At the piano

Comprising a composer: From father to son to Sunderman students

“It’s not enough to work hard, you have to work super hard. It’s not enough to be good, you have to convince people that what you’re doing is good. It’s not enough to be successful, you have to find ways to make money. So from early on I adopted a very entrepreneurial approach, which eventually seems to have worked out pretty well.”

This is one of the most important lessons Avner Dorman learned from his father, Ze’ev, in pursuing his dream of becoming a composer. Avner is now relaying this message on to Gettysburg College students.

To say that things worked out “pretty well” for Avner is certainly an understatement. His compositions have been performed by the New York, Los Angeles, and Munich Philharmonics, grabbing headlines at the New York Times and Los Angeles Times and collecting numerous prestigious awards along the way.

Avner working on a score, 2006

Avner working on a score, 2006

His most recent performance, in collaboration with the Israeli embassy in Washington D.C., featured world-renowned Israeli chamber musicians, as well as Gettysburg College’s own Dr. Amanda Heim.

Growing up, Avner had to look no further than his own father for a model of achievement in the music world. As principal bassoonist of the Tel Aviv Philharmonic for over 40 years, director of the National Youth Orchestra, and most recently, director of the orchestra at Tel Aviv University’s Buchmann-Mehta School of Music, Ze’ev Dorman is a prominent musical figure in Israel.

Avner and Ze’ev are both faculty in the Sunderman Conservatory of Music, bringing a wealth of professional experience to teach, train, and encourage Gettysburg College students to reach the next level.

With all of Avner’s success as a composer, it may come as a surprise that Ze’ev originally had different hopes for his son. When asked about their relationship growing up, they immediately looked at each other and grinned, their eyes lighting up with the deep understanding that seems unique to that of a father and son.

“There are two versions, here,” said Ze’ev.

“Which would you like to hear first?” added Avner.

Ze’ev and Avner review a score for an upcoming performance

Ze’ev and Avner review a score for an upcoming performance

A Father’s Concerns

“My version is, that knowing the situation in the world, composing serious music, not pop music, is a very difficult life. It’s tough to find jobs, in Israel for sure, but elsewhere too,” Ze’ev began. “And he was very talented in other fields like physics and mathematics. So we had a problem—I was very much worried about him going in this direction.”

Avner began exploring his musical gifts right away. He was playing the cello at age 9. Piano at age 11. Composing at age 14. In addition to his natural musical talent, Avner excelled in several academic fields. His uncle, a well-known mathematician, taught him advanced math from an early age. He had a talent for computer science, and even majored in physics at the University of Tel Aviv.

Ze’ev recognized the many opportunities open to Avner with his propensity for the sciences—avenues much more secure than trying to be a composer. Avner currently teaches theory in the Conservatory, but had he pursued a similar position in Israel—a country of just over 8 million people—the chances of landing steady work would have been slim.  

The Dorman Family at their home in Tel Aviv

The Dorman family at their home in Tel Aviv

“In a small country it’s a problem,” said Ze’ev. “For an instrumentalist, there’s a few orchestras to play for, but as a composer it’s much worse.”

“Imagine if a city like LA had a job opening for only people who live in LA, a job for just one person, and it opened up once every 20 years,” Avner explained.

“Look, I was in a job for many years in the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra,” Ze’ev continued. “I was the one who got to decide what contemporary music we’ll take every season, and also, of course, which Israeli we’ll take each year. And I saw a lot of these composers, and a lot of them were frustrated and poor. I didn’t want him to reach the same situation.”

“But in the end he took his way. Now your version.

Roadblocks reveal a road map

“I think the more he didn’t want me to be a composer the more I wanted to prove that I could,” Avner said. “It was difficult, this combination of ‘your father doesn’t want you to do what you want to do.’ I think a lot of kids go through that. Plus, having a father who’s so accomplished in the same field just adds to the complexity.”

Despite his father’s concerns, Avner opted against safer career aspirations and fixed his gaze on what he truly wanted to become: a classical composer. Growing up in a musical household presented him with all the tools he needed to pursue his dream.

Family“I didn’t want to be too involved. It’s better if parents don’t do that,” said Ze’ev. “If you are a musician in the same profession it’s better not to, or it will create problems.”

“But there a few little things that you taught me that you didn’t even know,” Avner replied. “I’ll give you a few examples…”

In all great music, there is much more lying underneath than what is simply written on the page. There are subtle movements, expressions, and emotions that are known first only by the composer. When the Tel Aviv Philharmonic added Messien’s Turangilia Symphony to their program, Ze’ev brought the score home.

“I remember the first time I listened to it I just hated it,” said Avner, recalling listening to the LP recording of the symphony. Despite disliking the piece, Avner poured over his father’s score, which contained the composer’s original markings and listened to the piece closely, referring to a French dictionary to translate Messien’s hand-written notes.

“I listened to it 10 times before I got it. And it’s one of my favorite pieces now. It’s one of the great symphonies of the 20th century, and it was very significant to my development.”

Ze’ev’s score still sits on a shelf in Avner’s office.

