There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in – Leonard Cohen “Anthem”
So deep and so wide were the cracks in Faina Podolnaya’s heart that when her green eyes weep today, whether for joy or sorrow, you can sense a shower of liquid sunshine. In fact, visiting this master teacher of violin in her home, I couldn’t help casting my gaze for rainbows.
In mid-March, when Faina (pronounced fa-ee-na) shepherds her 40-strong youth ensemble, the Siskiyou Violins, to the stage of New York’s Carnegie Hall as part of the International Music Festival, she will be revisiting the pinnacle of both her professional career and her personal journey. (With Faina, the line between professional and personal is delightfully blurred.) That first trip, in 2005—just six years after she emigrated from Kazakhstan—and starting her life “from scratch,” provided palpable proof of her success.
Over strong Russian tea and open-faced sandwiches of rich red Russian caviar, Faina shares a story that, though simply told, is Chekhovian in its power and IMAX in its scope.
Born into the prevalent poverty of a post-World War II Ukraine—the family of four lived in a single room, half the size of her Ashland bedroom—Faina, who earned a Master’s degree in performance and teaching, taught in a Kazakhstan conservatory while conducting an ensemble of violinists.
In 1999, she arrived in Ashland for what was to be her first reunion in four years with her daughter Tatiana, who had left home to study at Southern Oregon University. (An adult son, who had moved to Israel, has since moved to Alabama.)
“I was not planning to stay. I had my ticket to fly back,” Faina says. But the day before her flight back to Kazakstan, Tatiana verbalized the fears they shared. “She said, ‘Imagine your plane will fly off and I will be standing on the ground and thinking that I will never see my mother again.”
Remaining with her daughter, Faina left behind a career she adored and, most poignantly, the students in her violin ensemble who been as close as family. “They waited for four months for me to come back.”
Recalling the pain of separation, Faina refers to a teaching position she was offered a few years ago in Seattle. The offer was “amazing,” with high pay and benefits and all the students she would want. “But then I imagined leaving my students I did that one time. I will never do it again. My students, their parents and their grandparents, they are part of my family.”
Though she didn’t regret her decision, life in this new land was “very challenging.” She had no students. And, speaking no English and lacking connections, she felt she had no hope. “I didn’t know anyone. I felt I was a nobody.”
For hours on end, she sat and sobbed, watching the video of her violin ensemble’s last concert in Kazakhstan.
Contributing to the household, she took a caregiving job for an Altheimer’s patient in Medford. Each day, as soon as her 11 to 6 overnight shift was over, Faina attended a four-hour English class at Rogue Community College, catching a bus back to Ashland when her long day was done.
Slowly and, for Faina, surprisingly, her life began to re-form. With an audition, she earned a chair in the Rogue Valley Symphony Orchestra. For tips, she played at the Russian restaurant, Samovar, in Medford.
And then one day a woman knocked on her door. With her were her two children. “Someone had told her there was a new Russian violinist here. She said she had tried all the teachers in the area but didn’t find anyone they liked.
“She paid me for half an hour. I stayed with them an hour and a half. I didn’t care how much she would pay. I was so hungry for teaching.”
Word spread. Kendra Law, a local violin teacher, brought her daughter to Faina and later studied with her as well. Better than that, Law urged Faina to apply for the job as associate conductor of the Rogue Youth Symphony.
“I said I cannot do it. I don’t have enough English,” Faina says. But in hopes that the position would help her attract students, she overcame her reluctance and won the job. She has held it ever since.
With her higher profile came the students. Today, she has several dozen. And, from those students, Faina was able to construct the kind of violin ensemble she had left behind. In 2005, she entered her Siskiyou Violins in a World Project competition to win a chance to perform at Carnegie Hall. The organization promotes youth concerts in world-class halls.
“When I got the letter from them, I couldn’t open it, my hands were shaking.” Her eyes welling up, Fiana reads aloud, “I am pleased to inform you that you are officially invited…”
Performing 13 short pieces, the ensemble posted near-perfect scores, won “gold” and was granted an exemption from auditioning for other such events.
“I did not think this would be possible. It was so difficult, so, so much responsibility. Peple asked me if I would be able to do it again; I said, ‘No.’
“And now…and now we are doing it again,” she says. Crediting Roy Sutton, the president of the Siskiyou Violins and the board of directors with doing the heavy lifting, and Jim Collier for his generous donation, Faina is taking her troupe back to New York. (Tax deductible contributions can be made online at http://siskiyouviolins.org/.)
“When everything started to come to me, it came and it came. What is going on? I wondered. I thought it was a dream. And still, it keeps coming. I want to pinch myself.” Faina’s voice rises to an exclamation of awe.
As for her success, she credits her own experience as a child learning at the hands of an unskilled teacher, and the reading she continues to do. But the key, she says, is love.
“Everything begins with love. If there is no love between student and teacher, there is no success. When we are performing and we catch our eyes together, it creates an energy you cannot find anyplace else; we connect on a different level. It is something I cannot put into words.” With a deep full-bodied sigh, Faina makes it clear that no more words are needed.
Expressing that love and sharing it with an audience demands that her violinists all play entirely from memory. For Faina, nothing is more essential. “When we are on stage, they can communicate with each other, they can communicate with me and with the audience; they can catch someone’s eyes and dance with them and open their heart.”
…and thanks in advance for introducing me to the people you care about who are considering buying–or selling–a home in Ashland and Southern Oregon! Just pick up your phone and give me a call so we can figure out how you can best make that introduction: 541-778-8949