A LOCAL LIFE: Mara Bershad, 59

Mara Bershad combined her passions: music and children

Mara Bershad used her passion for music as she worked with children, who seemed to adore her as much as she did them.
Mara Bershad used her passion for music as she worked with children, who seemed to adore her as much as she did them. (Family Photo)
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By T. Rees Shapiro
Sunday, July 4, 2010

After graduating from Northwestern University, where she studied harpsichord, piano and violin, Mara Bershad answered an advertisement for a children's theater in Chicago that was seeking a piano accompanist.

But the theater's directors saw a radiance in the petite woman, a certain zest in her expressiveness. They immediately recognized that Ms. Bershad would be ideal for a pivotal role: Zymac the alien clown.

She soon found herself wearing the yellow and pink parachute dress of Zymac and the wacky makeup of another clown character, Kook, as a member of a traveling troupe.

She visited schools and hospitals, where children found delight in Ms. Bershad's overly dramatic movements and animated facial expressions.

Despite the zany outfits, Ms. Bershad had happily discovered her niche -- teaching children the joys of music, rhythm and dance.

Ms. Bershad, 59, who died of metastatic cancer May 26 at Georgetown University Hospital, spent her career in early childhood musical education at a number of schools and developmental programs in the Washington area.

After moving to the District in the early 1980s, Ms. Bershad worked as a freelance harpsichordist and pianist, performing in a number of concerts at venues including the Hirshhorn Museum, National Portrait Gallery, Library of Congress and several embassies. During the late 1980s, Ms. Bershad was the resident jazz piano player on weekend nights in the lounge of the Washington Hilton on Connecticut Avenue.

After raising her family, Ms. Bershad decided to focus full-time on her true love of working with children. She taught at the Levine School of Music in Washington; CentroNia, a largely Hispanic charter school; and the Smithsonian Institution's Early Enrichment Center, where she led classes for toddlers and kindergartners at the American History and Natural History museums.

In that capacity -- instead of as Zymac, or Kook -- she was affectionately known as Ms. Mara the Music Lady. Her pupils danced to the Gypsy Kings, learned about new instruments and sang nursery rhymes.

"Oliver twist, you can't do this, so what's the use in trying?" Ms. Bershad would sing, bounding around the room with the children. "Touch your head, touch your toes, clap your hands and away we go!"

Other class activities included "Mr. Puppet Man," a Simon Says-like game in which Ms. Bershad would don a sock puppet on her hand and lead the children through a series of musical movements, and "Puddle Jump," where the students would have to coordinate leaps over a large piece of blue construction paper on the floor to the beat of her tambourine.

"Music is a vital way to grab children and to work with children," Ms. Bershad explained in a video on the Levine School of Music Web site. "We bring the passion of music and the joy of music into their lives, and these kids just love it. They love it."

Dale Mara Bershad was born Sept. 26, 1950, in Chicago and graduated from Northwestern in 1972.

Survivors include her husband, from whom she was separated, David Shapiro of Bethesda; three daughters, Sabrina Bershad-Shapiro of Bethesda, Audra Bershad-Shapiro of New York and Mirit Bershad-Shapiro of Bethesda; a brother; and a sister.

In the Levine School video, which was made in memory of Ms. Bershad, she explains that her goals teaching children were simple.

"My feeling, after all these years, has been to come in and really sink my teeth into it and love the children, and give these children everything that I have to give to them."

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