Music theory is a major part of Avner’s skillset as a composer and professor—something he began to develop with his father’s influence. He recalled frequent occasions when Ze’ev would be practicing the bassoon in another room and stop to ask Avner who the composer of the piece was. Or, when Avner was practicing conducting, Ze’ev would stop him, play a chord on the piano, and have Avner identify the chord by ear.

“Before I ever learned theory, at 13 I reme­mber this. It sharpens your mind and makes you aware of what you’re listening to all the time,” Avner said. While these were small occasions that sharpened his skill, there were a few occasions that changed the course of his career, and of his understanding of his father.

“One specific thing I remember: he would never work with me on anything, but one time I had a big audition to get a special status in the Army. And then [my father] came in a listened to it and said, ‘you know, you’re not phrasing it enough.’ And then he started singing the line, singing the melody with just fantastic phrasing, and then I said ‘oh, that’s what you’re supposed to do.’ It was so emotional because he was always avoiding working with me in music, but it was a moment when I realized, ‘yeah, you really do know a lot about this.’”

Ze’ev leads an orchestra rehearsal at the Majestic Theater

Ze’ev leads an orchestra rehearsal at the Majestic Theater

While Avner soaked in the musical talent and experience around him, he also had constant reminders of how difficult achieving his dream would be. Just as Ze’ev knew what it takes to be a professional performer, he also knew everything that could stand in his way.

“I think to a degree, I didn’t enjoy it particularly, but all the roadblocks, all the barriers, gave me a head-start on ‘what do I need to do to make this a career,’” said Avner. “I always had people saying you can’t do this because of this—I had access to information that most young people don’t have access to.”

While Ze’ev had a major impact on Avner’s career and didn’t doubt his talent or skill, he still had reservations about the viability of classical composing as a career. A major turning point came after Avner graduated from the University of Tel Aviv and began to be recognized for his work in Israel. The Prime Minister’s Award is the highest honor one can receive in the country for culture, sciences, sports, or music. At the age of 25, Avner became the youngest composer ever to win the award.

This was not only a major accomplishment in Avner’s career and an acknowledgment of his ability, but it showed Ze’ev that he really could make it as a composer.

“He came to terms with my choices and being supportive, and everything changed then,” said Avner.

Avner and Ze’ev at a recent rehearsal

Avner and Ze’ev at a recent rehearsal

Passing down a legacy

After winning the award, Avner moved to New York to study at Julliard, where he received his doctorate. He wrote full-time for a few years before looking for a full-time position teaching. One of the few positions available was in the Sunderman Conservatory at Gettysburg College.

As an elite conservatory within a top liberal arts college, Sunderman appealed to Avner’s background in physics, math, and computer science.

“A lot of my advisees are double majors with biology or physics, since I have experience with that. And even when I teach music theory I have a very mathematical approach to theory,” said Avner. “The two are very much related.”

In addition to theory, Avner teaches a courses on composition, not only exposing students to essential concepts and techniques, but pushing them to write full-length pieces. Two recent students had exceptional success under his mentorship.

Richard Thomas ’16 with his original score, “Door on the Floor”

Richard Thomas ’16 with his original score, “Door on the Floor”

The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra offers an annual reading of young composers’ work as a part of its Composer of the Year program. Jeff Binner ’14 and Richard Thomas ’16 were selected to the prestigious event in the last two years consecutively. Both worked intensively with Avner.

This past year, Ze’ev went on sabbatical from the University of Tel Aviv, and at the same time, a position for orchestra conductor and bassoon teacher opened in the Sunderman Conservatory. When asked if he knew anyone who fit those qualifications, Avner only had one person in mind.

All the way from Tel Aviv to Gettysburg, the father and son are now working together once again. With a combined wealth of professional experience and success, each bring similar approaches to their students: showing them what it takes to make it at the next level.

“I’m trying to do the same here as I did in Israel,” said Ze’ev. “I think it’s the same suit for students all over the world… you have to also understand what makes you a standout: quality, perfection, talent. It’s not enough to have inspiration or talent. Of course you need those things, but without the skill in composing or playing, it won’t work.”

Just as Ze’ev passed these expectations on to Avner to push him towards success, Avner now pushes his students to achieve lofty goals.

“I will tell you what the hardest part of writing a piece for orchestra is,” said Avner. “Sitting down and writing it. A 25-minute piece of mine is roughly 50,000 notes. That’s without any accents, articulations, slurs, anything. 50,000 notes.”

“The courage to confront the student with what it takes, because this is something we have to face as artists,” he said. “To push a student that far that they finish a piece for orchestra that is basically professional, it’s that attitude.”


Founded in 1832, Gettysburg College is a highly selective four-year residential college of liberal arts and sciences with a strong academic tradition. Alumni include Rhodes Scholars, a Nobel laureate, and other distinguished scholars. The college enrolls 2,600 undergraduate students and is located on a 200-acre campus adjacent to the Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania.

Article by Frank Arbogast ’16, communications and marketing intern

Contact: Mike Baker, associate director of communications, 717.337.6521

Posted: Fri, 26 Feb 2016

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