all apparently in a successful effort to keep them from being spotted by U.S. Embassy personnel. Later, armed guards marched the band members to the airport and put them aboard a Swedish plane that had not been permitted to depart until the deportees arrived. Goldberg laughed that the pilot must have thought the foursome were dangerous persons, only to see four “nebbish” musicians put onto his flight. Once arriving in Stockholm, the foursome was met by the U.S. Ambassador to Sweden, and they were debriefed about possible Soviet human rights violations. They stayed overnight at the home of the rabbi of Stockholm’s rabbi.

Goldberg, who had gone on from the New England Conservatory of Music to obtain master’s and doctoral degrees in education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, has studied questionnaires filled out by incoming freshmen at Cal State San Marcos to determine the correlation between the number of classes they have taken in the arts to how they rate themselves in creativity, working well with others, volunteerism, and in issues of diversity. Those students with three or more classes rated themselves much higher than those who had two or fewer classes, Goldberg said. Such results are seen at universities across the country, she said.

She said cross-referencing also determines that freshmen with two or fewer classes in the arts typically came from minority and economically disadvantaged neighborhoods, while those with greater exposure to the arts came from more affluent, and typically white neighborhoods.

Goldberg said companies like Qualcomm, Boeing, and Viasat place a premium on hiring engineers who have background in the arts. She said she conducted interviews with the engineers at Viasat, and it turned out that “they had a huge amount of arts background, particularly music.”

“What that said to me was that students are disadvantaged from getting these jobs because they came up in schools that didn’t have art and music,” Goldberg said. She added that organized efforts to persuade school districts to incorporate art and music education into their curricula “is a social justice movement.”

It is “getting kids a really good education, one that will give them an edge, give them the tools that they need, and not be behind in terms of what other students, who come from different backgrounds, have.”

I asked why it is that students who have good backgrounding in the arts do better in college than students who have not had such opportunity.

She explained: “If you are engaged in the arts, you understand about discipline, practice, working hard, doing multiple drafts – so there is a sense of discipline and practice, really digging into something. When I learned to play a passage on the guitar (which she studied in addition to saxophone), I had to sit and work on it for maybe a half hour as a kid. I think that translates into if I want to do well in my math class, or in science, or as an engineer, I might actually have to sit down and really practice at something. Also, I have to think: ‘If I can’t play these three notes, because it is a hard passage, then I have to figure out how to practice it. Should I go slow, and then faster, faster…or should I play this note and then that note, and get it into my fingers, and then add the third note to it?’ Learning how to practice can be a creative experience that teaches you how to figure out things.”

Similarly, she said, “if you are in theatre or you are playing jazz, you ‘re improvising. You can’t just play anything, so you have to practice improv. Being on stage, you are taking risks, so the arts teach you that risk-taking is a good thing. Or let’s say that you are in a music ensemble, you have to work with other people—that is one of the most important things, working well with other people. So, the arts give you a lot of skills that enable you to do well, not only in the arts, but outside the arts as well. The arts also give you confidence, and understanding. One of the biggest things is the arts give people empathy. You can learn so much about people by working with them, playing with them, and even about people outside whom you don’t know. You learn about their music, culture, see their art, and it develops.”

There was no question that Goldberg would be exposed to the arts while growing up, but there was a big question over how she would get to express her own sense of musicianship.

Her paternal grandfather, Louis Goldberg, who lived in the working-class community of Chelsea, Massachusetts, played viola with the Boston Pops and occasionally subbed into the Boston Symphony Orchestra. In the 1950’s and 1960s, under the stage name of Lou Gold, he and some Italian friends performed in a string quartet at weddings, at restaurants, and at other gigs.

“As long as I can remember. I loved music, saw music, played music,” said Professor Goldberg. “When I was in the second grade, there was a picture of a saxophone in my music book, because we had music books back then. I said, ‘I’m going to play that instrument, I know that I’m going to play it.’ Maybe it was all the buttons. The fourth grade was the time that you got to choose an instrument, so I told my parents (Jerry and Glenda Goldberg) that I wanted to play saxophone. They said, ‘No, that’s a boy’s instrument,’ so they wouldn’t let me play it. So, I started on guitar. What they didn’t know was that at the Buddy Reis Studio, they taught all kinds of instruments, so I studied guitar but also snuck in some saxophone lessons. I couldn’t help myself. By the time I was entering high school, I told them, ‘You’ve got to let me play the saxophone. I want to be in the marching band, and I can’t play guitar in the marching band.’ So, they finally relented, and I said, ‘Yay, I already play.”

Music came naturally to Goldberg; although she played saxophone, she was able to switch easily to French Horn when the marching band needed it. Similarly, when the orchestra needed a bass player, Goldberg was able to do it “because if you play guitar, bass is the last four strings of a guitar, just standing up.”

