I come from a very small town in a country of three million people, Moldova. My parents moved there from Russian Siberia to work as engineers at a cement factory when I was two. Moldova became my country and I learned Moldovan or Romanian, along with Russian. I also understood Ukrainian as there were many mixed families in our region, and my own grandmother’s first language was Ukrainian. From a very early age, I knew that people use different languages to describe the same things; you can use any of them, switch between them, or even mix them up. That’s how the language works in Moldova to this day.

As a child, I was exposed to music and singing, but mostly popular and folk music: Moldovan people love folk music and play it all the time. Every Saturday night of the wedding season, the air of our little town was filled with several competing bands with singers as several wedding celebrations proceeded simultaneously. At the same time, the Soviet education system made sure that all the children in daycare centers and schools received group music lessons, some combined with movement, especially at younger ages, but mostly based on singing. We did not have musical instruments, orchestras, or instrument lessons in the public school, but children who showed talent were encouraged to go to the seven-year music school that operated after school hours.

Many of my playground friends a year or two older than me went to the music school. So I wanted to go, too. We had a piano at home. However, my mom thought that I didn’t really display musical talent or a beautiful voice, nor did I display other qualities like patience to follow directions or practice piano, so she decided not to encourage me to go to the music school. The decision was strengthened by her prior traumatic experience with my older sister, who didn’t like piano lessons and resisted the practice.

One day, my parents were busy, and I decided to go and enroll myself in the music school. I walked about thirty minutes to the other end of the town and presented myself at the director’s office. He tested my skills (I only vaguely remember that), introduced me to my future piano teacher, Sara Akopovna, and they both agreed that I could go to the school but my parents needed to show up and give consent. They also had to pay a symbolic fee: the schools in the Soviet Union were subsidized by the government and were very inexpensive at that time.

I think the courageous act of trying to enroll myself in the music school at age five left my parents quite impressed, and they agreed to let me do it, with the condition that I would be on my own for my practicing, schedule, and homework. Of course, once in a while my mom would ask me to play something and then say, “I don’t think you’ve practiced enough this time” or “you didn’t play with soul.” The last one drove me crazy. I wanted to scream: “What is this soul that you keep talking about? How do you know I am playing without soul? Maybe I am not? Show it to me!”

In any case, I have to be honest, I practiced very little because I was not challenged much and I could learn things fairly quickly. In a way, I’m glad that I had a normal childhood and didn’t spend hours at the piano. I actually played a lot in nature, explored my surroundings, climbed on the roofs of tall buildings, swam across the Dniester River, met friends, read books, and did fun things.

Only when I decided to go to a special high school program for music, I found out that I needed to practice for three hours a day at a minimum and learn a whole world of things about music that I had no idea existed. The hard work began, but at every step, I had kind teachers and mentors directing and supporting me, for which I am grateful. Every stage was a success, with some mishaps, as I was learning more clearly that I was way too far behind many piano students of my age and it was likely I wouldn’t be competitive enough with them.

So I kept working, and months and years of hard work fused together and brought me to Bowling Green State University as a master’s degree student, where I met the friendliest musicians who helped me believe in myself and unlock my potential. After that, I worked on my Doctorate in Piano Performance and Pedagogy at the University of Michigan and got my first and current job straight from school. That was probably lucky, and the job at NC State University was in many ways a good fit for my experience, interests, and potential.

Today I still work hard but also enjoy a balanced life and a balanced career of teaching, performing, researching, sharing my experience, and mentoring my students. It probably took me a long way from the small town in Moldova but my passion for music and my curiosity somehow made the journey seamless.