Exposure to the arts also came from her mother’s side of the family. Goldberg’s maternal grandfather, Hy Karp, often performed as an extra in the Yiddish Theatre. For example, he might have been one of the guests without a speaking part at a depiction of a seder. Eventually, he opened a fabrics store in Fall River. Merryl’s mother, Glenda Karp Goldberg, “was fabulously creative: she made clothes for us when I was a little kid. She worked in stained glass, buttons, made pins, and still makes cards.” Today, Goldberg’s mother and daughter live with her in a three-generation arrangement in Carlsbad.

After high school and a summer picking melons and driving a tractor on Kibbutz Ein Dor in Israel, Goldberg entered the New England Conservatory of Music, for which she auditioned on saxophone, against the advice of her high school band director who thought auditioning on bass might better please the high brows.

The conservatory is a kitty corner across the street from Symphony Hall in Boston, and is next to Northeastern University and the Boston Museum of Arts. “What was really great was that the little old ladies who had season tickets, if they couldn’t go, they would donate their tickets to the conservatory, so every Friday afternoon you put your name in a lottery to get really good tickets. So, I was at the symphony quite often. That was when Seiji Ozawa was the conductor.”

It was at the New England Conservatory of Music that she met Hankus Netsky. Rather than starting a Hillel, or some other type Jewish organization, they hit upon the idea of playing Jewish music together. Netsky found some 78 rpm records at his house with klezmer tunes, which ensemble members learned by ear.

The reaction? “We played three klezmer tunes, and the audience went nuts,” Goldberg related. “I remember that night they wouldn’t let us go, and we had to play an encore. But we didn’t have an encore because we had only learned three, so we played one of the tunes again. The people absolutely loved it. We got calls the very next day to play at a concert, a bar mitzvah, and this or that. So, we formalized the ensemble, learned more repertoire, and called in the Klezmer Conservatory Band. That was kind of an inside joke because klezmer is music of itinerant musicians, who typically played by ear, whereas, a conservatory is a very formal place for the study of music. So ‘Klezmer Conservatory’ is kind of an oxymoron. Most people don’t realize it, but for us it was a joke. But the name stuck.”

She traveled with the band for 13 years, playing throughout North America and Europe. One day she woke up and thought to herself, “Oh no, I have to go to Europe again,” and at that moment she said she realized that she enjoyed working with people more than performing for people.

At the same time, she said, she was earning extra money as a teacher at the Solomon Schechter Day School in Boston. One of her colleagues, a history teacher, asked if she could think of any music that might “enhance” a history lesson she planned to give.

“That was one of those tipping point moments—seminal moments,” Goldberg reflected. “The word ‘enhance’ was like a red flag; it made me a little bit crazy. I thought about it and wondered why it was bothering me and I realized that if you look at a Yiddish folk song, it can ‘enhance’ life but in general the music ‘embodies’ life. So, I went to graduate school, and I ended up focusing my work on the notion of arts as knowledge, as really fundamental to living, versus art as simply a discipline. I was fascinated by the whole notion of arts as living, knowledge, history, communications, engagement, and that is how I ended up delving really deeply into the use of arts as language. That has taken me to where I am.”

Although she has written an entire book on this subject (Arts Integration: Teaching Subject Matter Through the Arts in Multicultural Settings), not to mention many papers, I was chutzpadik enough if she could summarize the concept in just a few paragraphs. She graciously responded that “Most schools when they teach arts, it is about the arts, how to play, how to paint, or art appreciation. What I am interested in more so than that is how the arts are languages that enable you to think in new and innovative ways and also deep ways.”

For example, she said, “If I tell you about the life cycle of a butterfly in class, and then I give you a test on it to see what you understand, I will only know that you can tell it back to me, but I won’t know if you understand it. But, if I were to ask you to act it out, dance it out, draw it out, you would have to make something different. So, the arts become a metaphor for your understanding. I will know from the way that you act it out that you actually understand it or not, or the extent to which you do. So, it gives students an opportunity to work with knowledge and to make it their own.

“In working with the creative parts of your mind, you get to think outside of the box. You may be in a group, and you work with other folks to do it. So, there are side benefits as well. This works in every situation from kindergarten to OSHA classes for senior adults. We had a science professor who was teaching about DNA and he wanted to see if his students understood. He had some dance students and said you can dance if you want, and because the dance students had to create something, they understood it better than any of the other students did. That is an example of how powerful the arts can be in terms of really understanding things, and also to be able to think of new things.”

Goldberg, who has a ready smile, looked across the table at this interviewer. “it’s not a matter of just depositing knowledge in someone’s head,” she summarized. “Who needs that anyway in this day and age, when you can just go to Google? To understand, to be innovative, that is a whole different story!”

Harrison is editor of San Diego Jewish World. He may be contacted via [email protected].
More about Art=Opportunity may be found at

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One Response to “The arts mean opportunity, former Klezmer musician Merryl Goldberg teaches at Cal State San Marcos”

  1. Roni Breite says:

    Don, great article on a really cool person doing fascinating and important work! I have heard and enjoyed the Klezmer Conservatory’s music, and I enjoyed learning some of the history of the band and about the Soviet intrigue.


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